Somewhere on a train in South China
It’s 11 am and I am being invited to sit down and enjoy a paper cup of baijiu, or Chinese rice alcohol. A group of five Chinese people look up at me expectantly.
“Of course I can join you,” I say in Chinese, “but sorry, I am allergic to alcohol.” This is my first of what are to be many lies, but still the group lets out a collective cheer.
I am given a seat of honor in the middle of the action. We are perched facing each other on the two bottom bunks of our sleeper cabin, which has no door to separate it from the hallway. People peer in curiously. The middle and top bunks tower above us, reaching up to the train ceiling. Classical Chinese music plays with a super-imposed pop beat over the train speakers and outside the brown dirt of northern China turns to the red dirt of the South.
I am facing an old Beijinger with a toad face, who sits with his hands on his knees, wearing a wife beater and rolled up navy blue pants. His wife, a plump woman in a floral jacket, says only one or two words the entire time I am there.
A middle-aged man whose button-up shirt and honest, eager look is reminiscent of a beloved schoolteacher, thrusts a handful of peanuts towards me. It is the classic Chinese-foreigner moment: I don’t really want the dozens of peanuts he is about to pour into my hand, but the offer is a traditional one of friendship and declining it has its own innate meanings. I accept and the group bellows another cheer.
They are drunk at 11 am and begin to ask me questions rapidly in Chinese, the schoolteacher repeating the old Beijinger’s slurred words.
Where am I from?
America, this is very good.
What am I doing in Beijing?
Studying abroad! This is also very good.
Some pickled mushrooms are thrust in my face and I lie again. “Sorry, I’m not used to this,” I say.
In China, it is very polite to refuse an offer of food at first and then, after a little back-and-forth, give in. Saying you don’t want something is near meaningless—it is usually seen only as a sign that you want the food, but are still too polite to accept. Chinese people, however, rightly believe in most cases, that China is a difficult place for foreigners, so the most effective way to refuse something is to tap into their knowledge of the vast differences that lie between the East and West. I am in fact “used to” pickled mushrooms, I just think they’re gross, as well as the brown, pickled fish they offer me, the dry, spicy beef, and the preserved eggs. I want to be a part of their group, but, if I can, I’d rather just eat the food I’m “used to.”
Up until now, I’ve only straddled the line between truth and lies, but soon the old Beijinger asks me something I can’t quite understand, spitting little peanut bits at me as he speaks:
“Do you have a sdfgkhj?”
“Sorry, what?” I say.
I look to the teacher. “A dsfgkj!” He proclaims happily.
“Sorry, I don’t understand.”
“A efgfgd is your husband’s mother,” he explains and everyone explodes with laughter.
“A mother-in-law!” I say in surprise.
Despite at times being an incredibly direct language – no conjugation, few filler words – Chinese people can often have an indirect way of asking questions. If my Chinese roommate was unhappy because I consistently flooded the bathroom, she might simply say, “The floor was very wet today” and no more. On the train, they wanted to know if I was married, so they asked me if I had a mother-in-law.
“I don’t have a mother-in-law.” I say. Everyone smiles.
The old Beijinger, still spitting peanut bits, leans in and says, “In Beijing, I could find you a mother-in-law!”
We all laugh and yet I know this offer is not completely in jest. I suddenly have to extract myself from a situation more complex than saying no to food. How do I explain that right now I’m not that interested in having a mother-in-law, let alone one that is friends with a guy that, while friendly, can’t seem to chew his food?
So I say, “Thanks, but I don’t think that would make my boyfriend too happy!”
The Beijinger immediately apologizes profusely as I add, “We’re not married, that’s why I don’t have a mother-in-law,” feeling the need to add another nail in my lying coffin.
Of course there is no boyfriend and there is no mother-in-law, but how else do I get myself out of this without hurting his feelings? This is the problem of being a foreigner anywhere I think – how do I make my meaning and wishes clear while still preserving my friendship? Add another language into the mix and you’ve got quite a stew brewing.
In China, I’ve found it infinitely easier and sometimes absolutely necessary to lie outright in order to make my wishes respected. But does it, being easier, or even necessary, make these lies okay? What happens if the person I am lying to happens to be a good friend, or a professor? In English, we use language to convey our meaning, often subtly. We wring the truth out a little: “I’m starving!” when we’re hungry, “It’s pouring” when we don’t want to go out, and “I didn’t hear my phone” when we don’t want to talk to anyone.
Lacking the ability to use subtlety in my Chinese, and perhaps the energy to make my meaning clear, I lie. I will continue to lie when I go to my Chinese roommate’s home for dinner, when I meet people on the train or in the park, and as I travel alone through China, accompanied by my ghost boyfriend. I lie so I can more easily make a solid connection with those around me, but is it okay? I don’t know.
Lauren Bryant is a graduating senior at Johns Hopkins University, majoring in Writing Seminars. This summer, she will move to Santa Cruz to help found a children’s museum which will inspire future generations on their own intrepid adventures.