Monday, October 02, 2006

Cultural Lesson #4,688

Recently our landlord invited us out for dinner. How nice, we thought. We had been out to dinner with them once before and it was very low key; just them and us at a somewhat-nicer-than-average local place. We ate in the main dining room (as opposed to a separate, private room--in this culture it is common if you have a larger party of people or you just want to treat someone really well to get a private room within the restaurant. It has its own waitresses and everything, so can be more relaxing and enjoyable away from the hustle and bustle of the main dining room) and they treated us really nicely--they ordered "friendly" food (i.e. no blood or other innards!), we had a good time talking and they were even careful to get us home on time since they knew Clara Anne had to get to bed.

Well, this time was different. Our first clue was when we came out of our apartment building, and instead of our landlord's car, there was a big van, with many people in it, some of whom we didn't know. We got in and were introduced to a few of the people, though we still weren't sure why they were there and how they related to either our landlord or us. But, when you live in another culture you learn to go with the flow, so we just went with it. Soon our landlord explained that we would have a party with the three families, and that this other couple--we'll just call them Mr. and Mrs. X--had a daughter who was 16.

We arrived at the restaurant--a big one near the gate of the campus where John studies. We had gone past there probably a thousand times, but never stopped at the restaurant to check it out. It always seemed busy, though, with fancy cars parked out front and the waiters and waitresses wearing elaborate traditional clothing. We were ushered up to our private room and there we met the remainder of the party, including Mr. X and his daughter. The inside of the room was really nice--plush carpets, fancy tablecloths, little finger bowls at each place setting--and then we learned that this restaurant is famous for seafood. Now, since John and I grew up in Minnesota and Iowa, respectively, we are just not used to eating seafood. In the past I really didn't even want to try eating it, but maybe in the last year or so I have had more interest in trying it. For one thing, it is relatively common and thus less expensive here in this Asian country, and also it's apparently quite nutritious. I was willing to try the foods, but I also was prepared to use the old "put-it-on-your-plate-and-leave-it-there" trick. But I needn't have worried. Dish after dish of food was placed on the table and though some of it was strange, some of it was also seafood that I've never tried because of the cost. I decided that even though the situation was still a little weird (we really were not sure why we were being hosted at this fancy restaurant by these people who we didn't know), I might as well just enjoy myself. So when the plate of salmon came by, I tried it, and liked it! I also had my first experience eating a whole crab, as well as oysters on the half shell. Who knew seafood could be so tasty?!

Now, that day had already been quite busy for Clara Anne, and she was still sleeping soundly when it was time to wake her up to go out for this dinner. And then, of all foolish things, I decided not to take Doll with that evening. I just thought, "oh well, she can do without Doll sometimes; she'll be fine." Oops. Her tired state combined with the lack of Doll made for a really crabby Clara Anne. When we were getting settled at the restaurant, she absolutely refused to sit in her chair and was only happy on my lap or John's lap. We tried to stay firm but she was so irritable, and it was so awkward for the others there when she cried, that we gave in to her and let her sit on our laps to eat a bit. It soon became apparent that Mr. X was in fact hosting this dinner, not our landlord. When Clara Anne was being fussy, Mr. X started barking orders at the waitresses: "Bring some ice cream! Bring some toys! Bring some yogurt!" (Our landlord had informed him of Clara's yogurt obsession.)

I am sorry to say that Clara Anne rather quickly sized up the situation and realized "hey, these people will give me whatever I want, and I can do whatever I want, too, as long as I don't cry!" She then proceeded to warm up to the situation and was pretty much waited on hand and foot for the remainder of the evening. It was like watching the last year of careful child-training go down the toilet in one circumstance. I gave up trying to restrain them from spoiling Clara Anne, and as she warmed up to them and started getting everything her little heart desired, she began to get really slap-happy and silly. She was suddenly willing to go around kissing people, laughing, speaking the local language, and generally making them dote on her all the more.

At this point the situation was so exasperating and laughable that I whipped out the camera to take a few photos. Our hosts loved it and posed for some fairly silly pictures. In the picture at left, you can see our host, Mr. X, trying to ply Clara Anne with watermelon (also one of her favorites) and literally "kiss up" to her.

So what was the cultural lesson? Well, as it turned out, as we were all sitting around the table during the middle of the meal, and all of this expensive food was in front of us, our landlord said to us in broken English: "Maybe in the future you can teach Mr. X's daughter English! Is that ok or not?" We stammered and stuttered and instead of answering the question, asked a few of our own, like how often she wanted to study with us, what was she interested in learning, etc. Finally we said, well, maybe some time it would be ok, but she needs to call before she comes over. At this point everybody else breathed a sigh of relief and got more comfortable. I hate to think how the evening would have gone if we had said a flat-out "no!" In this culture, it is common to accomplish things in life by guanxi or relationships. If you have a friend who has a friend who can get things done, then if you are really nice to that friend maybe he can get his friend to get something done that you want done! Gifts and bribes are common. So when we went out to eat, we thought we were just eating with our landlord but in fact he had these other plans. We then figured out that our landlord does a type of business that Mr. X (who has a position high in the local government) could really help him with. So how does our landlord build guanxi with this important businessman? He essentially uses us as his tools. If we agree to teach the daughter English, then our landlord has done a favor for Mr. X, which strengthens their relationship and makes Mr. X more likely to do future business with our landlord's company.

If this is all too confusing, don't worry! It took a little time of "debriefing" after we got home for us to understand fully the dynamics of the situation, but now we will perhaps be a little more wary of accepting a "free lunch!" The really stinky part is that this type of situation is so common in this culture, that often people put in our situation will agree in the midst of the situation, never intending to actually follow through. We don't want to be like that, but on the other hand to be brutally honest in that circumstance would have made for an awful evening and loss of face on all sides. For example, we could have said, "Mr. X, are you kidding? Do you know that almost every day someone asks us to teach English? And if you wanted us to teach your daughter English, you could have just asked us and we would have told you yes or no--there was no need to waste so much money!" However, we just smiled and essentially put off the question while remaining open to them in the circumstance.

Though we've lived here almost three years now, circumstances like this make us realize that we are still learning cultural lessons! And guess what? Yesterday our landlord called again, wondering if we would be free for dinner this week! Now there's a loaded question!

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