It started at Osaka’s KIX airport with an incredulous, seething “See?” We were next in line, waiting to check in for the flight that would take us back to China. Our first-ever visitor to Haiyang, my mom, was in tow. The comment was hurled from my mouth to her ears as we watched a Chinese man cut in front of us. After a hassle free eight days in clean, courteous Kyoto, the tiny annoyances I associate with China had unexpectedly smacked me in the face. The “see?” was spoken less out of anger and more out of vindication. Finally. Finally! Someone other than Iggy was around to bear witness to the tribulations of my life in China. The cutting in line. The bulldozer maneuvers passengers use to push their way — and inevitably you — off of planes and buses and metros. The chorus of loogie-hawking that can’t be tuned out no matter how hard you try.
China is not ideal for the fussy foreigner, be it a ten-day tourist or an expat on an indefinite stay (thank god we don’t fall into that category). Those who are squeamish, germaphobic, timid, easily frustrated, or offended should give this country a miss. My mom is none of those things, so it was with mischievous delight that I watched her struggle with things I thought would never faze her. Like a waiter’s plump, careless thumb planted in the dish of stir-fried eggplant he was serving us or the hacking we heard coming out of the kitchen at a fish hot-pot restaurant. (I tried to reassure us both that it was not coming from the cook.) Those things, well, she never got used to. And, much like real Chinese food, I can’t say she left China with an appreciation for the driving norms, which include incessant honking, reckless passing, excessive speed, and lots of brake slamming.
But I must give credit where it is due: Mom was a good sport. One afternoon, I sprung the idea of her sitting in on my Mandarin lesson. Despicable child that I am, I didn’t clearly state that she would be the student. Call it cruel, but she learned a few words and best of all got to learn a little about China and Chinese culture from a native speaker. Her favorite aspect of Chinese culture — the rigorous massage — was one that didn’t have to be taught but could be experienced. I know the three different ones she received within her ten days in Haiyang more than made up for the language drills my tutor put her through.