Friday, October 17, 2008

Things that Make Me Squirm, Part II

Aggressive geckos, skittering cockroaches, and fermented fish sauce are all squirm-worthy in their own right. I don't have to write paragraphs to explain why the sound of cockroaches under our bed at night makes my skin crawl. Other things, however, are less obvious. Small talk, for instance, seems innocent enough. Trying to get to know people is noble. What could possibly be wrong with being friendly?

The rub comes when friendliness means something entirely different to person A than it does to person B. In the States, initial gestures of friendship include comments about the weather or a favorite sports team or the latest reality tv show. If you really want to express appreciation for a person you might make some vague offer to get together in the future. "We should have you over for dinner sometime" is standard code for "You seem like a nice person. Let's keep our getting-to-know-each-other options open." As long as everyone understands the code, the system runs like a well-oiled machine.

Unfortunately for us, the system in Vietnam is completely different. The machine uses different parts in different places and we are left completely flumoxed (I've been waiting for an opportunity to use that word!). It's no secret that in Asia small talk begins with questions like: "How old are you?" "How much do you earn each month?" "What did you spend for that shirt?" "Have you put on a little weight lately?" For the most part we've learned to navigate these questions in ways that are politely evasive. We are no longer left gaping like grounded fish when friends try to get a conversation going. I'm proud of this hard-earned savvy, and I breeze into conversations feeling very good about myself until I hit an even more puzzling out-of-place part in the machine. I like to call it the "unwanted advice cog." No relationship is really off the ground in Vietnam until the initiator starts giving unsolicited advice. To a westerner bred in an environment where every man is responsible for his own decisions and a person with unformed opinions is wishy washy, advice that we haven't gone looking for is as much fun as an old-fashioned punch in the nose.

Let me illustrate the difficulty. A man we barely know came to our house recently to discuss some translation work Daniel had done for him. Before he left, he came into the living room to meet me and the boys. After a few pleasantries he said without further ado, "I want to give you two pieces of advice." I'm translating, but that was the gist of it. He is older than us and has some training in community health, so I suppose we should have been eager for the free tips. At the time I was too busy steeling myself for what was to follow.

His first piece of advice was that I should take the boys out into the alley to play every morning between 9:00 and 10:00 so that the sun is at the right angle for them to absorb vitamin D without getting burnt. This is not a bad idea except for the fact that we live next door to a university. From 6am until lunchtime our alley is filled with cliques of chattering girls, women in pajamas carrying bags of raw meat and vegetables home from the market, adolescent boys weaving in and out of the crowd on motorbikes, and stray dogs picking through garbage. I nodded politely and dismissed charge number one.

Charge number two had more sting. It so happened that Caleb was watching cartoons at the time. He had woken up grouchy from his nap and when that happens there is no hope for the situation but to push juice or milk at him and leave him staring zombie-like at the tv until he is a little more human. I know letting the boys watch tv is not ideal, but I have come to depend on it as an extra set of hands when I'm busy with one kid and need to distract the other one. (Nathan is not really into tv yet, but he is a sucker for the Baby Einstein videos.) I feel secretly guilty about all the tv watching that goes on in our house, but I've been too desperate for sanity to put my foot down. Needless to say, our visitor's second piece of advice touched a raw nerve when he explained in great detail the dangers of allowing the boys to watch more than one tv show per day. It didn't help that as the guy was talking Caleb was staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed at some ridiculous show about teenage spies. It's pretty hard to disagree when your kid is posing as the poster boy for a “turn off the tv” campaign. I'm sure the guy expected me to fly for the remote and turn the dreadful show off, but it was all I could do to smile politely and thank him for his concern.

When he finally left, I spent the next hour or so stewing over his comments and drumming up justifications. Eventually my anger dwindled and I calmed down enough to admit that even if the guy had been a bull in a china shop, the damage probably wouldn't have been so extensive if the china weren't so fragile. Isn't that why unsolicited advice is almost always so maddening? Nine times out of ten it draws attention to the very thing we already feel the most uncertain or embarrassed or guilty about. I can't think of anything that makes me squirm more uncomfortably than having someone else discuss my disheveled closets, or my perpetually unfinished writing projects, or my hodge-podge parenting methods.

I tend to chew on things like an old brown cow chewing her cud. At any given time I have several lumps tucked into each cheek. I can be cooking dinner, playing with the boys, or talking with Daniel and still be turning the bits over with my tongue. I was still pondering the situation above when Daniel and I somehow got into a conversation about what spiritual maturity looks like and how a person can know whether he or she is growing in faithfulness. Daniel mentioned the proverb about a fool not receiving instruction and suggested that humility and teachability could be markers. I agreed but tried to hide my discomfort. Was it possible that the Vietnamese were on to something with all their advice giving and receiving? I decided to take a look at Proverbs myself. The first verse I happened upon was this: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” (“Sure, sure,” I thought, “but the advice doesn't need to be so grossly out-of-place and insensitive!”) I read the next verse, “The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult” Proverbs 12:15-16. Enough said.

I'm sure I will continue to squirm when I'm blind-sided by all the friendly tips that come my way. It's hard not to. I can hold out hope, though, that in time I will become a little more Vietnamese or, better yet, a little more wise. Maybe, just maybe, I will learn to clench my half-baked opinions less tightly and to defend my way of doing things less fiercely. Maybe.

Well, I should go make sense of the disaster that is our living room. We turned the tv off this morning. In a grand attempt to start fresh, we ate pancakes, built block castles, made a zoo with the Noah's Ark animals, read storybooks, played an alphabet game on the computer, cleaned out the wading pool, and turned the couch cushions into a fort. I made it to about 10:30 and was so completely exhausted that Caleb and I spent the next hour (while Nathan napped) watching Thomas the Tank Engine. Oh well, it was a valiant effort.

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