It’s not polite to tell a guest they shouldn’t do something. I learned this rule only hours after I broke it at my Chinese in-laws’ home.
The next-door neighbor happened to come over, a tiny grandmother with short curly hair and a face that reminded me of Squiggy from the sitcom Laverne and Shirley. As usual, she came in holding her 10-month grandson, a kid nearly one-third her size who looked so big, I wondered why he hadn’t walked in on his own. She stood with her grandson in the foyer of our family home with Laoma (what we call my mother-in-law) and Wenjuan, my sister-in-law.
Most evenings, I wouldn’t notice the guests, but this evening was different. She happened to come during dinner. And this dinner happened to be interrupted by Laoba (what I call my father-in-law) when he told me the pair of flip-flops I sunned outside had dried. I put my chopsticks down to take the flip-flops back to my rooms upstairs, and then returned to the dining room.
That’s when I saw it. There in the foyer, I caught the grandmother laughing as her grandson yanked on the mobile hanging above the baby carriage. That mobile, of course, was for the new baby, Yueyue. Not a day went by that I didn’t hear the tinkling of its music, or see Laoma or Wenjuan spin around the banana, apple, strawberry, tomato and mushroom dangling from it. The baby loved this mobile, and sometimes it was the only reason she could fall asleep. Visions of dismembered plastic fruits and a broken music box that could never again play “Are You Sleeping Brother John” flashed through my mind. I couldn’t let this happen, not to my new niece’s favorite toy.
So I backed up into the foyer and approached the grandmother. I looked straight at the grandson she held and said, “That’s not that kind of toy, it’s not good to play with it like that. It belongs to someone else and you might break it.”
Even though she still smiled, the grandmother looked rather embarrassed as she pulled her grandson away from the mobile. She left soon afterwards. But I had no idea what I just did until Wenjuan and Laoma talked with me.
“We couldn’t open our mouths about it,” said Wenjuan.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because she’s our neighbor.”
“Eh, they will say bad things about us,” Laoma said.
“But her grandson almost broke the mobile, it’s not polite to break someone else’s stuff in their home,” I said.
“We can’t say anything,” Wenjuan said.
“She’s just like this,” Laoma said.
“You mean she’s done this before?” I asked.
“Eh,” Laoma said.
“Laoba doesn’t like her,” Wenjuan said. “Did you see how he left the table and headed upstairs when he saw her?”
“She’s obviously not teaching her children right,” I said. “That’s one of the most basic things, don’t break someone else’s stuff in their home.”
“We can’t say anything. Even if she broke it, we can’t ask her to pay for a new one,” Laoma said.
“That’s terrible. But shouldn’t you say something anyhow? I mean, otherwise she’ll break your stuff and you’ll have to buy new ones.”
“When you said that to her, her face got all frustrated,” Laoma said as she laughed.
Later that evening, my husband taught me the rule. “It’s not polite to tell a guest not to do something,” he said.
Still, I couldn’t help but think that, faux pas aside, the situation offered a win-win. After all, I’m the one who said it, the foreigner who just didn’t know better to keep her mouth shut. My family didn’t have to say anything, so the neighbors probably won’t talk about them, and the baby’s mobile was saved. When I explained this to my husband months later, he laughed just like his mother — that sometimes, a foreigner’s ignorance comes in handy.
I never knew if my actions made the neighborhood gossip about us. But the rest of that summer I lived there, the grandmother never came over again.