The Burning Question on the Lips of Every Chinese in Beijing

May 21, 2012

The elevator stops at the 8th floor, and a tall Chinese man steps on. He is perhaps 60 years old, but his face is smooth and very handsome.

The door closes. He emits a very small, low sound.

This sound would perhaps be unnoticeable elsewhere, but I know this sound. It’s the sound that happens whenever Chinese people are in a small place with me, a foreigner, and they are so in wonderment of this situation that they don’t know quite what to do with themselves.

Plus, of course, there’s that elephant in the room, that burning question they’re pondering, biding their time, deciding when to ask. In this case, the man decides that somewhere around floor 5 is the right time to ask.

He looks at me. “Which country?”

And there it is. No preliminary “hello, how are you” is necessary. Not now, not when the most pressing, salient, outrageous context is unfolding right in front of his very eyes. No, in such a circumstance, clearly, the most fitting opening question is to inquire as to from which homeland such a foreign creature could possibly hail.

So obviously fitting is this question for this situation, that even to utter the complete question, “Where are you from,” would seem outrageously superfluous.

I reply. “The US.”

“How great!” he exclaims,  using the exact same words everyone uses to exclaim upon my answer.

I respond with the same question I always ask in such situations, feigning the same surprised expectancy I always feign in such situations. After all, it’s a little bit embarrassing (in a lovely way) to have people react so positively to your nationality.

“Have you been there?!” I cry, in pleased surprise, with bated breath, so clearly ready to ask next, “Which cities have you visited?!”

But of course I know he has not been there. Most Chinese I meet tell me I am the first non-Chinese they have ever even spoken to.

And he replies “No, I have not been.”

Just to keep up the friendly conversation, in such exchanges I often ask next, “So why did you exclaim about how great it is that I am American?”

But this time I do not. We have reached the ground level, and he is an exceptionally considerate gentleman. The doors open, and he stretches his hand outward, gesturing for me to exit ahead of him.

“Thank you,” I say, in such a good mood.

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