Earlier today my lesson was cancelled on me without explanation. This happens a lot and it ticks me off every time, even though I know no rudeness or disrespect is intended. It's just one of those cultural things. The Chinese operate in an ad hoc fashion. Advance planning is not a popular concept. In many ways this is a terrific national characteristic and I would do well to learn from it, because I'm about as flexible as a two-by-four.
Which is probably why I can never seem to get past the initial stage of my response: "How can these people just up and cancel my class without telling me? What the bloody hell do they think they're playing at? What about my plans? Doesn't my timetable matter?"
On this particular occasion, as so often in the past, I'd orchestrated my day around the scheduled lesson. I could have gotten a lot else done if I'd known I wouldn't need to hang around this afternoon. In particular, I could have returned my books to the library. In fact, that's what I had originally hoped to do with the afternoon -- they're due tomorrow and I am so frequently ambushed by bad health that I am really, really chary of letting anything with a deadline run right down to the wire -- but then I was asked to teach my lesson instead. The lesson that never happened.
The thing to do in these situations is to find some nice activity to take your mind off how irritated you are. After a while, you look up from your tea in a cafe or your walk in a park and wonder how you could have gotten worked up over such a piffling little thing in the first place. My problem today was, I was too tired to go out and treat myself to a nice dinner or a movie or some other cheerful little adventure.
So here I was alone at home -- only not at home because I am sort of a hired guest -- wondering what to do with my extra time and my bad temper. Alone, that is, except for the maids, who are very nice indeed. On the whole I try not to bother them too much. I'd like to be friends, and we do sometimes have nice chats, but I don't want to intrude. They work hard, and I have the feeling that when they have any time off they'd really just like to relax with each other and not be forced to take part in a cultural exchange.
I felt too tired and cross to start working on anything productive, so I just sat at my desk feeling sorry for myself.
Then I found myself thinking about milkshakes. I started wishing I could just hop in my little yellow Beetle and take a trip to one of the many first-class creameries that are sprinkled across Eastern Massachusetts. Well, all of New England, really. But my car is in Massachusetts and I am in Beijing. There are milkshakes here, but I would need to go downtown to get one -- probably an hour on the metro, and I've never been to any of the establishments that serve them, so there'd always be the risk that whatever place I chose from an internet directory would have closed or moved or changed its hours or gotten pregnant or something.
Then I thought, "Hey, wait. We've got a blender here, and the local supermarket is still open, and I know they sell both ice cream and milk. It's probably terrible ice cream, but still, it's likely worth a shot."
So I told the maids I was heading off to the supermarket for some ice cream because I was going to make milkshakes and asked what kind they wanted. Nobody specified a kind, so I bought both chocolate and strawberry.
We finished the chocolate up and left the strawberry for another time. One of the maids, who has quite a sweet tooth, drank two glasses. As she poured the last of it into her glass she said, laughing, "I'm not being at all polite." Only she said, "Like a guest," which is the most common Chinese way of saying "polite."
"That's right," I told her. "We're all mates here."
I was right: the ice cream was absolutely terrible. But it was good enough for us. Our party had no guests.