Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Big Fish

There is a teacher at our school — the same teacher whose personal email username is “little fishie”, if you want to know — who is very, very polite.

Being polite in China is very hard work. I say the words “I’m so embarrassed” many times a day, not only because I am a 22-year-old without clear life goals who continues to regularly wear his orthodontic retainer at night because he’s usually sleeping alone, but also because the phrase “I’m so embarrassed” is the grease of social interaction in China, even more so than real grease, which is also quite prevalent. If you go to your favorite restaurant and you order a dish they’re out of, the waitress will say how embarrassed she is that they don’t have it. When you accidentally bump into someone on the subway, don’t forget to assure them how embarrassed you are about it! It’s not uncommon for entire conversations to devolve into each participant attempting to convince the other that their’s is the more embarrassing position. For example:

A: I’m so embarrassed, may I borrow your pen?
B: I’m so embarrassed, I don’t have one.
A: I’m so embarrassed.
A: No, it’s fine. I’m so embarrassed.

Because of my unfamiliarity with Chinese culture and customs, I am sure I am constantly giving offense by failing to offer the requisite amount of embarrassment at any given time. Nevertheless, since Little Fishie controls our class schedule and our electives, I figure it’s always good to be as polite as I can be with her, or, at least, as polite as she is with me.

So now I’m locked in a politeness arms race with the world’s most aggressive politeness one-upper. And things are getting worse.

It started last year with the class rosters and updates I would send her at points during the year. To each update, she would reply, “I have received your message! My deepest thanks.”

This was easy. I could match this. So, this year, I started replying to all of her emails with “my deepest thanks,” because that seemed like the type of relationship she was aiming for.

That’s when things got serious.

Last semester, I emailed her copies of our Oral English grades, forgetting that Oral English is covered by another teacher in the same office. After sending her the grades (thanking her twice and using three exclamation points in the space of a three line email), she replied

OK, thank you, I will send these along to Ms. Huang. I hope you have a great vacation!

This is already fairly effusive for an administrative email, so I felt it called for a fairly effusive reply from me

Oh, I’m so embarrassed, I thought I had sent it to the right person. :) Happy early Chinese New Year!

To which she replied, in English

YOU ARE WELCOME!

Advantage: Little Fishie.

More recently, Fishsticks and I had cause to email each other again when our elective classes began this past Saturday. She sent me an email with information about our schedule, and I emailed back, saying, as she had many times before

I’ve received your message! My deepest thanks!

Which is when Fishes invoked the nuclear option of Chinese politeness. I sent my email at 4:41 pm. At 4:43, Fishie replied

Don’t mention it, haha! May you be happy every day of your life!

“May you be happy every day of your life”? I merely offer her my deepest thanks — small potatoes, by this point — and she shoots back with a laugh and a lifelong benediction. I do not know where to turn next, unless it is to offer her happiness in this world and the next, which seems presumptuous. My only other option is never to email her again. Which, really, if I can’t think of an even more polite thing to say to her, is exactly what I’ll have to do.

This is all extremely embarrassing.