There's a phenomenon in Asian culture called "saving face" which dictates that is really, really impolite to embarrass another person. People will go out of their way to avoid humiliating someone in public in Chinese culture. Typically, in Asia, people try not to laugh at others or make an embarrassing situation any more uncomfortable.
Before I went to Hong Kong to work as a missionary for my church, I received some training; we were taught some basic Cantonese language skills and Chinese culture and etiquette. Our teacher taught us about saving face and warned us to be careful, so we wouldn't offend anyone. "Especially be sure not to laugh at anyone in public, as harmless as the laughter might seem," the teacher warned.
I took this advice to heart and began my 18-month stint in one of the most amazing cities in the world. And I learned to really appreciate the differences and uniqueness of Asian culture.
One obvious difference between Americans and Chinese people is their stature. Typically, Chinese people are smaller framed than us Americans, and this difference was obvious in the bus seating. Bus seats that are supposed to seat three Chinese people leave really only enough room for one and a half American women, especially if those women don't happen to be anorexic fashion models. And the buses in Hong Kong are almost always crowded, so one is forced to squeeze into those seats regardless of how much more comfortable it would be to hog an entire seat yourself.
Riding a bus in Hong Kong was nothing like my experience with public transportation in Chicago. While the Chicago buses and trains were often very crowded, it wasn't too difficult to remain upright since they rarely took any turns. The bus route is a straight shot going from east to west. If you need to go south or north, you disembark and transfer to a different bus.
This is not so in Hong Kong. The bus routes snake all over the city taking wild turns and scaling mountains at breakneck speed. These double decker monstrosities are driven like they are contestants in the Indy 500. Still, the public transportation system there is amazingly efficient and by far, the best mode of transportation in the city. So, I spent a great deal of time on the double decker buses, trains and siu baas, which translated, means "small buses" or mini vans fitted with rows of seats.
One day, as usual, I embarked a bus with some friends. And as usual, the bus was somewhat crowded. I slipped into the seat next to Collette and tried to ignore the fact that an ample part of my rear end was dangling off the seat.
Because if it was one thing Collette and I had in common, it was that neither of us had the hips of a 13-year-old boy.
But, it was a quick ride to where we were going, so it didn't matter.
I chatted amiably with my friends when all of a sudden, the bus took an impossibly sharp turn without slowing down at all. I felt myself slipping off my precarious perch next to Collette. My arms flailed trying to find something solid that I could grab onto, but I only found air. Collette, brave, loyal friend that she was, attempted to rescue me. She grabbed fruitlessly for my arm, but my sleeve slipped through her grasp. As if in slow motion, I fumbled and remained airborne for what felt like several minutes. I finally landed uncermoniously in the aisle of the bus, at the feet of a Chinese businessman who looked down at me stoically.
And who then burst into laughter.
He was joined by just about every other person--both American and Chinese--on the bus.
Apparently, even Chinese people--who are so polite and anxious to help others save face--have their limits. I couldn't really blame them; the sight of my fat rear being deposited on the floor of the bus probably could have even made the Buckingham Palace guards smirk.
This post brought to you by the Spin Cycle. Click here for more posts on a mystery topic. I, by the way, was assigned to write about embarrassment. As if you couldn't tell.