An Adventure in Open-Mindedness

4 Jan

I went to a small liberal-arts college where both the faculty and student body fought with all of their might to make sure you were as tolerant and sensitive to other cultures and ways of life as possible. In my experience, it has seemed that real life has subsequently challenged my tolerance on multiple occasions, as if on purpose.

One of those happened while I was studying in Beijing my sophomore year. Dartmouth had an affiliation with Beijing Normal University (“normal” in the sense of the French “ecole normale,” a school for training people to become teachers). Students from Dartmouth stayed in a BNU dormitory and studied Chinese with BNU teachers. All of the extracurricular activities were also programmed by BNU.

When I say programmed, though, I mean OVER-programmed. Every day we were not in class, we were herded into a bus to go to this temple or that tea house or that theater to see a kung fu show (seriously, we got shown a LOT of kung fu performances). Now, I did appreciate all of these experiences, but the fact that they were mandatory devalued them and turned them into a chore. So between the studying and the scheduled cultural immersion, when my classmates and I had free time, the only thing we wanted to immerse ourselves in was cheap hot pot and even cheaper beer (which was no problem for 19-year-old me thanks to China’s lack of a drinking age).

There was one hot pot place we liked to go on Friday nights, and one week we decided to go again as usual. It was a bunch of us Dartmouth people at our own table, and next to us was a nondescript Chinese family: two parents and some children. I don’t really remember many of the details because we weren’t paying attention to them. We were more interested in the fact that we could buy bottles of Yanjing for 2 RMB each, and the exchange rate at the time was about 8 RMB to the dollar.

But they eventually forced us to pay attention to them as one of the youngest kids, a little boy, went over to his mother, who was the one sitting closest to our table, proceeded to drop his pants, squat on the floor, and take a shit.

I’d love to say this kid was a toddler, like, 3, or something, but I remember him looking at least kindergarten age, maybe a little older, at least old enough to not do this. You can imagine if something like this happened in the middle of an Applebee’s, it would cause a bit of a scene.

But what happened was everything but a scene. As the kid was squatting, the mother was patting the kid’s head. When he was done, the parents calmly informed the wait staff, who then, just as calmly got a broom and dust-pan and cleaned up what the kid left. No scolding for the kid, no apologies to the wait staff, everything happened as if this was completely normal and okay, and since it was my first time seeing it, maybe it was!

Upon seeing it, I laughed. It was part genuine laughter because poop is funny, and part laughter of confusion, like a malfunctioning android would make after you show it that “The following sentence is true. The previous sentence is false.” paradox, because I had no idea how I was supposed to feel about the situation. On the one hand, if the Chinese people didn’t think it was weird, then I shouldn’t either. When it Rome, etc. Not too long before that, I had seen a father helping his kid take a dump on a piece of newspaper in the middle of the street. However, the streets of Beijing are filthy and nobody gives a shit (well, except for the little kid). This was inside a restaurant. Where people are eating. These are the people who are going to unseat America as the world’s superpower and their kids are shitting on the floor.

There was something about this whole scenario that just seemed orchestrated to challenge my open-mindedness, like the mother said “Ooh, look, American college students, they’ll accept anything so they don’t look racist! Don’t believe me? Look, let the kid shit on the floor… Look, they’re not saying anything!”

Perhaps that experience helped me get a bit of healthy perspective, because some Westerners tend to romanticize/fetishize Asian culture as being superior to us in every way, like the soccer moms who read an article about feng shui in Reader’s Digest then all of a sudden start covering their houses in Buddhas and wall scrolls. When someone who’s never left the country starts talking to me about “the wisdom of the Orient,” I always get an image of that little kid taking a dump.

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