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It is a truth universally acknowledged that listening to other people’s conversations leads to learning unpleasant things about yourself.

But living in a country where people literally never, ever, assume that you might possibly understand them* poses a new question as to how to avoid this breach of good manners.

A sample situation. Imagine an elevator with two Chinese men engaged in a lively conversation in it. Enter the Foreigner.

Silence. The Foreigner stares determinedly at the button panel.

Man A: Look. A European.

Man B: Uhm. There’s quite a lot of them in this building.

Man A: At least this one is not half bad looking. Sometimes they can be really ugly…

Man B: I know, I know. So fat! And those Americans?

Man A: I know exactly what you mean. Hey, look, her skin is just like ours**.

At which point, much as I was dying to hear the rest, the elevator got down and we all had to get out. When I pointed out to them that I could actually understand every word (my laughing into my fist all the time didn’t draw their attention), they weren’t a single bit embarrassed.

‘Oh, look’ – Man A said to Man B before . – ‘She can speak Chinese’.

‘And so she can’, replied Man B.

Another time I was standing on the street when a young couple passed me by.

‘Look at this laowai’, said the boy to his girlfriend even as they were right in front of me. ‘She’s got a pretty good figure, eh?’

…Oh, well, I suppose sometimes one has to chill out and stop being annoyed at the comments all the time, hasn’t one?

But wait… There I was, starting off with how bad it is to eavesdrop and how you always end up hearing bad things about yourself – and now all my stories seem to involve some kind of Foreigner Confidence Boosting. Maybe it’s a sort of cosmic karma: if you’re absolutely not doing it on purpose, the universe makes sure that you at least get something out of it. Right?

…Wrong.

If it was true and not a pile of rubbish, that cabbie wouldn’t have said the following to his mates when I was walking by the other day: ‘Hey, look at that girl’s nose! It’s so big she could pick through a wall with it!’.

That was uncalled for. And very hurtful, too. You see, in my adolescent years my nose decided to grow before the rest of my body so much as started considering the idea. By the time my face caught up with it, I was stuck with the nickname “Muzzle” and jokes like “Agu’s entering the room. First you see the nose… then for a long, long time nothing… then in comes the rest”. After all these years I thought it was all in the past – but now: puff!, my carefully constructed nasal confidence vanished into thin air within one breath of a fag-stinking cabbie. What do you have to say to that, cosmic karma? Hmm?

* Sometimes – that’s not an exaggeration – they don’t assume it even AFTER you’ve spoken to them in their language. You have to actually point it out.

** I’m assuming it meant “not white enough”. Oh dear. All that religious application of a 50+ sunscreen was not enough. I’ll pop into Wal-Mart to get some of those whitening face-masks.

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