It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Chinese home with a perfectly functional air conditioner will still be really stinking hot for no reason all throughout the summer.
I will never forget the day that summer arrived here in Beijing. I walked home from the nearby café where I’d been working. I was wearing a light scarf and a three-quarter length shirt that had been perfectly reasonable yesterday. Sweat pooled on every possible part of my body and my scalp was wet by the time I finished my ten-minute journey. There is no heat quite like heat that refracts and intensifies through the impenetrable layer of smog that covers Beijing.
I was so eager to get home and finally, finally feel some blessed relief. I opened the door and… nothing changed. All the windows in the entire apartment were opened. My host family sat still as death save for the lazy movement of their fans. I was… horrified. That’s the only word for it.
I quietly walked into my room and shut the window that had been opened there. I turned on my tiny air conditioning unit and did not open my door again until it was necessary. When I came out to teach my nightly lesson, I sat on the play mat in the living room and soon had a pool of sweat beneath me. Are they just not sweating? Do Chinese people not sweat? What is going on? What am I missing?
When the boy I teach did what little boys do and commented on my outrageous perspiration, Sixun, my host mother asked innocently, “Is it hot?”
I wanted to scream, “it’s over 80 degrees in here! Are you crazy?!” But instead, I forced a smile and said mildly, “It’s pretty hot.” She hurried over to the AC unit… but didn’t close the windows.
Over the next few weeks, this was my life. I would come home and feel defeated at the open windows and the unbearable heat of the apartment. I would go in my room, close the window and door, and turn on my own small AC. I would come out for the smallest amount of time possible and disappear again as soon as I could.
Eventually, enough was enough. I tried to approach this as a funny cultural difference- a curious quirk of our different perspectives.
“You know, in America,” I tried one blistering afternoon, “we always close our windows when we turn on the AC. And we always have our homes very, very cold in the summer.” I forced a laugh like isn’t that so funny?
She smiled and nodded. “Yes, when it is hot we will close the windows.”
“When it’s hot?!” Hysteria lined my voice as it broke into a higher octave.
She nodded and looked at me with bright, curious eyes.
“When-” I squeaked and then cleared my throat. “Ahem… when will it be hot?” I couldn’t resist adding, “because it’s already pretty hot.” It was 87F that day.
I can’t remember what she said. It didn’t matter. She finally, blessedly saw what I was angling for. After that, when I came home the AC was running and the windows were (usually) closed. I took this as a little victory and complained no more.
I tell you this story not because I want to use this space for my #laowaiproblems but because of what I kept coming back to this summer. Every time I walked in the door to see the windows wide open in 90+ degree heat I held my cool (ha) for one very simple reason; I am a guest.
I’m a guest in this house where I serve as an au pair. I’m a guest in this city and in this country. And though I may be a hell-raising liberal, I’m still from the south where manners matter.
Being a guest in another country is more than just minding your manners. It’s a matter of humility- making yourself a listener instead of a speaker. In America, I feel plugged into the very heart of the culture around me. The opinions and arguments I have and make matter in some substantial way. My American voice is welcome and expected to imprint itself on the landscape around me.
But in China well… no one wanted me to come to China. No one ever wants tourists; maybe their money but not the tourists themselves. I mean, let’s not pretend that tourists aren’t universally awful and I say that as someone who can reasonably be called a constant tourist. We’re bumbling around like curious sumo wrestlers wearing tutus at the ballet. We don’t fit, we want to fit, and everyone is a little uncomfortable.
Some mysterious (to me) tenant of Chinese traditional medicine and culture is the belief that it is good for your body to be hot and it is bad to be cold. This manifests in a million ways: drinking hot water all year long, not using the air conditioner during a baby’s first month, not drinking cold water with your meal. The list goes on and on.
I knew this and had spoken about this phenomenon with other laowai friends in Beijing. Being faced with this constant, grating heat should have been expected. Respecting the cultural norms of this new family was part of being a good guest. I had to acknowledge that the threshold for acceptable heat was just higher here in China. Eventually communicating to my host family the problem I was having was also a part of being a good guest.
This seems to hold true for most problems or discomforts I face here in China. I don’t love being called meinu, the general name for all young women. It literally translates to ‘beautiful girl’ and that’s just not something I’d be ok with in America. But I’m not in America and that isn’t the hill I want to die on. I don’t want to put my elbows out and force my way onto the subway during rush hour. In my mind, it’s horribly rude and, truly, outside of China, it is. But here, a certain amount of aggression is just part of getting around. And that’s ok. I don’t want to see people eating fertilized duck eggs but it’s not something I can feasibly waste time being upset about.
Every minor and major inconvenience you face while abroad must be filtered through this idea: you are a guest. This doesn’t necessarily mean that things are morally relative. All the things that make me liberal or a feminist or a vegetarian still hold true. But those things are true of me as an American with my specific background and cultural experience. Outside of the culture that fostered my beliefs, it’s imperative to remain open and receptive.
When you travel abroad you will come across moments (probably many) that are distinctly uncomfortable but these are the moments we grow in. When people come back and they speak about being changed, these are the times they did the changing. We change by listening to, respecting, and sympathizing with perspectives wildly different from our own. Without humility, you run the risk of missing out on the best part of discovering the world- discovering yourself in it.