The scariest demographic in China is not teenage hooligans like the punks I passed loitering on the backside of my apartment building today. It’s not middle-aged men smoking cigarettes on seedy street corners. It’s not even an angry minority population; mostly because they’re not angry at me. The scariest people in China are definitely elderly women.
In a crowd they push the hardest. Several years ago we went to a Christmas Eve service at a local Catholic church. “Packed” doesn’t cut it. (And honestly we North Americans can never legitimately claim to be crowded.) This church was bursting at the seams before the last hundred people climbed in. N, finding no seat and being a head taller and infinitely blonder than anyone in the room, put on his sweatshirt hood and slouched. I was sandwiched in several feet behind him. As we listened to the choir sing I felt the bubble of people around me jostle and then a few seconds later saw N lurch forward and stumble to get his feet back under him. What nearly tipped the biggest dude in the room? Potentially the smallest, most elderly female in the crowd. I couldn’t see that far, but I’d put good money on the odds that she made it to the altar.
The little old ladies have the strongest opinions, and the fewest reservations about sharing those. They’d probably take issue with me over the word “opinions.” Really, they dish it about as straight as Jesus to the Pharisees. And if I weren’t being so respectful of my elders, I would take issue with the word “sharing.” This wisdom is not offered in response to a humbly proffered question, nor is it a suggestion prefaced by a pleasantry like, “In my experience…” It’s in-your-face bold, “take it, and don’t even think about leaving it” direction.
Just when I think I get it, when I think living in China is a breeze, that we’re not really that different, I’m reminded, and generally not gently. One of the great divides between the Western and the Eastern brain is temperature to clothing ratio. In my Western mind, you check the internet, convert degrees Celsius into Fahrenheit and then pick out your outfit for the day. To my neighbors this routine is absurd. In their minds, you note the date on the calendar and put on the appropriate number of layers based on the time of year. For example, in early October everyone puts on their long underwear, not to go without it again until April. This is at least a month, if not two, before and after we have transitioned in and out of ours. (Yes, we wear long underwear here; it gets stinkin’ cold.)
A couple of weeks ago, we had an unseasonably warm day, about which I was seriously pumped. So S and I got dressed and went out to play. We made it around the corner of our building before we landed our first assault. There was a little grandma out with her granddaughter who was dressed in I don’t know how many layers, a winter coat and stocking cap. Granny saw us coming, marched over, bent down, pulled out S’s waistband, and announced incredulously to the courtyard, “He’s only wearing one pair of pants!” I smiled and commented casually about how very nice the weather was that day. She flung her arms wide and shouted, “Weather has nothing to do with it!” And then I lost her because her volume rose and her rate of speech quickened. I felt my adrenaline pump me up into fight or flight, so I scooped up my kid and walked away, quickly.
I tend to be a bit strong-willed. I tend to be unapologetic about things I feel confident in, but if I’m really honest, before we venture out some days, I might just calculate the date rather than the temperature.