Culture-Crossed Lovers: Canadian Boy Meets Chinese Girl. Puzzlement Ensues

By Bates, Judy Fong | Literary Review of Canada, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Culture-Crossed Lovers: Canadian Boy Meets Chinese Girl. Puzzlement Ensues


Bates, Judy Fong, Literary Review of Canada


It Is Just That Your House Is So Far Away

Steve Noyes

Signature Editions

286 pages, softcover

ISBN 9781897109427

I ARRIVED IN CANADA FROM CHINA IN 1955 AS A five-year-old. Fifty years later when I returned to China for the first time, it was as someone with no memory of her homeland; it was as someone raised in the West. However, because I am Chinese and lived with Chinese parents, I had some innate understanding of Chinese culture--nothing that I am able to explain in concrete terms, but rather something that had been bred in the bone, learned through a process of osmosis. If not adept, I was at least familiar with the indirect way in which Chinese people will often communicate. My husband frequently refers to the Chinese "no" that really means "yes." And heaven help the poor person who takes the Chinese "no" at face value. And yet even I who had grown up with some sense of this oblique style of interaction experienced an East-West divide when I landed in China as an adult and found myself dealing with relatives there. At times it was hard to interpret what was really expected; other times the questioning was so direct that by western standards it would have been considered intrusive. In China, people whom I had just met would ask me how much money I made, how many bathrooms were in my house ... Needless to say, this line of questioning raised my hackles and it took me a while to realize that such interrogation was considered routine and just a display of general interest on the part of your new acquaintance. On the other hand, ask someone at the dinner table if he or she wants another bowl of rice and get ready for the Chinese no that might mean yes. If you do not read the situation right, you just might end up offending someone. These are just a couple of minor examples of the social quagmire that awaits anyone who becomes more than superficially involved with Chinese culture.

So you can imagine what it must have been like for Jeff Mott, the protagonist in It Is Just That Your House Is So Far Away. Jeff, let's face it, is a lost soul. It is 1997 and he is fast approaching 40, divorced, with a young daughter, aimless and broke. When a friend offers him a place to stay at his apartment in Beijing, Jeff, with his life in Canada going nowhere, decides to accept. After several weeks in China he finds a job teaching English to Chinese adults at a school in the small town of San Tiao, just north of Beijing.

Jeff is fascinated by China: the crowds, traffic, food, smells, noise, the Beijing neighbourhoods and, most of all, the women. At the same time he seems to operate in a fog, struggling with a new language, befuddled by unspoken rules of social conduct. The first meeting he has with his Chinese teaching colleagues ends in an awkward silence, leaving him totally perplexed. There is not a single name exchanged. Did he say something wrong? The poor man. I could not help smiling as I read--if only I had been there to explain. In Chinese society, unless two people are on intimate terms, names are rarely exchanged. It is your position in the family, the workplace, the social gathering that counts. You are older uncle on mother's side, doctor Fong, teacher Lee, lawyer Chan, mother of ... Whenever I visited with my relatives in China, I was never called by my name. It was either younger aunt on father's side or younger aunt on mother's side, and, in some cases, ancient aunt on mother's side.

In addition to never completely understanding the often cryptic codes of behaviour, Jeff finds himself in a country where there are strict rules for everything and there are people on guard to make sure the rules are observed. Jeff discovers that something as routine as inviting a friend to visit his apartment is fraught with tension. …

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