Last Wednesday I left the apartment of the Korean family whose two young boys I tutor in English and walked the mostly empty streets within their gigantic apartment complex grounds to the shuttle bus stop. As I crossed the street, I looked to my left only to see a Chinese man barrelling toward me on his bike. We passed an awkward moment in the silent dance that sometimes happens when you’re about to bump into somebody: “I’ll go left. Oops! You’re going left too. In that case, I’ll go right. Oops! You’re now going right too.” Our dance ended when he crashed into me.
I was largely unhurt and still standing, but the man had fallen onto the pavement.I barely had time to ask him in Chinese whether or not he was OK before he scurried back onto his bike and pedalled away, without so much as a word in response. Now, several days later, the large bruise on my shin has gone away, but my nagging curiousity at his curious silence remains.
Having spent nearly 8 months in China, though, I really shouldn’t have been surprised at the man’s silence. Two weeks before my incident with silent Mr. Bean on a bike, I witnessed a similar silence after a car exiting a parking lot near my campus struck the back wheel of a man biking by. Stunned, the biker turned around toward the driver, who ignored the loud crashing sound of the impact and drove off.
Although the accidents might be extreme examples, I suspect these experiences aren’t particularly unique in China. There’s a curious silence that follow social faux pas in China, from situations as small as an accidental bump while getting on the subway or stepping on another’s shoe to situations as serious as traffic accidents.
The “sorry” isn’t spoken perhaps because it’s just taken as a given; perhaps because it makes the offender lose face; or perhaps because it’s part of a larger phenomenon of emotions being surpressed below the surface of social interactions when in America they would be brought to the surface. My students themselves like to attribute most every social phenomenon in China to it’s large population, and perhaps in such a crowded country it’s so inevitable that you’ll bump into others on the bus that an apology just isn’t needed.
The awkward silence and the feigned ignorance bothered me at first in China, but I have since become so accustomed to the change that I feel little impulse to apologize after bumping others on the bus. I am even a bit worried that my silence will be taken for rudeness when I return to the US and forgoe the habit of minor “excuse me’s” and “sorry’s.” Come to think of it, it didn’t come to mind to apologize to the man who hit me on his bike. So, if you see a Mr. Bean character riding a bike in the Favorview Palace apartment complex in Guangzhou, please tell him I’m sorry if it was my fault.