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Falling out of love in a different culture

By Erik Nilsson  (China Daily)

14:07, February 20, 2013

Cultural puzzlements[Special]

Breaking up is always difficult.

But it's especially hard when you don't speak each other's language - and had no inkling until a moment before, after you'd been dating for nearly two months.

That was what I learned in my first stint in China in 2005.

I arrived having not only purposefully suspended preconceptions but also, consequently, with no understanding of what to expect of the language or culture I would wake up to every day.

The first local friend I met was Xing Li, a server at the bar I discovered my first day in China.

She spoke zero English, and I knew no Chinese. We communicated - in the pre-smartphone era - forming sentences by flipping through a brick of a Chinese-English dictionary. It would usually take more than a minute to form a sentence.

While I don't know about those phrases I patched together using the dictionary with various definitions for each entry, hers often didn't make much or any sense. Not that I could explain that to her. I recall spending a few days trying to figure out what she meant by what translated as "We of canine cry your".

She once treated me to a meal at a local restaurant, where I ended five years of vegetarianism over a plate of snails.

The snails repulsed me - and while I've since enjoyed many segments of many animals I wouldn't have expected to as a 22-year-old who hadn't eaten meat for half a decade. I still have a bad association with the gastropods.

But I was able to chew, gulp and grin through the gastronomic nightmare, until she produced a special gift - a wrap she'd made herself. It was delectable - a far departure from the snails.

Yet, it was the mollusks which came back to bite me. I heaved as I chewed through the scrumptious wrap she gave me. But I had no way to explain the actual source of my nausea was the snails wriggling through my guts because of linguistic limitations.

She believed it was her wrap and took conspicuous offense.

But that didn't stop her from being outside the gate of my work unit or the door of my apartment every day.

She even had the security guards pass notes along to the big bosses, who then handed them to me.

I was pretty sure that was unusual, even with my tenuous understanding of Chinese culture.
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