Strangers with Corn

By supermajority 'Strangers with Corn' wins! This story is probably the most interesting anyway.

Whenever I leave my America (apartment) and step into China (outside) I have to make a mental shift. If this does not occur I wander around with my America-colored glasses: frustrated and confused by most things. People stare at me continuously. At first this was interesting, and then it bothered me. Now, however, I know that a smile and "Ni hao" are enough to make these people smile back; this also helps me realize that they are not "staring" as much as expressing curiosity.

This behavior is especially pronounced when riding the bus. It is as if people are wondering how I could possibly know which bus to take or where I am going. If I am carrying groceries this confounds them further: why does this foreigner carry groceries and who bought them for him? Generally I can break through all of this tension by speaking Chinese. I make a point of having a Chinese conversation on every bus ride. Usually these things are restricted to general questions and topics, but occasionally people want to discuss economy, etc. which tends to be above my head in English, let alone Chinese. The following is a transcribed conversation I had while on the bus a few days ago:

Setting: Crowded bus. Protagonist sitting by the window. A woman of about 50 (stranger) is sitting behind me eating cooked corn from the cob.

Dustin: Hello!
Stranger: uhhh hello. You can speak Chinese?
Dustin: I can speak Mandarin but I don't understand the local dialect.
Stranger: You speak very well.
Dustin: No no no. Hey, I have seen that cooked corn before. Let me ask, how much does it cost?
Stranger: 1 kuai (about 15 cents).
Dustin: Wow, that's cheap! It sure smells good! Is it delicious?
Stranger: Of course! Here... (breaks the ear of corn in half and gives it to me).
Dustin: (eating corn) This is really good! Thank you!
Stranger: Why did you come to China?
Dustin: (between mouthfuls of corn) I teach English at the local college.
Stranger: (sees that I have finished with the corn) Give me that and I will throw it away.
Dustin: No, I can do it - really.
Stranger: Don't be so polite, give it to me!
Dustin: Thank you, you are too nice! (reaching my stop) Goodbye!
Stranger: Goodbye!

The important thing to note here is that I would never have done this in America. Even in China this was a calculated risk on several different levels. In no way am I advocating a philosophy which exalts eating corn given by strangers (or eating anything given by strangers, for that matter). Neither do I wish to denigrate by omission how delicious popcorn tastes. This is not meant to be a comparison. I merely want to show that there are cultural differences which can be difficult to understand (and therefore interesting).

Another example of this is the following:
"Have you eaten?"

I used to answer this question with a real answer. Now I know better. The correct answer is almost always:

But one of my favorites is when I am obviously going to the bathroom and someone asks:
"Are you going to the bathroom?"

What answer can there be other than:


KLL said...

Dustin..I'm so glad you didn't wait until the vote was over to write this blog. I have been on the EDGE of my couch wondering about Strangers with Corn. Whew...Now that that is taken care of, I think I can go to sleep peacefully.

Jessica said...

I, too have been wondering about the corn... 'your' students back here will read that and will increase their personal narrative skills in relation to a place that holds a memory :)

Since my class has such a link with the Peace Corps, I'll have to start pulling in some of your stories as well so they can get an even more global picture of the world.

SPetillo said...

... I have to confess, I heard this story in someone's classroom this week. It was so intriguing, I had to check your blog to see the story. It sounds like things are going rather smoothly for you, and, for what it's worth, I am proud of you and your accomplishments. Keep it up!

Hope you are well, and we miss you lots.