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Friday, April 29, 2005

Culture Shock - or - Shocking Culture

She was taller than her classmates, a bit gangly and awkward in her movements. She seemed years older than her classmates. She was a pretty girl, the kind you see and know that in fifteen years, boys will be losing sleep over the thought of her. When she smiled she was beautiful.

She did not smile very much, though. If she had any expression at all, it was most often one of indifference or anger. I didn’t talk to her very often, but she seemed to like me. When I walked past her, she would usually smile and I grew to feel a certain fondness for her. I asked another her teacher one day why N. was always so moody.

“Have you never seen her bruises?” he asked.

I looked more closely at N. one day and I saw them. Bruises on her arms and legs. The teacher told me that when she changed her shirt you could see them on her chest and back as well. One day she showed up with one on her face. Everyone in school knew that N. was hit at home, but no one ever said anything. One day, she didn’t come to school. Her aunt or her parents had decided to transfer her to another place.

I wish I could stay N’s story only involved physical abuse. I don’t know the whole story, but I do know this much: N’s cousin was also a student at our school. N. lived with the cousin and her aunt. While the cousin was given anything she wanted, N. was not given much of anything. The abuse was mental as much as physical. She was basically, as far as we could determine, made to feel entirely unwelcome in her home.

A few weeks ago, Natalia gave me a book to read. The book is called Falling Leaves, The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter, by Adeline Yen Mah. When she suggested I read it, Natalia said

“It isn’t the greatest book, but it will give you an idea of where I come from.”

Much has been made in recent years about China’s one child policy. Daughters have been sold into slavery or marriage (the selling often comes during an auction of sorts), or they have been murdered as soon as they entered the world. China faces a growing problem because the one child policy has radically skewed the proportion of men to women, those men entering their twenties now face a daunting task in terms of finding a bride (hence the selling of daughters into marriage).

Mah’s tale takes begins well before the beginning of the one child policy. Her story begins during Shanghai’s heyday, continues through the civil war, and onto the growth of Hong Kong into the cosmopolitan city it is today. Her mother died giving birth to her. Her father then married a French-Chinese woman who gave birth to two more children. Mah’s story is one of humiliation, neglect and abuse. While one must keep in mind that the author was on the receiving end of much of the horrible behavior depicted in the tale, and thus might be a bit biased, it is impossible to think she could make this up. The worse thing about her family is that it is not just her father and step-mother that treat her poorly. It is her brothers and sisters as well, and the cruel words and betrayals continue well into adulthood.

As I read the story, I tried to imagine Natalia in such a situation. She stressed to me that her childhood was not like that depicted in the book, but that similar patterns of behavior by certain members of her family had been followed. She wrote a small essay about her childhood and shared it with me. I have never been able to picture people as children. As I read her story, though, I developed an image of a girl that I wanted to protect. I developed a picture of a girl with a short haircut framing her round face. I see a girl smiling and playing by herself, a girl anxious to help those around her, seeking words of reinforcement and love.

I don’t know the accuracy of this picture, but it affects the way I see Natalia now. When I hug Natalia, or walk with my arm around her, she feels very solid. She seems strong and confident.

The other day I was folding laundry. There were some clothes that Natalia had left here before going to Shanghai. Some underwear, some T-shirts, some pants. As I folded her clothes I realized just how tiny she is. I laid her pants down next to mine I thought back to Falling Leaves and to the essay she had written for me, and I realized how much I feel a need to envelop her. Every time I do laundry, every time I see her clothes hanging to dry, or am taking things out of the dryer I see the little girl that she was and I feel a renewed sense of purpose.

Yesterday I was talking to one of my co-workers at lunch. We were talking about a number of things, and near the end of the conversation, he mentioned how a number of people who come to Taiwan never let themselves really get into the culture, and thus never experience culture shock. The aspect of Taiwanese (or Chinese) culture that he was referring to in this case was the tendency for parents to hit their children.

While N. was the worst case I have been aware of here, she is by no means the only child I know who has suffered physical abuse. I had a boy say to me once,

“Teacher, please don’t let my mommy and daddy know I did something bad.”
“Why not?”
“Mommy will hit me.”

What do you say to something like that? What do you do when the boy saying that has a look on his face – of fear, of trust, of heartbreaking sincerity when he talks to you? What do you do when you know that the boy, despite his misbehavior, is a good boy, and that his behavior likely reflects the violence he knows at home? What do you when this is an accepted part of a culture that does not belong to you?

I have seen boys and girls being smacked in public places more times than I can count. They get smacked on the bottom, smacked on the face, or forcibly yanked by the arms. This is not to say that I never saw this in the U.S., but I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen it there, and nearly every time it happened in the U.S., people stopped and said something to the parent. Here people just go about doing what they were doing. Pretending or ignoring, it makes no difference.

The behavior is not just relegated to parents and their children. I have seen Filipino nannies with vicious black eyes. I have read many stories of other nannies being abused sexually and physically. I have students who have been smacked on the hand by Chinese teachers (these kids are five!) and I have read stories of teachers smacking their students, even of teachers who have branded their students.

A friend of mine, Linda, recently wrote about a few incidents she has witnessed while in Taiwan, and I think that what she wrote will complement this nicely. Check it out at

When I think about culture shock, I think of strange foods and language difficulties. I think of small things, like not touching someone with your left hand or remembering to bow at a certain time or being conscious of the clothes I am wearing. All of my problems with these elements disappeared a long time ago. The abuse thing, though – I don’t think I’ll ever adjust to that. I don’t want to.


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