snapshot

13 Apr

Yesterday afternoon, I was sitting at my desk and my officemate Joy walked in. She was carrying a clear plastic garbage bag full of packages of sanitary napkins and she dumped the bag on her desk. When she saw me staring, she laughed a bit.

She had to have 25 or 30 boxes of maxipads. I was definitely staring.

“The principal gave me these,” she said. “It’s a kind of a…bonus.”

I nodded and shrugged at the same time, which I find myself doing often here. At a certain point, I stopped expecting everything in China to make sense to me–I think all people living abroad probably reach the same point. It’s not that I came over here thinking that China would make perfect sense, it’s just that even if you’re prepared to be puzzled, it’s like there’s this part of your brain that can’t help but try and process new experiences the same way you processed the old ones. Until one day it just gives up.

Others might react with constant questioning and a desire to understand, but I usually just roll with it. I guess I wouldn’t have made a very good anthropologist. It’s not that I don’t care why things are the way they are in China, or why people do the things they do. I do care, and there’s some stuff (usually the big stuff) that I’ll ask about. But I’m a big-picture person and I think it’s pretty interesting to just watch it all go by. And, actually, as the weeks pass and I see more and more of Chinese life, every so often I find that something that used to seem inexplicable will suddenly slot into place and make sense. It’s like looking at all the pieces of a really huge jigsaw puzzle and all of a sudden realizing that the red ones are flowers. I know I’m not going to be in China long enough to get very far into the puzzle, but it’s still a neat feeling when you start to become aware that there is an order and a relationship between a bunch of seemingly chaotic, separate things.

The maxipads actually didn’t seem as strange to me as they could have, because for National Women’s Day in March the principal gave me toilet paper. The equivalent of a 24-pack of Charmin. I thought the toilet paper was a strange, if practical, bonus…the sanitary napkins in a heap on Joy’s desk didn’t actually seem that much more odd–two little puzzle pieces clicking together.

“They’re for the female teachers only,” Joy said, as though she thought I thought James was going to come through the door next carrying his bag of Always with wings.

I said, “I guessed that,” and she laughed.

“I don’t know why they give us these,” Joy gestured to the bag. “I don’t know the sense behind it.” But she didn’t sound puzzled, or anything but perfectly accepting. It’s the same tone I use to admit that I don’t know where the Easter bunny gets his eggs or why they’re painted; It’s the voice of someone admitting that a part of their own culture doesn’t make sense when, in a way, to them, it does. I’ve never felt the need to question why a rabbit would have eggs, and I don’t really care. The Easter bunny makes exactly as much sense as he needs to, surrounded by the other puzzle pieces of childhood and spring and religion and Easter. The picture wouldn’t look right if he weren’t there, and that’s usually good enough.

“It is thoughtful of the principal,” Joy said. I nodded and shrugged together again. “I’d better put them away. I’d be so embarrassed if James saw them.” She went over to a metal utility cabinet in the corner of the room, the sort of thing you’d find in a janitor’s closet or put in your garage, and she unlocked the door. Over her shoulder, when she swung it open, I could see that it already contained two clear plastic garbage bags of sanitary napkins. She shoved the third, new bag onto a shelf, closed, and re-locked the cabinet, which I now knew housed at least 70 packages of maxipads.

It was at this point that I began to laugh. I don’t know why–it was odd when she walked in with the bag, but somehow it was hilarious that it was not unprecedented. That, in fact, she had so many career bonus maxipads that they took up half of a floor-to-ceiling cabinet. That the principal continues to give her more, and, most of all, that she can’t really explain why.

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6 Responses to “snapshot”

  1. Kathy April 14, 2011 at 10:05 am #

    Wow, how very very thoughtful!
    A cabinet full of maxipads..
    I would have never expected that! Toilet paper maybe..but feminine hygiene supplies?
    love you,
    Mom

    • Erin April 14, 2011 at 10:03 pm #

      I know, it’s kind of strange. I thought the tp was weird, but now it seems pretty tame.

  2. Jessica@Team Rasler April 14, 2011 at 11:58 am #

    That really is fascinating. I wonder how long it would take me to get to the point at which I stopped asking questions all the time and could be as accepting as you are of the unknowns.

    I think having kids start to ask “why??” forces us to also think about our culture and how things make sense. The bunny and the painted eggs… that really is weird and yet I never tried to explain it to anyone until this year!

    • Erin April 14, 2011 at 10:08 pm #

      This comment reminded me of that running gag in Calvin & Hobbes where the dad would answer Calvin’s typical kid questions with ridiculous lies. Funny.

      Anyway, I suspect that you’re right and if I was a parent I’d be better equipped to answer these questions!

      • Kathy April 15, 2011 at 12:36 am #

        Are you saying parents are better liars than kids? Having been both, I say no way..kids are way more creative about lying..

      • Erin April 15, 2011 at 11:35 am #

        No, I’m not saying that at all! I just meant that, if I had kids, I would be used to having to answer “why?” questions all the time.

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