Monday, June 23, 2014

Living on the Edge: Brett, the Cultural Warrior, in China

Life for the past few years has been rather benign in terms of facing unexpected physical danger.  I haven’t had guns pulled on me or worried that the next moment could be last, although any moment could be my last…or yours.  After sharing a few of my somewhat frightening incidents from my overseas travel, I’d like to share a few stories about one of my friends who has had extensive experience overseas as well. 

For the sake of these stories, we’ll refer to him as Brett.  Brett and I worked together at the Air Force Academy.  He is a product of that great institution.  Two interesting facts about Brett: he is large and physically fit (he was a football player at the Academy) and he studied and speaks Chinese.  During his time on the faculty of the Academy he traveled extensively to China and a few other places.  Often he was leading groups of cadets or officers for language and cultural immersion programs.  The following stories are true and accurate, at least as far as I can recollect.  Not all of these stories involve danger to Brett.

Motorcyclists Beware
During one of his trips to China, I don’t remember the city; he and a group of officers were making their way across town on foot.  As they came up to a busy street, it was evident that crossing would be a bit tricky.  After watching for a bit they finally saw a break in traffic and took off running for the other side.  Immediately upon entering the roadway Brett noticed a small motorcycle, the kind that are common in China’s sprawling cities, barreling toward him.  He hadn’t seen it before he started to run.  With no way to avoid a collision, Brett reacted quickly to make it as painless as possible for both him and the motorcyclist. 

Maneuvering his large frame he managed to lift the now shocked person off of his motorcycle and spin so as to avoid missing the motorcycle.  As carefully as he could he set the smaller man down on his feet.  Both of them looked at each other and began to apologize profusely to the other. 

As far as I know Brett eventually made it across that road.  His new friend had an amazing story to tell his friends that evening about being swept off of his motorcycle by a large American, thereby narrowly avoiding death or a lengthy hospital stay.  I bet he still tells that story today.

Really, I just want a haircut!
Qindao, China

Once again in China, perhaps on the same trip mentioned above, Brett and his compatriots were at a large city away from Beijing at a beer festival.  Now, Brett doesn’t drink all the time, but when he starts drinking beer he can drink quite a few without much visible effect.  I’m not sure how much he had to drink that night, but I think it may have played into his decisions that give us this wonderful story.

Sometime around midnight, or just after, Brett decided it would be a good time to get a haircut.  He had noticed a barbershop in the hotel with the lights still on and apparently open.  Now China, like other places in the world, has places of business that offer more than one type of service.  After certain hours they are more likely to engage in their alternative (i.e., not explicitly stated) form of business.  In China a purple light by the door usually will indicate that they are presently engaging in the alternative form of business. 

As Brett walked toward the barbershop he confirmed that there was no purple light so he assumed he could get the needed haircut.

Walking into the shop, he looked at the young lady there and in his best Chinese said, “I need a haircut.”

She smiled at him, and then quickly reached out with her hand grabbing his crotch.  Rocking on his feet a bit, he looked down at her realizing what was happening.

“No, I really need just a haircut, nothing else.”

The young lady, probably a bit shocked and confused herself, led him to a chair and sat him down.  A young man came around and proceeded to cut his hair.

Again, I’m sure this incident led to some incredulous stories by the two Chinese people working in the “barbershop” that night.  In my imagination I picture the young man, who had cut Brett’s hair, arriving home to tell his family or close friend, “It turns out that I can cut hair.  I never tried it before, but I was good at it.  I may see if I can get on the day shift.”

Excuse me, I’m French!
Working at the Air Force Academy in the Office of International Programs and with the Department of Foreign Languages, Brett and I had the opportunity to work with instructors, cadets, and officers from all over the world.  Between the different instructors of different languages at the Academy, as there probably is on all faculties, there is a good deal of teasing and ribbing about language, history, and culture.  Unfortunately, speakers of French were often a common target for all the others.  Usually we managed to keep our teasing internal, but occasionally it slipped out to others.

During his many trips to China Brett and his traveling companions were obvious foreigners.  Often as they would negotiate to hire a taxi the driver would ask them if they were French.  At first he just responded in the negative and moved on with his day.  Finally one day his curiosity got the better of him. 

He asked their driver, “Why do you and other taxi drivers always ask if I’m French?  Do you have a lot of French tourists?”

“Well, not really a lot of French tourists, it’s just that we hate the French.”

“Really, why do you hate the French?”

“They’re arrogant and rude.  Don’t you know that?  I thought everyone knew that.”

A day or two later during the trip Brett was on the subway when he committed a social faux pas, nearly crushing some native Chinese citizens.  As he began to apologize a nefarious idea bubbled to the surface.

He looked at his victims and said with some disdain, as if it were their fault, “Excuse me, I’m French.”

At the time of the trip the World Cup was in full force resulting in an extra measure of international awareness and competition.  At a local market he bought a shirt with the flag or map of France.  Wearing it he began a social experiment.  He would commit some act of rudeness and then dismiss it by saying, “Excuse me, I’m French.”

His traveling companions would follow along to gauge the reaction of those he offended.  Usually their shock at such vulgar behavior quickly turned to understanding and acceptance with his phrase, “Excuse me, I’m French.”

I don’t remember all of the offenses he committed, but it’s always fun to hear him tell the story.  Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there.  A group of cadets that went over several months later for a semester abroad had heard of the experiment and decided to recreate it throughout their trip.

How is this a story of danger, you ask?  Well, let’s just say Brett didn’t exactly increase the love the Chinese have for the French people.

Other Living on the Edge Posts:
Lost in the Bosporus and Robbed (Nearly) in Kazakhstan
Tales of Danger Abroad
Mafia and Guns in Russia

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