Sunday, February 22, 2015

"They Make Me a Person," Ch. 19, memoir BUT...AT WHAT COST

I read an autobiography by Gertrude Bell a while back. She was recounting her experiences with the people of the Middle East during the late eighteen hundreds. As soon as I read the line “they make me a person,” I knew it captured the essence of what my Chinese students did for me. They made me a person.

I’d heard their culture reveres teachers and old people, but I’d never seen it in action – nor did it play out as I expected. I expected them to be appreciative and respectful and maybe bow a lot, but I didn’t know a little respect would make me feel so darned happy. I have been many things to many people: a mother, a daughter, a grandmother, an in-law, a businesswoman, a volunteer, and a friend – fulfilling roles all, but none of those roles boosted my ego quite as much as Chinese graciousness did.

I didn’t know why it was happening; I only knew I looked forward to a session with these young Chinese students as much as I look forward to a visit from the grandchildren, or a spring morning in the garden, or Christmas. I was infatuated with these people, but I didn’t know why.

Now, I’m guessing we older Americans just aren’t used to receiving so much positive attention from younger people. That is not to say that young Americans or my other students from other countries don’t respect me; they do. But, there is a difference. Excepting family gatherings, genuine social interaction between generations is very rare in Western cultures.

Granted, my Asian students were very grateful for the service I provided, and the Chinese equivalent of Miss Manners must demand they show their appreciation. However, they did not need to make me an honored guest at their weddings, bring me presents on Mother’s Day, or share their families’ New Year feasts with me.

I guess Chen said it best. He had treated me to a day in NYC’s Chinatown, and while we were eating dinner I commented that few American men of his age (30) would choose to spend so much time with a person twice his age. He laughed and said, “We like old people.”

When I told Connie of my infatuation with all this attention she said, “Well, they like you.” Yes, they do, but Randy and Sue and their friends like me too (I think), but I don’t get invited to their parties, nor do I expect to be. I attend Beth and Andrew’s parties, but they have little choice because I stay in their home when I visit. When I’m there I, too, get invited to parties they’re invited to, but I don’t think it’s because anyone wants me there; it seems more a courtesy.

The generations just don’t mix much in America. In my memory, they never have… at least not by choice, or often, or for very long. That’s too bad. I like being “a person.”

We are serializing Judy Axtell's blog here. Her book was published by Outskirts Press, and is available from on-line booksellers, including I am proud to have served as coach and editor.

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