Alexandra Sieh

I grit my teeth.

“Yes,” I said (in Mandarin), a clear edge in my tone, “that’s what I mean.” The waitress chuckled, and we continued with my order. I eyed her smug grin through hard eyes.

All I had wanted was some food.

Near our new home is a grungy sort of restaurant chain, one we regularly enjoyed. Usually Manfriend did the ordering — it’s faster that way — but I was alone, picking up food on my way home. While far from fluent, I am good enough to bumble my way through a food order.

But this waitress wasn’t having it. After my first mistake, she corrected every misspoken word, whether it affected comprehension or not.

Usually, if a local does this, it’s a friendly gesture to help. They want to teach you, as a sign they appreciate your effort to use their language. I, in turn, thank them profusely, and we both part ways smiling.

But this girl made me feel tiny. After all these months of study, I couldn’t even order tofu without being mocked.

Manfriend was furious, though I expected his reaction. To my surprise, this story also riled up my Chinese teacher.

“But your Chinese is so good now,” she insisted. “Ugh, that woman was so rude.”

It was just like a few weeks before, she said, when our coworker had been overly polite to a rude and dismissive cab driver.

To her, there was no use for polite behavior with rude people. If you treat them kindly and they respond with a poor attitude, her advice would be to respond in kind. Treat others as they treat you.

I couldn’t agree more. And in America, I played both sides of the saying out. Always, I was polite to start. As long as you were too, we were good. If not, I would politely tell you that you were a d***head.

Overseas, though, I play by a different set of rules. Or perhaps by a more uneven set of those rules. I still treat others as I would want to be treated. I’m kind and polite and as patient as I can be. But as a traveler and especially an expat, I rarely, if ever, demand others do the same.

I constantly feel like a guest here, like I have no right to be demanding or pedantic or petty about bad behavior. Yes, it’s home, but it’s not my native home. I still don’t always understand the culture or why people act the way they do. So I often write off bad behavior and excuse rudeness.

For people like my teacher or Manfriend, it’s maddening. “Stick up for yourself,” they say.

Good advice, if hard for me to follow.

Checking out at a nearby cafe the next day, I dug some cash out of my bag. Even though I had stumbled over the words for “caramel macchiato,” they were generous in making the language leap and helping me through my order. I thanked them profusely and smiled, taking my change.

“Foreigners are so polite,” the cashier said to her coworker.

I may be too nice, but if it can bring someone a smile, that’s enough for me.

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