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.


Charles Gramlich said...

Wow, that puts a lot of strain on everyone.

Lisa Shafer said...

So many things cannot be learned from a textbook, eh?
We've had several foreign language teachers (1 from Spain, 1 from the Ivory Coast, 1 from China) who had a really hard time teaching American kids at our school because they could not grasp when American teens began to be rude and needed correction. The sarcasm went right over their heads, and they let it go on until the kids got very out of control.
Sad but true.

A.T. Post said...

Mispolite is a strangely apt word. She wouldn't be polite in one way, so she was polite in another, and rude all the way 'round.

Just so's you know, Korean university students are precisely the same way. I've been in the same situation: needing nothing more than a cold beer and a look at the sky when out of nowhere a student pounds up with an architecture or engineering essay that they want looked at. Hoo boy...

Wow, you can write conditionals in Chinese already?

Bish Denham said...

There were ways to behave that I learned as a very young child and that have stuck with me all my life. If manners aren't taught right from the start then you are raising a wild child.

Mirka Breen said...

Well, there's IMPOLITE and there's MISPOLITE. No?
You, dear teacher, are polite any way you slice it.

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- Yes, and it would be much more convenient for me if their notion of politeness could be readjusted.

Lisa -- Yes indeed. It's hard not to get all didactic when kids are pushing past me; I'm tempted to keep teaching outside the classroom, as it were, which I sense would not go down well. Most other people waiting for the bus don't seem to notice it or care--they're too busy pushing too. I need to learn how to do this myself.

Postman -- It drives me NUTS that knocking on somebody's door when you've got an appointment is seen as rude even when the teacher begs you to do it, but piling in front of somebody at a bus stop is normal behavior. Other people here tell me I need to live here a little longer--that'll after a year or two I'll be shoving people out of my way too.

(I can't write conditionals yet -- I just found out how to say this and copied it down, out of desperation. Much good that it did me!)

Bish -- The thing is, these kids ARE polite, just not by western standards. If it were me, I'll happily knock on somebody's door even if they were occupied. But I cringe at the thought of pushing myself in front of others in a crowd. And here, that's what you've got to do.

Mirka -- :) I have a feeling I've done all sorts of outrageous things here already simply because I don't know any better (I definitely did this in Japan--oh the embarrassment!).

Kim Ayres said...

You just need to take your umbrella and thrust it out in front of the first students trying to get on the bus. Then clamber over the bodies as they all trip over each other :)

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Ha! I'm more tempted to do that with the e-bikes and motorcycles that whiz past me on the pavement, where they clearly do NOT belong. Plus, they're not usually driven by my students. I suspect I'd get into trouble, whacking my actual students, or believe me, I'd give it a go.

Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane said...

I love these kinds of stories. Can't imagine how hard it is in China to figure out all the ins and outs of being polite!

My favorite story is one told to me by a nice African man who visited Holland in his younger years and went dancing one evening. He chose a pretty girl and told her she had beautiful eyes and she was so nice and fat.

He was totally flabbergasted when she walked off the dance floor and left him there.