It’s funny the number of people who ask permission to quiz me. “I’m sorry, I know it’s personal but…” “I hope I’m not being rude, but…”
No! You aren’t being rude or nosy! I share snippets of life with hundreds of people and there are more or less flattering pictures of me-around-the-world floating online. Trust me, you’re fine. Your question is unlikely to be that offending.
Maybe it’s just me. I’m quite straightforward. If you ask me a question, I’ll answer it. I’ve been trained that way, it’s the result of navigating a multicultural relationship and being an immigrant. To top it all, now I’m dealing with a curious kid. So ask away—I’ve heard it all.
When you are dating someone from another culture or with different beliefs, beyond love, attraction and all these soapy feelings, there isn’t (yet) a mutual understanding regarding etiquette, customs and rules. Feng and I couldn’t assume we were on the same page since we had been reading a different edition of the “big book of life”. What’s perfectly fine in a culture may be completely taboo in another. For instance, Chinese and North American talk about money matters fairly freely, while the topic makes many French uncomfortable. But French have zero issue with nipples while North Americans are quite prudish, and Chinese have superstitions that Westerners would never understand.
Therefor, to avoid misunderstandings and to get to know our cultures better, Feng and I have always been matter of fact. At the beginning of our relationship I’ve asked very naive questions, including “are you parents going to kill each other or are they just chatting in a friendly way?” (the latter, Chinese are just damn loud) and “am I supposed to insist I don’t want this gift that I don’t want in the first place in order to eventually accept it and save face?” Feng quizzed me about “all this Jesus shit” he never truly understood as well as the “true” French way of life (sadly, much less sex and cheating than foreigners assume).
Chinese can be extremely blunt. It’s okay to tell someone he should lose weight, to tell a woman “she isn’t pretty but smart”, to tell a loved one he is a complete failure and he should do something about it. There are intricate rules of politeness, the famous “art of being keqi“, but political correctness and a social filter aren’t part of them. I learned not to get offended every time I was told I should have kids soon because I was getting old (this was obviously before Mark). In a similar vein, I had warned Feng that my parents would not make a huge deal of us visiting, at least not like Chinese do. They are genuinely happy when we come, but they don’t buy us gifts and prepare meals with twenty-thousand delicacies because, well, they are white people and white people don’t do that, tough luck.
Even these days, after living together for fifteen years, we still discover cultural differences we didn’t even know we had, especially regarding education. With Mark, our instincts are at odds and of course, we had different childhoods too, in China and in France. We constantly have to remind each other that what goes without saying for one of us can be completely puzzling to the other. Feng’s family couldn’t stand hearing Mark cry because it may damage his voice later on in life. I didn’t like to hear him cry either, but to French, it’s acceptable to a certain extend—babies cry, period. Now I can’t stand the way Chinese spoil kids rotten, French tend to put a lot of emphasis on training them to be polite and cope with frustration—no, you don’t buy them whatever just because they throw a tantrum!
When I came to Canada, I also had to ask a number of naive questions to avoid obvious faux-pas. “Okay, so do I HAVE to tip even if service sucks?” “Is this word a really bad racial slur or is it acceptable in the right context?” “If I can’t say ‘the Indians’, how do I call the people who were there before the Europeans?” “What’s with you guys and Vimy?” “Do I have to reciprocate these awkward hugs?”
Leaving things unsaid would have make life difficult for us. I’m all for openness.
If you ask me a question, I’ll answer it. It depends on the context, of course. I’ll show my middle finger to a random dude who asks me how much I weigh but I’ll answer truthfully to a friend or someone who is trying to figure out the sizing system in a store. I share my income with other freelancer friends and my family, if asked. I shared my true feelings about motherhood, good and bad, on this blog because I highly suspected I wasn’t the only one going through the adventure feeling that some days, there should be a generous return policy for kids (indeed, I keep on receiving emails about the less rosy side of motherhood…).
Now Mark is curious too and I usually answer truthfully but only explain further if requires. No, dead means dead. Monsters do not exist. That’s your pee-pee and yes, mine is different. Trust me, everybody poops.
It’s liberating because differences shouldn’t be taboo. We should talk about them to avoid misunderstandings.
There is only one line of fine print in my book. If you ask a question, listen the answer and accept it. Don’t criticize, don’t judge. I don’t mind people asking about my immigration story but I may get annoyed if I’m told that it was a stupid decision, and why didn’t I do this or that. I’m fine with polite inquiries about the possibility of other kids but when I reply that no, I don’t plan on having other children, don’t claim that Mark will be lonely or that I’m missing out. You get the picture.
How about you? How do you deal with personal questions? Where do you draw the line?