A Sense of Should

by Natalie

I didn’t intend to be here. I intended to still be in China. Until the air pollution became such an irritant that I became chronically ill and had to come home. My last month in China I spent the majority of my time in bed, ordering take-out from the Italian restaurant  with the speedy delivery service.

No one goes to China to lie sick in bed and eat pizza.

One of the worst days I had in China was about two weeks before I made the decision to come home. I had gotten to work that morning and taken Benedryl, to no effect. I was sneezing uncontrollably, my eyes were itchy and watery; I have no idea how I got through the day. It was raining and cold, despite the fact that it was only the beginning of September. I decided to take a taxi home, even though the rain makes driving conditions horrendous. Going by subway and bus my commute took 45 minutes to an hour on a good day. The rain pretty much guaranteed that it would take me an hour and a half. I grabbed a cab and started directing him towards my apartment. I was so tired and worn out that simple Chinese I had mastered over a year ago was coming out in a jumbled mess of words, my tones flat and inconsistent. I managed to get out a duì bu qĭ, sorry, while resorting to hand motions to get me home.

When it rains in Beijing the streets become grid-locked. Traffic ceases to move. I’m not sure why. Even the slightest drizzle guarantees an hour delay. A city that regularly experiences roadblocks does not need any further obstruction to the flow of traffic. We took the exit off of a major highway onto a road leading into my neighborhood and were sitting still, when we were hit from behind. The good thing about getting into an accident in Beijing is that you are never going fast enough to get seriously injured. The bad thing is that you can get left on the side of the road in the pouring rain. I was standing on an exit ramp, where it is almost impossible to be picked up, attempting to talk  myself into resilience. I was a good 25 minute walk from my apartment, something I routinely did when the weather was fine and I felt better.

I believe there are moments in life where the cosmos realize you need a break. You can call it dumb luck, but I’ve spent enough time waiting for taxis in China to realize that they rarely come when you need them to. Before I had ventured ten feet, a taxi driver put his blinker on and came over to pick me up. I could have cried, I was so grateful.

One of my favorite things about Chinese is the expression “yīng gāi de” which translates to should, but we do not use it in the same sense in English. If I thank you for something you have done for me in English, the common response is “You’re welcome.” In China, a country where a deep sense of duty pervades the cultural landscape, you can also be treated to the refrain, “yīng gāi de” which means, “It is what I should do because I can do it;  it is my duty to do so.” We do not as much have this concept in the west, where the word duty is seldom mentioned and we do not explain our actions as the result of an inherent responsibility to do them because we can. Instead we color our experiences as they relate to the self; I did this because I am a good person, or because I am a person who goes out of their way, not because, “I am a person who does this because it is what I should do.” Thank a Chinese person and they may seem baffled by you. Thank them profusely (as we tend to do in western culture) and it will be off-putting. “Why do you westerners constantly say “Thank you,” is a common question I received. It’s a cultural difference, I would explain, and indeed it is, but one that I do not believe can be explained as simply as that. Cultural differences abound, but the need to express thanks and gratitude the way we do in the west as opposed to the east is a deeply ingrained cultural identity as to what is meant by someone’s sense of duty.

As I sat in that taxi in the pouring rain, only a short distance from home, I kept saying “xièxie nĭ, xièxie nĭ,” thank you, thank you, only to have this acknowledged with a smile and a flip of the hand, “yīng gāi de, yīng gāi de,” this is what I should do.