Pleasantries & Peace

There are certain words in the English language that, in Western culture, are fairly important for peaceful relations between people. They are “thank-you,” “sorry,” “excuse me” and other less important but equally pleasant additions like “good morning,” “good night,” “How was your day?” etc. Between lovers, the most important one is, “I love you.”

In Chinese culture, words like the first three (thank you, sorry, excuse me) are words reserved for strangers. They imply distance in their very use, a distance between the two speakers in terms of social connection. So, when I say “thank you” to his parents, for instance, for buying us a new contraption for our kitchen or for taking us out to dinner, they sweep it aside with an embarrassed gesture signaling slight impatience and say “no need for ‘thank you’—we’re family!”

They think it’s a bit cute, though, and chalk it up to our cultural differences. At least they’re smart enough to realize this is indeed the case and not take offense. Other Chinese people get offended when you thank them as this is the equivalent of pushing them away from you and placing them in the role of stranger or business associate as opposed to friend.

In our early stages of relationship, Guo Jian and I had regular arguments about these words. I found it unbearable that I would make a big dinner (and remember that I don’t love to cook) and he would sit down and tell me it tasted great but never thank me for making it!

What’s more, the absence of a thank-you after I’d prepared that big meal, for instance, would tweak the feminist hairs on the back of my neck. No woman that I’d ever been with would have failed to thank me for my culinary efforts! Was his lack of thank you rooted in an expectation that a woman should be in the kitchen, I wondered, skeptically?

Once again, I wasn’t sure whether I was simplifying things by suggesting this was purely a cultural difference. After all, when you’re irritated, you look around for more places to blanket bomb your blame. So, in addition, I focused in on his gender with fierce, narrowed eyes.

But, there were those other absent words too…

When we fought and he said something unforgivably mean, it would ring in my ears and be just that—unforgivable—because he never seemed to realize the need for me to hear his apology. And, even though he may have felt sorry and demonstrated this, I figured his inability to say sorry was tantamount to his actually believing the words he had said were true.

When I woke up and said, “Good morning!” in his language and he laughed awkwardly and dismissively, never returning the greeting, I would invariably start the day feeling dismissed and lonely.

When he bumped me in the kitchen or told me to ‘move out of his way’ rather than saying “excuse me” or asking me to move, I felt ordered around and that my physical presence was a nuisance rather than a chosen pleasure.

Or when I asked him why he never asked me how my day went and he said that if I wanted to tell him, I should just tell him, but that it wasn’t his job to ask me such a silly question, I felt rebuked for my simply wanting to hear his interest in my life.

(I’ve since learned that this latter example is not just cultural; men all over the world fail to ask the women in their lives how their day went. I tell you, sisters, dating women really rocks for this. It’s lovely to come home from a day and find someone interested in hearing how it went! Who knew this would be one of the things I’d miss the most!?)

But, “I love you” was the worst of all. When I said it to him, he would look around the space and hope no one had heard. He was vocal at home with his professions of love, but if we were anywhere else, he acted like a scared kid afraid of being ridiculed. My moment of verbal affection would hang listless between us like a limp flag and then my face would fall.

It was the “I love you’s” that started a shift in him. He would see my face fall and return the words back in English to me in a whisper and at least take my hand. He saw that it helped a little, using those words, even it was just in English.

And it did.

Our fights would go like this:

(Me) “Why don’t you thank me? Don’t you appreciate that I cooked this meal when you were in a rush and had to go? Otherwise you wouldn’t have eaten. Doesn’t that matter to you?”

(Him) “Chinese people don’t have to thank their family. You are my family. If I thank you, I treat you like a stranger. Do you want that?”

(Me) “But in my culture, if you don’t thank me, you’re treating me worse than a stranger. You’re treating me like you don’t care about me. Like you don’t respect me!

(Him) “You’re in China now. You should do as the Chinese do. Try to get used to it. It’s weird for me to thank you. It feels wrong. I don’t want to make you into someone I’m not close to. If I thank you, it’s like I don’t think of you as my loved one.”

(Me) “I may be in China, but I’ll never be Chinese! You have to honour some of my culture too!

(Him) “But if I do that, I’m ignoring my own culture. Is that fair?”

(Me) “If I live here, I’m not living IN my own culture. Is THAT fair? Why should I have to abandon everything in my culture to be with you and you can’t even adjust your language to be with me?”

(Him) “That’s your choice. You like China. You chose to come here. I didn’t force you to. You want to study this culture but I don’t have the same interest in yours. This is part of what you have to learn.”

(Me) “But you obviously have an interest in ME and this is part of ME. <insert vigorous English cursing here!> Just say ‘Thank you”!!  And don’t tell me what I have to learn or not to learn. You’re not my teacher; society is!”

(Him) “They’re only words. Why are words so important to you and every other Westerner! You all talk too much anyway. Actions are more important. You Westerners put too much emphasis on words in the first place!”

(Me) “You don’t know anything about Westerners! This is all generalizations and racism! We have different words that are important and you have different words that are important. Stop being so narrow-minded and prejudiced.”

This is when the English swearing takes over and irritation erases all of my Chinese language abilities… Logic fails and frustration usurps all.

Of course, this is when he also counters with swearing in Chinese, which sucks because I understand its meanings, unlike his inability to understand what I mean when I’m swearing in English, (except that I’m just swearing.) So some of his cursing hurts my feelings and then we’re back at square one because I want an apology for those mean words, let alone a “thank you” for the meal in the first place.

I storm off and don’t say good-bye when he leaves the house.

He leaves the house, frustrated, and doesn’t register anything strange to not hear a “good-bye,” yet another unnecessary pleasantry between family.

When we next see each other, he acts as though nothing has happened. In Chinese culture, this is also fairly common. Problems that have occurred even in the recent past like that morning are 过去了 guo qu le (over and done with, in the past) and it’s supposed to be kinder to move on from them, not reference them, and seek peace.

To me, I often feel like this is a “covering up” or a willful ignorance of the bad energy between us. To his credit, I’ve started to also see that moving on from bad energy is healthy rather than drawing it out over many days or weeks through over-processing. (Yes, something common in relationships with women!) This new way is actually a quicker way to heal.

Still, I wanted my words. Even though it sounds ridiculous to need to hear words, especially when the sentiment couldn’t be heartfelt because it was culturally unintelligible to him, I still wanted to hear them. I didn’t care that he didn’t want to say them or, more, didn’t believe in saying them. Hearing them meant he was hearing me and he was giving me something from my culture that, while surrounded by his culture, I desperately needed and believed that I deserved. Hadn’t I sacrificed a lot, I’d ask? He was right to point out that this had been my choice and he wasn’t responsible for it. I know that. Still, I pushed.

Eventually, without any verbal acknowledgement to the cultural significance for me, the English phrase, “Thank you baby” started to pepper his sentences when I had done things for him or was willing to. At first, he would put the phrase into the request itself, snuggled around the Chinese like, “Ember, 你可以开我朋友的车送我到修车的地方吗—thank you baby—因为他们修车的时候我就有办法回家?” (“Can you drive with me to the garage in my friend’s car—thank you baby—so that we can drop off my car to get fixed and then come home?”) The sudden presence of the English insert sounded ridiculous and made me laugh, but…

I liked it.

The next one that emerged was, “Excuse me, sweetie,” thankfully inspired by my family and my Canadian friends who noticed his frequency of rude interruptions, by Western standards. He had an obnoxious tendency to barge into my conversations with others or interrupt my work on the computer without any kind of “excuse me” preceding his torrent of words and his demand for my attention. My parents and friends versed him on the “Excuse me, sweetie” that could make life so much easier for his relationship with me. Because, as it does, it would soften me to his interruptions and ensure that I didn’t snap at him or yell at him for being so rude or disrespectful to my existing conversation or work. It’s like primer for the listener’s ears.

When he started to say this before talking to me when I was working, pronouncing ever syllable perfectly, especially the “t” in “sweetie,” I simply couldn’t be mad at him and would turn in my chair with a smile and be willing to hear whatever it was he wanted to say.

He noticed the difference immediately. He began to say it constantly. I will never tire of hearing it. When my friends hear it, especially those who don’t speak Chinese and have no idea what he says to me after these opening words, they smile and love him for his sweetness. He sees that and it fills him with a pride and glow that can’t be denied. His reveling in their response to it, something I never would have expected, makes him all the cuter. He looks like a kid who has just discovered a new talent—every time.

And overdone or not, hearing these kinds of words in my language as opposed to his is enough for me. He discovered a way to get around his own cultural awkwardness by using these phrases in English. In fact, it’s better that way. That’s how I heard them in my cultural upbringing. That’s what I wanted to hear in my world surrounded by his culture—a bit of my own culture. It was a bit of my own brand of verbal kindness.

It worked beautifully.

Soon, a sing-song “Good morning, baby!” danced from his lips the minute he opened his eyes and “good-night” was exchanged before we fell asleep, with or without my prompting. He started to say “I love you baby” on the phone at the end of conversations even if his friends were around—again, always in English and usually as the only English words in the conversation—but I didn’t care. I just wanted to hear them. It made me feel better. It all made me feel more loved.

Because, they’re not only words; they’re cultural signifiers. They embody respect. They are part of who I am. Now, they’re part of our relationship.

And last but not least, “Sorry baby” started to find its way into our post-fight conversations. He learned that not acknowledging the fight was not going to end it for me. Even though I often silently went along with his “moving on” methods, I couldn’t release the sad grip on my heart or the film of anger from my eyes. He learned that calling me on the phone before he came home and starting off with, “I was too worked up and stressed out. I had an extreme reaction. Sorry baby!” was enough to trigger the loosening of those grips and the clearing of that film. I did accept the apology. I heard that he meant it, even if he was awkward in saying so. And letting go of my sadness or anger may not happen immediately, but those words—“Sorry, baby”—were enough to start the process.

Tonic for my ears.

Salve for my heart.

Band-aids for our relationship.

Like all real relationships, it had passed from the perfection of the honeymoon stage and into the reality of its gaps and bruises, its imperfections and realities. No relationship is perfect. I have learned to love and accept him regardless of the things that drive me crazy about him. He has learned to do the same.

And to that, I say, “谢谢宝贝,我爱你!” (Thank you, baby. I love you.)

Bitterness Valves

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