Weird Guy With Bell, or: You Need Some Distance

You know what’s hard? Trying to summarize your experiences in a place you’ve lived for 10 years. It’s just about impossible. So I’m taking a quick break in my proposed Good, Bad, Whatever cycle to offer up some random observations from my last few weeks in China.

This morning I was walking to the market to get some vegetables for lunch, and an old man passed me on his bicycle, dinging his bell every few feet. I don’t know why he was dinging his bell, but it was a little annoying. Any repetitive sound is, even if there’s a reason for it, and in this case there wasn’t, at least not that I could see. I asked myself, a little obviously, “Why is he doing that?” That’s interesting. I know it doesn’t sound interesting, but it is. Here’s why. When you move to a foreign country, for the first year or so it’s difficult not to think in “we” and “they” terms, as in: “Why do they do things like that?” You’re curious, and whenever you see someone doing something odd or conspicuous, you start analyzing the culture a little bit, wondering how this particular individual represents the whole. It isn’t until you’ve lived in that country for some time that you stop doing that and start wondering simply why that one person is doing something odd or conspicuous. So instead of asking, in response to seeing an old man mindlessly dinging his bicycle bell like a Faulknerian half-wit, why Chinese society contains loud and annoying people, you simply ask, “Why is that old man mindlessly dinging his bicycle bell like a Faulknerian half-wit?”

This is also interesting because, paradoxically, this same lessening of the distance between “we” and “them” that comes from long-term residence in a place is also what makes it hard to live there. Weird, isn’t it? But true. It works like this: at first, all local people are curiosities, so when they do things that clash with everything you’d call civilized, you arch your eyebrows and ask yourself why they’d be doing what they’re doing. You assume things are a result of foreign or strange behavior, and that functions as a kind of excuse. But after you’ve lived in a place long enough to see individual people instead of “the Chinese,” individually annoying behavior becomes far more annoying because it no longer has the convenient “foreign” excuse. For example, the horribly obnoxious rich-guy-motorist is an almost ubiquitous presence on the streets, and by now I’ve learned that EVERYONE hates him. He knows the rules, knows the law, but can buy his way out of trouble, so doesn’t fear darting through traffic and blowing through stoplights. And I know the score because I’ve lived here a long time. And even more importantly, I know HE knows the score, but doesn’t care. In this case, ignorance really is bliss. The less distance you between you and “them” (whoever “they” are in your situation), the harder it is to just shrug when, say, at 4 in the morning funeral mourners are setting off enough fireworks to qualify our district as a war zone.



1 Responses to Weird Guy With Bell, or: You Need Some Distance

  1. James says:

    Well put.

    It was 2001/2002 when a rumor went around Tianjin that a large boa constrictor living in the sewer / underground had been killed by some construction workers digging.

    Everyone born in the year of the snake or the year of the dragon (snake being like a small dragon) had to let off fireworks to ward off bad luck. It was constant for almost three weeks, and not the 3am – 6am – 9am – 12pm – 3pm – 6pm – 9pm – 12am schedule that Spring Festival follows.

    It was any time someone felt bad luck might be targeting them – they had to ward it off… thoroughly.

    I had been in China for only a year and a half at that point, and it was easy to write off as foreign behavior, though strange and annoying.

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