Of all four of our family members, I think it can safely be said that I like China and Chengdu the most. By far. Because I really, really do like it. There is something amazing about being immersed in another country, and I am incredibly grateful that the people of Chengdu look at me and my family members with interest and even curiosity rather than hostility, as I know happens in some other countries to other Foreign Service families.
I mean, duh, right? Americans aren't, you know, universally loved everywhere around the globe.
Were the tables turned, and *I* was the native Chengdu-ian and *someone else* was the white (obviously American) lady coming into my shop to, oh, buy fruit/get a foot massage/what have you, I would have every reason to assume that she can't speak a word of Chinese beyond maybe saying hello (ni hao). If she even knew how to say that.
And that's the assumption that is always made about me.
I totally don't blame Chinese folks in the slightest that they assume that I can't speak or understand Chinese. Because they're correct 99.9% of the time... the vast majority of shopping white ladies here probably can't understand much of anything that is said in Chinese around them. Which isn't their fault, of course - not all wives (by any stretch of the imagination) have gotten the opportunity to study the language before accompanying their husbands overseas.
But the same isn't true about *me*.
Because, even though my 2/1+ in Mandarin doesn't get me too far, it DOES get me far enough. And the same goes for James, who has a 2/2.
We hear. We understand. We know.
Sometimes Americans don't meet the Chinese standard of what people should look like. Some are taller or stockier than the norm here. Here in China, when you are physically outside the standard or norm, the method used to bring you back into the cultural parameters of how this society says you "should look" is OPEN HONESTY and even public ridicule. No - oh, maybe we shouldn't say that because it will hurt people's feelings - and no - oh, maybe this will damage their self-esteem.
If the Chinese think you are too fat, then they will straight up tell you: You are too fat. And then they will laugh at you. As will others within earshot. Who will then probably, themselves, repeat the charge. Because everyone knows that you are too fat. To them, it's obvious. To them, saying these things isn't taboo at all. James and I understand EXACTLY what is being said if we are there to hear it. Sometimes, people who are too fat or too this or too that are even asked by incredulous questioners: Why are you so fat?
Not so fun.
~ ~ ~
The other morning, I was in a little fruit shop buying some fruit. The sales girls behind the counter were talking about me. I just let them talk. They weren't saying anything bad about me - but I was very much an object of intense curiosity. One of them even said I'm sure she doesn't understand us. I let them keep talking until I went to the counter to pay.
Then I broke out the Chinese. It's not the best Chinese in the universe, but it is good enough to get eyebrows raised, shocked looks, and to be able to answer all of their questions:
Them: "You speak Chinese really well!"
Me: "Thank you, but I think I speak Chinese really badly."
Them: "Do you live here?"
Me: "Yes, I live here."
Them: "How long have you lived here?"
Me: "Oh, about seven months."
Them: "What country are you from?"
Me: "I'm an American. I studied Mandarin back in America before I came here."
I paid for the fruit without fumbling with the money (because I understood exactly what the cost was, and I knew how to pay in kuai even though it's different than dollars), put the fruit in my bag, and then bid them goodbye.
::continued shocked looks::
~ ~ ~
One of the most wonderful things about Chengdu is that you can get FANTASTIC foot or even whole body massages for a tiny fraction of the price that they would be back in the U.S.
I have taken Matthew with me several times.
On the vast majority of those occasions, I have listened to the conversations between the girl massaging *me* and the girl massaging *Matthew*. And they talk about him.
He's so tall! So very tall. And so handsome, they will giggle. They have universally assumed that he goes to college here. Once or twice they have (correctly) assumed that he is an American, that he is the son of someone at the U.S. Consulate nearby, and that he is here because of that.
They pay him particular attention.
On more than one occasion, they have assumed that Matthew and I are a couple. Which is when I rouse from my not-speaking-Chinese-but-just-enjoying-the-massage-stupor to set the record straight:
Me: "Um, NO. He's my SON. He's my oldest SON."
Them: "Oh! You speak Chinese! He's your son?!"
Me: "Yes. I am very old."
Them (*giggling*): "You are not old! You look very young!"
Me: "Thank you. But yes, I am very old. Very, very old."
Them: "He is very handsome! Does he go to Sichuan University?"
Me: "No, he is in high school."
Them: "High school! But he looks so old! And so very tall! How old is he?"
Me: "He's 18 years old."
And the conversation continues. Because once my cover is blown and it is demonstrated that I can speak enough Chinese that we can at least have a rudimentary conversation, I know that we will all be talking during the duration of my time there. And that 99.9% of the conversation will be about Matthew.
Yes, he plays basketball. He likes math. Yes, he's an American. We both are. The conversation continues...
Which is, you know, fine. Because I like being able to show that, yes, sometimes the Americans here can speak your language enough to communicate even a bit.
It makes me feel good.
Most of the time.