The (Kwint)-Essentials of Life
During the six weeks we were in China (and the year leading up to it) there was a resource I used in order to learn quick little basic pieces of information about any culture I wanted. The website is called Kwintessential, and if we didn’t have it, we may or may not have committed social suicide.
One instance where it was pretty important to know some inside information was when all of us in the group went over to Thomas Yau’s home for dinner. We had never been to a Chinese home for dinner, so we weren’t sure what were the dos and don’ts (if any). After using my beloved resource, we learned there were specific suggestions to follow when going to someone’s home in Hong Kong, and not just China. Advice such as “do not give red or white flowers,” “Elaborate gift wrapping is important,” and “do not give clocks, as they are associated with death” were up and down the entire page. We took the advice and did a few of the dos on the list such as giving “imported spirits,” in our case a Californian wine. We also gave a bouquet of flowers with appropriate colors (purple and yellow) and appropriate quantities (8, a lucky number). I think we did a good job picking out the right stuff, but we will probably never know whether what we gave was “excellent” or “ehh.” When we gave the gifts to Mrs. Yau, she thanked us and then went to the back of her flat to put the gifts away, she never opened them. This is common in Asia because the gift giving is very important, but not the focus of the get together. Asian cultures like to receive gifts and then immediately put them away so they can focus on what’s important, their guests. Also, in case they do not like the gifts they where given, they do not want to have to try and fake as if they really like the gift (Socks?! Oh, you shouldn’t have. Really you shouldn’t have.).
As our trip was coming to an end, I no longer needed to find out the rules and etiquette of the culture we just spent six weeks in, we were about to enter another culture… our own. American culture doesn’t really seem like a culture to me, it just seems like reality. I’ve been living in its borders for 22 years, so I’m simply used to everything going on. Now that I have been away for awhile, I wondered what America will be like? Different? Same? I once again decided to use my trusty resource Kwintessential to find out the answer to a question I thought I would never ask; what are Americans like?
Everything I read seemed familiar, but in a weird way. Every piece of information such as “Americans are direct. They value logic and linear thinking” to “Handshakes are firm, brief, and confident” all made sense. While I was reading I kept saying to myself “yeah, I guess people do do that here.” It was like an out-of- body experience to take all the things I do and observe them as if it is something I am trying to learn. What’s even weirder is seeing it for the second-first-time.
Once we arrived in Detroit it seemed like the noisiest airport I had ever been to. Everybody is talking on their phones and running around in a frenzy. We saw lots of frenzies in China, but they were much quieter. A big reason for the noise is that Americans do not like silence. We typically like something interesting to do at all times. When it comes to social interaction, we are very friendly and informal. I saw this all the time. At one point, Suzy and I were talking to a couple on the way back from Portland about anything and everything. We had never met these people before and we probably won’t ever see them again, but we all felt like killing time with a little conversation. Even on the plane (after waiting for 20 years), everyone is talking to anyone sitting within speaking distance of them about how long we waited, why we waited, and what they could do to make sure we ever have to wait again. We didn’t solve any problems on that flight and we never got any answers, but the satisfaction of speaking to others about it was enough to relieve the stress.
Going away to a foreign country is an amazing experience and it teaches you a lot about how other people approach life. Using my resources and hands-on time with the people of China has opened a lot of new ideas to me. At the same time, going away from home has made me see home in a very different way. I no longer see people starting a random conversation as “space-invaders,” I see them as people wanting to kill some time and maybe create a little connection with a fellow human being. It has been quite a ride, and fortunately, it’s still going.