Just tap your Chinese cigarette ashes on the floor

Nov 29, 2022

Excerpt from After The Chinese Honeymoon (ask, suggest, or comment)

I walked into the living room, where a group of elders were seated at a rectangular table on the right side of the entrance. There was a lot of commotion and people bustling around. To the left, there was an open doorway with people coming in and out, and along the wall was a long table with many plates of Chinese dishes and people standing around, talking and snacking.

They directed me to sit next to the patriarch of the family, a 大家庭 (dà jiātíng), or a large traditional Chinese family. It was an important day. It was a wedding day, and everyone in the family and extended family had begun their assigned rituals at sunrise. Our arrival early in the afternoon just added to the festivities. During special occasions, Chinese people love the atmosphere to be 热闹 (rènào), for things to be as lively as possible.

The characters 热闹 translate as "hot" and "noisy," precisely the desired mood and spirit. Culturally, Chinese people want their ancestors to revel together in these festivities, so fireworks are common, as is leaving food and wine for them as part of their traditions.

It was just after lunch, and someone offered me a cigarette as I was being seated, which I accepted as a courtesy. We then began eating a rotating series of Chinese dishes and drinking shots of 白酒 (báijiǔ). During the ceremonial progressions, new dishes kept arriving, replacing some barely touched plates that were moved to the side table for others to eat.

As I was puffing my cigarette without inhaling, I asked for an ashtray, and they immediately instructed me to tap my ashes on the floor. One guy even demonstrated by throwing his cigarette butt on the ground and stepping it out with his shoe. Within about ten seconds, someone would come by and sweep away any debris, which was a constant affair.

Everyone in the family had a role to play in cleaning, cooking, preparing, and hosting. Still, it was striking how no one seemed to care that we were creating unnecessary work for other family members, and neither did those responsible for the actual labor give it a second thought. It's all part of Chinese culture.

This scene reminds me how cultural differences can create real inconveniences in relationships where emotions play a more significant role around heightened expectations. One of the lasting effects of China's One-Child Policy is the expectation that four grandparents will take care of one kid with the help of nannies and maids for most middle and upper-middle-class Chinese families.

The mother and father do not have any baby duties or house chores. Of course, this is a common practice in China, but we live in America without grandparents living with us in a 大家庭, and we opted for daycare instead of hiring a nanny or au pair. Therefore, we cannot afford to tap our proverbial cigarettes on the ground, as no one is waiting to keep our floors clean.

Emotionally, my Chinese wife will disproportionately prioritize our son's emotions, allowing him to make a mess during meals where he can run around with his food, so it shouldn't be hard to imagine the added cleaning burden as a source of contention. She subconsciously expects the same privileges she would have in China, to be 伺候 (cìhòu) or waited upon, without any consideration of who is doing it.

Most leaders enter China unprepared to adapt to things they don't know they don't know, but you can change that with a free EXACTLY WHAT TO SAY IN CHINA Discovery Coaching Session.

Schedule a free EXACTLY WHAT TO SAY IN CHINA Discovery Coaching Session