An experience I had while still living in China's northeast bears this out. As I was in my kitchen one afternoon making supper, I heard a knock at the door. Since I was living in a building (in a real Chinese neighborhood) that had a security door, someone knocking at the door in itself was a bit unusual. Ignoring a simple rule of common sense like looking through the peep hole and asking who was out there, I just opened the door assuming it was one of my American teammates who lived on the one of the upper floors. I was wrong! When I opened the door, there stood a rather smallish, young woman dressed in a funny robe and hat.

In such a situation, I suspect that the last thing on earth that woman expected to see on the other side of the door was a slightly oversized foreign woman with yellow hair and fair skin. Upon seeing said woman, she would most likely either freeze, say excuse me and move on, or, if she were scared enough, maybe even scream! After all, one expects the door to be answered by a Chinese, not a foreigner! But not this lady. She was a picture of poise, and as if my presence were the most normal thing in the world, she smilingly launched into some kind of speech talking a mile a minute.

Keep in mind that at this point I had lived in China for ten years and had been working on my Chinese language skills for eight of those tenbut at that moment, I could not understand a word this sweet lady (should I say girl?) was saying. NOT ONE WORD!!! I could tell this was not going to be a positive language experience. Either she was simply talking too fast (possible), was speaking some obscure dialect (unlikely), or was using formalized speech that included ONLY vocabulary I had never studied (probable). My first response was to simply tell her that I did not understand, hoping that she would take pity on me, excuse herself, and leave quietly. Not this girl! She was on a mission. When I told her I did not understand, she just smiled, showed me her card (with a photo and the ubiquitous red stamp), and started her speech all over again. "I still don't understand," I pleaded, but to no avail.

Somehow, I had to get her away from her prepared speech and using more colloquial language that I might have a chance of understanding. "Just what is it that you want me to do?" I asked, this time going for the more direct approach. Sighing, but without breaking her sweet smile, she plunged in again. It was still the speech, still formal, but this time I caught what seemed to me to be three essential words: "temple," "donate money," and "repairs." AHAH! Suddenly her attire made sense. She was a young nun from a Buddhist temple, going door-to-door collecting donations for temple repairs! Wanting to be sure of my conclusion, I asked her if that was who she was and what she was doing. "Yes!" Now we were both smiling, feeling very pleased with our success. She showed me her notebook filled with the names of my neighbors who had promised donations. A little peer pressure never hurts. I told her that I was a Christian and therefore preferred to donate my money to the church. "Oh, but Buddhism and Christianity are almost the same," she replied. I assured her that they were not, and that I still preferred to donate my money elsewhere. "I'm sorry." One more smile, a shrug of the shoulders, and she was on her way up the stairs.

I call this a "normalizing" event, and the normalizing came in two forms. One was in seeing a way in which this society also has a way for people to make charitable donations, even to religious entities. The other was in being treated like anyone else in the building. I got no special treatment, positive or negative, because I was a foreigner. At least for a brief time, I was a resident, a member of the speech community, and the same expectations were being placed on me as were being placed on my neighbors. I went back into the kitchen smiling.

Kay Danielson

Kay Danielson (pseudonym) has lived and worked in China for over 25 years. She currently works in the field of cross-cultural training and consulting. View Full Bio