This article originally appeared in China-US Focus.
In China, the lines that separate individuals are more blurry.
“Oh! So messy!” My fellow teacher looked vaguely horrified as she walked into my dorm room and immediately began organizing the papers on my desk, arranging them into a single, neat pile. They were student assignments that I was in the middle of grading. “Do you have a place to hang up your clothes?” She asked, concerned. “You can hang up your clothes in the closet!” She smiled encouragingly, as if proud to have opened my eyes to a new possibility. I wondered how to tactfully express my irritation at being told how to organize my space. I hardly knew her. She pointed to the pajamas I’d thrown on my bed in the morning. “You should hang up your clothes instead of putting them in the bed! It will be much more comfortable for you!”
Last year, I taught English in a village in Hebei province. The community was tiny with cornfields surrounding the school on three sides, and an empty country road on the fourth. I was the only foreigner there. Luckily, it was close enough to Beijing that every week I could escape to the city, where I’d eat burgers, go out to bars, and speak English.
One week, however, I decided to challenge myself and stay in the village. It was not long before the boredom and quiet began to feel unbearably oppressive. Desperate for human contact, I went to the room of my fellow teacher. She invited me in and we talked for a while. She was warm and bubbly. With palpable enthusiasm, she asked me about my life, what I wanted to do for a career, and about my parents back home. I asked her about her hometown, and she told me how much she missed it. I liked her. I hoped we’d become friends.
Later, when she visited my room and so bluntly criticized it, I felt a strong sense of disappointment. I ushered her out shortly afterwards. We didn’t talk much after that.
There is a certain frankness in China that’s always hard for me to deal with. A friend once told me that he was eating with a Western girl and some Chinese friends. The Western girl was large – overweight by Chinese standards. When she reached for a dish that happened to be fried, one of the Chinese friends helpfully offered, “Oh, don’t eat that! You’re fat.”
In high school, I lived with a host family in Beijing as part of an exchange program. I remember my Yeye, or host grandfather, telling me that my Chinese wasn’t good enough. After six months of living in China, he said, I ought to be much better.
Even the language seems coldly direct. “Pleases” and “thank yous,” offered liberally in English, are much rarer in Chinese conversation. Saying thank you to a friend for a small favor is often considered strange and off-putting. Many have told me that saying “thank you” increases the sense of formality in the relationship. It might signify, on some level, that you want to keep your distance.
At the school in Hebei, I’d often see the female teachers standing in groups, chatting and giggling. They would lean on each other’s shoulders, or walk up and grab a girlfriend’s waist from behind. I’d hear them comparing breast and thigh sizes. They’d put their hands on each other’s hips and laugh about how their bodies had changed after childbirth. I didn’t feel particularly close with any of them but occasionally someone would pull me in, grabbing my arm and gasping in admiration at the whiteness of my skin. They’d pull it along to give everyone else a look. Human contact and comparing bodies seemed an important bonding ritual.
Back in the U.S., I spoke with a Chinese woman I knew named Wei, who had immigrated to the United States with her American husband. She said she felt it was somewhat difficult to get close to Americans. “When my mother-in-law . . . was alive, when she wanted to visit she would always call ahead of time,” she said. She would never just drop by. To her, this was an extremely strange. They were family, after all. Wei said the same was also true of her husband’s sister, who lived only five minutes away.
Hu Jiling, another Chinese-American, told me that in China you can be very direct with your friends. Americans, on the other hand, are always very polite. She told me that even the Chinese immigrant community had adopted some of these American traits. “They have some distance or space they want to keep. There’s some boundary . . . even though you feel you are very close, it’s not like the close friends you can do everything with. You still have to have certain boundaries to keep a good, nice, peaceful, or calm relationship.”
Hearing the term “boundary,” my mind immediately leapt to the time I worked as a Case Worker in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. A five by ten block square surrounded by upscale shopping and million dollar condos, the Tenderloin, by contrast, is home to some of the starkest images of poverty I have ever seen. My coworkers and I worked in a building that housed formerly homeless individuals. We helped them with whatever they needed—signing up for government benefits, moderating disputes, calling paramedics, and generally helping people survive.
The agency, and indeed everyone I met in the field, seemed obsessed with the idea of boundaries. I must have heard the word boundaries several times a day. “Don’t forget your boundaries.” “If someone crosses your boundaries, you gotta let them know.” We even had trainings on topic. Many of tenants, we were told, lacked proper boundaries. The tenant in recovery let his drug-using friend stay with him, which caused him to relapse. The person in an abusive relationship needed to learn to assert her boundaries in order to stay safe.
Tenants came to us with all manner of requests: money, food, a place to bury their dead rat, a trip to the check-cashing store. One tenant asked me to go with her to pay her drug dealer. We were all, of course, in the field because we wanted to help. Many of us were bleeding-heart-liberals, who felt a desperate need to atone for our own privileges in life. But we were constantly reminded that if we got too drawn into solving the problems of our mentally ill tenants, we might become mentally ill as well. A lack of boundaries could lead to codependency. It was not just a bad policy, it was a disorder. Someone told me that codependency was forgetting where you end, and another person begins.
Most everyone I knew talked about boundaries, but it seemed to be particularly emphasized among my African American supervisors and coworkers. It made sense to me that a community with such a history of personhood violation would place particular emphasis on the importance of boundaries.
But this emphasis is not unique to social workers and African Americans. It’s a huge part of American culture. The philosophy of “Don’t Tread on Me” is intrinsic to our identity. Individual rights, states’ rights, human rights, minority rights, corporate rights…. every individual and group of individuals has boundaries that must not be crossed, lines that must not be encroached upon. We are a profoundly individualistic society. Ironically, this seems to make us more polite.
I still don’t like having someone cross the boundary into my space, to clean my desk. In those moments, I can’t help but feel hurt and violated. I don’t think I will ever be completely comfortable with such interactions, and I know that they will happen again. I often wonder what my supervisors in the Tenderloin would say. All I can do is remind myself that the people who offend me don’t have negative intentions. They do these things because they come from a culture where you can cuddle with someone you hardly know, and doors are always open.