The Hangzhou cabbie smiled into the rearview mirror. “You’re so quiet and gentle,” he said (wénjìng, 文静), the same way someone might say, “You’ve got lovely hair,” or even, “That’s a nice outfit.”
He laughed. “Really, you’re quiet and gentle, almost like a Chinese girl.”
I blushed and looked away from the mirror, but not his words. That’s because it wasn’t the first time someone in China complimented me for my quieter side. I heard it from John and my two previous Chinese boyfriends, my boss at the time, and countless friends. And no matter how many times someone praised me, a part of me still remained deeply surprised.
Only years before, when I was in college, the words “quiet and gentle” didn’t follow smiles, but scowls and “She’s so…” People would catch me in my dorm room late on a weekend night, with book or journal in hand, or perhaps curling up to watch a good late-night movie on my own. They wanted to tug me out the door, because “you need to get out more” and “you’re spoiling a great weekend.” After all, what about the bars, the clubs, the after-parties and frat house festivities, everything I was “missing out” on? As an introvert growing up in “bigger, louder, faster” America, sometimes my “smaller, quieter, slower” just didn’t make sense to the world.
But then I took a post-graduation detour to China, and the conversation changed entirely. Quiet turned into something cooler, something worth emulating. People didn’t seem surprised that I wanted time to myself — to read, to meditate, to reflect, to just relax on my own. It’s like Zhuge Liang from the Three Kingdoms once said, “Quietude promotes learning,” (静以修身, jìngyǐ xiūshēn). My highly sensitive, introverted side never felt better.
Sometimes, I have to wonder — did this influence my decision to marry a Chinese man? Did the fact that I felt more comfortable, personality-wise, in China shift my attention — and affections — Eastward? I still don’t know.
Meanwhile, my husband probably chuckles at the thought of me as “quiet and gentle” now, after weathering years of marriage and the occasional arguments that come along with it. I might be “quiet and gentle” to much of the world, but to him, I’ll always be his “spicy American woman.” 😉