In the summer of 2012 I visit my friend in her hometown Changsha. She had told me before that everyone is eager to meet me. Her grandparents (especially her grandfather who had helped me find my Chinese name according to traditional 生辰八字 principles – shēnɡchén bāzì in Pinyin or Four pillars of life in English), her mother, her friends.
One day we go to her grandparents’ place. Another day we meet up with friends for Karaoke. And yet another day we meet up with friends for dinner. The reaction is the same no matter where we go and no matter with whom we meet up. There hardly seems to be any reaction at all. Nobody seems to be interested in getting to know me in a way I’m used to. No questions, no talking – I’m present, but I feel invisible at the same time.
I talk about this with a friend from Switzerland who encountered the same situation a few years ago. A few years ago, she’s staying at her Chinese in-laws’ home in Yunnan’s countryside. Every now and then somebody she doesn’t know comes by and visits, mainly to get to know her – the Swiss girlfriend of a guy from their hometown. It terrifies her – having to meet all these people and spending the time it needs to get to know them at a time when she would rather spend time on her own because she needs to prepare for exams. But when she goes down to the living room to meet them, nobody asks any questions. She finds out that she only needs to be present and that’s about it. There’s not much talking and neither are there many questions. She’s relieved. That way there will be enough time to spend on her studies.
My encounters in Changsha prepare me for visiting my in-laws and all my husband’s relatives less than a year later. I don’t expect people to ask many questions when we get to know each other anymore. You go somewhere to visit and then you can just sit down and watch TV, read a book or even lie down on a bed and relax. It’s really not a big deal.
Have you ever been surprised about how getting to know someone is different in different cultures? I’d love to read your thoughts.