I can’t tell you how many times I thought of this phrase while I was in China. The meaning constantly seemed to capture the moment. As a large foreigner in a country full of people smaller than myself, I was always an inconvenience. I fumbled through conversations in Chinese. I took up more space than allotted on buses. I held up taxis as I struggled to unfold my legs and clumsily exit. By nature of being a foreigner, my presence invoked a cultural response of hospitality and accommodation that undoubtedly put out those around me – though acknowledgement of it being an inconvenience was even more unthinkable than not performing it.
This was especially difficult for me to accept. I will actively pursue an inconvenience for myself if it means I don’t inconvenience someone else. I even got angry at people in China trying to help me if I felt like it put them out. How ridiculous am I?
No matter how gently I tread it seemed unavoidable, that I would clumsily bump and knock my way around, constantly disrupting the established (though chaotic) flow of Chinese life. And I noticed the messes I created even as I made them.
But coming back to America has given me some distance and time to think about my life in China. By no means is my reflection done; in many ways, I feel like I haven’t really started. I imagine it will take both time and experiences to identify what was sown into me the past year.
To start the decompression, I am reading Peter Hessler’s book River Town, a personal account of his time spent in small-town Sichuan in the 90s. I can relate to many of the experiences he describes. He writes with eloquence and candor, attaching words to my reality.
His stories reveal to me a China that I saw but did not value.
I am beginning to realize how much of a Bull I actually was – beyond my physical obtrusions – for all my frustrations and complaints. In my careless rampage of self-importance and misperception, I completely missed some of the most evident and simple beauties in Chinese people, culture, and society. I look back and see the hopeful endurance of a hard-working people, the majestic struggle of the culture’s history, and the patient fluidity of a society changing faster than anyone can capture with words.
The rich and powerful reality of the people I taught and lived around was muted by my brutish disregard.
I don’t know what this post is for, then. Am I writing a confession? Perhaps, because I definitely feel some shame in not taking full advantage of my opportunities. Am I writing in regret? Probably, but I don’t regret the time I spent in China. Indeed, I enjoyed it immensely and learned a great deal. I simply see that I was walking in a China shop filled with beauty and I knocked over more plates than I admired.