Friday, 10 January 2014

Miss Polite

It is seven o'clock in the morning and I am waiting for the bus. It is raining and cold, and I have been standing at the stop for a good fifteen minutes, chilling myself, and getting sprayed with gutter-water by cars, trucks, and e-bikes that whiz past. At last the bus arrives and, to my delight, stops right in front of me--almost a first. I step forward as the doors wheeze open, but before I can get on, a couple of students beat me to it, one of them so enthusiastic about getting out of the rain that she almost puts my eye out with her umbrella. One after the other, the students pile onto the bus ahead of me, talking non-stop as they completely ignore me. I am the last one on, and sadly, there are now no more seats. I stand all the way to the university and ponder the differences in manners between cultures.


It is five o'clock in the evening and my last student has left. It has been an especially long and grueling day as I've been seeing students for private tutorials in my office and giving them advice about their various compositions since early in the morning, and I worked right through my lunch break to accommodate a student who needed to be squeezed in between appointments. I'm dying to see what there is of the sky; and I need a brisk walk, a cup of tea, and something to eat. But more than anything else, I just need a break. I've seen so much head-achingly bad English, I feel like whooping and hollering to finally have reached this point of no more students.  Just as I start to lock my office door, however, a girl appears from nowhere, clutching a composition. My heart sinks, but I stand my ground. "I'm all done," I tell her. "I'll be back at nine o'clock tomorrow morning."

The girl's eyes widen and her mouth drops open. "But I have appointment!"

"Not at five o'clock, surely."

"Nooo!" the girl wails. "At four I come here!"

"And did you knock on the door?"

"No, you are busy so I wait."

I stare at this girl in dismay. "Didn't you see the sign?"  I point to it. IF YOU HAVE AN APPOINTMENT, PLEASE KNOCK ON THE DOOR AND ANNOUNCE YOURSELF.  It is accompanied, for good measure, by the equivalent in my shaky Chinese. I put this sign up because too many of my students were waiting outside, twiddling their thumbs while I talked to their classmates, instead of letting me know they were there. This way, the students who have appointments with me can stay a little longer if they need extra help--and I don't end up twiddling my own thumbs waiting for no-shows.

The girl shakes her head. "I see, but you are busy so I wait."

"Well you shouldn't have waited if you had an appointment! If you have an appointment, it's perfectly fine to expect whoever you are meeting to stop what they're doing and see you!"  My voice sounds obnoxiously strident, but I want to be outside, on my way home. I want to be smelling the roses and feeling the bracing air on my face, not quibbling with this girl about appointment protocol.

"But you are talking," the girl points out. "To other student."

"Only because you didn't knock," I say. "If you'd knocked, I'd have known you were there. I'd have told her that I had an appointment and she would have left."

The girl stares back at me. "But I cannot do that!"

"Why in the world not?"

"Because-- that is mispolite!"

An hour later, I am waiting at the bus stop again. When the bus arrives, once again, a throng of students pushes past me as though I am not there. Once again, I am the last one on the bus.

All the way home, I ponder the differences in manners between cultures.