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The art of minding other people’s business

I plonk my bag of groceries on the bar counter at Malone’s American Diner on Tongren Road, Shanghai, and the bar staff immediately walk over and inspect the contents. They stare in awe at the large container of freshly picked and washed lettuce, the blocks of cheese and the bread. Wu Hao wrinkles his nose at the smell of the bread and cheese.

We chat in Chinese (flexes bicep and clenches fist with pride at his linguistic feat) about different tastes. Westerners eat salted bread, just by the way; I didn’t realise the relevance till I got to China; and we all love the odour of the freshly baked dough. The fragrance stirs up the mouth juices but the Chinese hate the smell. They do sweet bread, bread baked with sugar. The first time I ate their bread (at this time of writing that was four-and-a-half-years ago when I first arrived in China) I spat out the first mouthful in disgust. Sorry chaps, but that is the truth. The bread was not so much sweet: it had a musty, slightly rotten taste, entirely foreign to me. And they won’t touch cheese, although the younger generation eats pizza as mozzarella is so mild. I don’t think it is an urban myth when I am told that if a Western-style pub wants to chase away mainland Chinese, just have little bowls of blue cheese as snacks on all the tables and the bar counter. From my experience, that would work. But look at my cultural shift. Think for a moment: if you walked into a pub or coffee shop in Johannesburg and the waiting staff checked through the contents of your groceries without even asking permission, what would be your reaction? My initial reaction, back in 2005, was of great offence.

“They” (pesky word, “they”, creating rifts between cultures and races) even opened my bags and looked at my goods in the supermarket while we all queued at the till. Then I became amused and started to check their bags. Good gosh, some did not like that at all. Others had no problem.The mainland Chinese just love minding your business for you. I use the word mainland as I’m told Hong Kong citizens and the Taiwanese are not quite the same. We have had several ayi (ayi is Chinese for maid) and they also love to mind your business sometimes. Marion and I drink vodka and our previous ayi, Eni, who came in once a week was forever clucking at the amount of vodka and diet coke bottles in the bin. She told my Chinese teacher in rapid Chinese (so I could not follow, I think) that it was not good for our health and that we should stop. I could hear the lecturing tone of voice. Wei Qian, my teacher then, translated this in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. Most middle- and lower-class Chinese, especially women, do not drink at all. So seeing two or three empty bottles of vodka every week was a phenomenon for Eni. How would you react if your maid or employee instructed your teacher (also an employee) to inform you not to drink? Anyway, Eni left for the Philippines because she was a qualified engineer. But, being in her mid-fifties she could not get work in China and ended up as a domestic servant — there is a blog in that Chinese state of affairs.

The best was the next ayi and the next teacher. Well, actually two ayi because sometimes the mother comes instead of the daughter, both with the surname Tang, and the father even came in once to do some heavy duty cleaning of our oven and extractor fan which most Chinese households have above the gas stove (electrical stoves are not common). I therefore christened them the Tang Dynasty. The Tang Dynasty are wonderful people but needed to get to know me. I had a couple of simple rules about cleaning the house which they repeatedly disobeyed or neglected. Sometimes I get annoyed and lose my temper, a temper the Tang Dynasty has now learned to respect. Otherwise I am a big softy and they get gifts at the various Chinese festivals. There are very rarely any incidents now and we all get along fine.

Yang Xiao Li became my new Chinese teacher because Wei Qian left for her laojia, her “home town” as they call it, in Sichuan province. Xiao Li is a sparkly-eyed slip of a girl and does not look older than twenty one and loves wearing white blouses with flowing sleeves that reveal smooth shoulders and a bit of bra strap. If you don’t advertise you don’t sell, I suppose. After our third lesson Xiao Li informed me I should not shout at my ayi and I should not be strict with them. They had been talking about me during the breaks. I can assure you, this minding others’ business is normal Chinese behaviour.

This, as historians argue, is why communism flourished so easily in China. They are a people who specialise in being everyone else’s spy. Xiao Li’s impromptu lecture on my personal affairs actually turned into a warm debate and, not being one to beat around the bush, I told her my household rules are none of her business and she was purely here to teach me. She seemed to battle to grasp this and, after a couple of more incidents of minding my business for me, she is no longer my teacher.

Now I am back to another teacher, Laura, who does not know that I let her go because she often laughed at my mistakes when I spoke or wrote Chinese. I am first to laugh at myself, I think, but I found the mockery a wee bit unprofessional and off-putting. I asked her in an email to please not laugh at me when we start lessons again: let’s see how we go. But a few laughs beats having my business minded for me.