Killing me with kindness

They want to help. They really want to help. And whether you want it or not, they are going to help. It’s one of the best things about being in China, and one of the worst. There are always people around willing to lend a hand. And not just willing. They are determined.

When we went to the Longmen Grottoes last Friday, we did our usual thing of strolling out of the station and looking a bit lost. In the past this has meant being instantly accosted by touts shouting random words at us. (I don’t mind the shouting. There’s one creepy guy who sidles up to you at Gongyi station, looking shady. He whispers “taxi” like he’s trying to sell crack.) We just tend to keep walking until the scrum dissipates and we can work out what to do. This time though, it was just one young woman. She was very polite and patiently explained that she was a volunteer, organising free buses for tourists. Bit suspicious, right?

We took a bit of convincing, of course, but everything seemed cool. There were Chinese tourists already in the minivan, seemingly none the worse for the freebie, and we assumed that our money/passports/kidneys would still be with us by the end of the day. She rushed off to find a few more people and came across an Australian family. Maybe we were just too trusting, or they were too cynical, but they were having none of it. They immediately decided it was a con. She became adamant and told them it was easier than getting the bus. They became more suspicious and asked why she was trying to convince them. She claimed to really want to help and it was her determination that ended up driving them away.

When a friend and I went to stay with a student’s family for a few days we were subjected to the full force of Chinese hospitality. From the moment we were woken up in the morning (woken up to ensure we had enough time to get ready before being carted off somewhere), we were bombarded with questions. Is there enough hot water? What do you want for breakfast? Have you eaten enough? Are you tired? Do you want to sit down? Do you need the toilet? What do you want for lunch? Do you want me to carry your bag? Eating at restaurants was when it got really difficult. They would hand us the menu and insist that we order, even after we’d explained, time and again, that we couldn’t read Chinese.

And it doesn’t end there. I’ve had cigarettes forced on me. I’ve felt obliged to knock back any number of drinks (I’m not complaining too much about that one…). I’ve been so stuffed full of food that I couldn’t move (or that…). I’ve been bustled from seat to seat to seat on a packed bus for a better view. I’ve had amateur tour guides follow me around all day, struggling to explain things in broken English. Parents have made their kids stand before insisting I take a seat. Friends have haggled for me, taking ages to get a few RMB off. I made the mistake of mentioning that I’d like a map for my wall once, and got taken all over town in search of one. Never mind that I wasn’t that interested.

I’m told it’s a face thing. I’ve only been in the Middle Kingdom since August and still haven’t got to grips with it. I’m wondering if I ever will. Sometimes it just seems to be a heightened sense of embarrassment so I try not to laugh too much when people trip over. As far as hospitality goes, I’ve heard that it’s important for people to be seen as good hosts. I’m a guest in China, wherever I go, but when I just want to be left alone for a bit, how can I refuse someone’s help without offending them?