In the U.S., I have to brace myself when attending Chinese restaurants for rude service. When encountering rude service, I have felt embarrassed, upset, confused, and at best, awkward. Needless to say, service in China was no different unless you were eating at a 5-7 star restaurant. No matter how much I’ve experienced it in the past, I am always puzzled when a server snaps at my inquiries on the menu or throws my change on the table. My mom was also exasperated. Being that she has spent nearly 50% of her time in Shanghai the past 4 years for business related ventures, I figured she would be accustomed. But no.

Clarity was brought to us when conversing with our massage therapists. Both of these young, Chinese natives were in their 20s, attractive, and articulate. My therapist inquired about my time in China. She asked what my expectations were prior to coming and if/how my experience differed upon arriving. I liked this question. I reflected for a moment and thought of what I had heard from friend who have been to China, my biases being Chinese-American, and my interactions with Chinese expatriates living in the U.S. I told her that I expected people to be rude and unhappy, the service to be terrible, the air to be polluted, and the streets to be dirty. Yet in reality, I observed many smiling faces,  public displays of affection among young (heterosexual) couples, a variance in service, and a moderately clean city. The therapist offered a rationale on the Chinese being rude, unhappy, and service being terrible. In a communist culture, where working hard does not necessarily pay off, providing quality service is the last thing on their mind. It’s like, why bother? I don’t have freedom, I’ll never be rich, my life is about “tse ku.” I may survive, but I don’t have that much to look forward to. She had a point. In this context, what is there to look forward to?

I realize that I am heavily influenced by my own Westernization and thus it is very difficult for me to imagine joy without certain freedoms. However, I remind myself that while in India, listening to a lecture by Sadiya on Islamic Women living in India, I learned that freedom is in the eye of the beholder. While many American women cannot imagine making the choice to cover themselves head to toe daily, other women may choose to do so and feel freedom in their choice. After all, who am I to judge who is more free if those spoken of are content?

This conversation enlightened me and enriched my perception of rude Chinese service. I will still probably brace myself when entering traditional Chinese restaurants but I can tolerate more now knowing the context.