Spend a few days in China, and you are bound to witness a stranger exposing his bare bottom on the subway or defecating on the sidewalk. While dismayed, you will find it easy to forgive these lewd acts: The perpetrators are generally under the age of 4. Following Chinese custom, their parents have forgone Pampers in favor of kaidangku—open-crotch trousers that effectively make all the world a potty.
Unlike acupuncture and green tea, kaidangku has not been embraced in the West. Just last month, the China Press reported that, in the Chinese enclave of Monterey Park, California, police cited the parents of a kaidangku-clad toddler for “disorderly conduct.” This news item sparked an outcry on Chinese social media, with one commenter exclaiming, “So only white people are allowed to run around naked, but Asian babies can’t have their little butts exposed? What kind of logic is this?”
The Monterey Park incident struck me as paradigmatic of the chasm between Chinese and Western standards of propriety. During nearly a decade split between Hong Kong and Shanghai, I was struck by the frequency with which people spat on the ground, inquired about my salary and my weight, and wore blue jeans to weddings.
My own behavior, meanwhile, routinely confounded my neighbors. One evening I returned home from work to find a pigeon tied to the fence outside my Shanghai apartment complex. The security guard explained to me that a family in the building had captured the pigeon as a pet for their son. “But that’s not fair!” I cried.
“Fair to whom?” asked the guard.
“To the pigeon!”
At this, the security guard turned red in the face and spit out his pork bun. The notion of kindness to an animal seemed to him the height of absurdity: “Fairness to a pigeon!” he guffawed, tears in his eyes.
The pigeon remained tied to the fence for the next few weeks, looking increasingly deranged with each passing day. I considered offering its “owners” money to set it free, then thought better of setting the precedent of paying my neighbors not to harm animals. With a pair of scissors, I attempted to liberate the bird myself (as the security guard looked on in astonishment) but every time I approached, I was threatened by pecking motions and a beady-eyed glare from the mangy creature.
One morning, an elderly widow and neighborhood busybody knocked on my door to inform me that the pigeon was gone. “Do you know what happened to him?” she asked, a gleam in her eye.
“I assure you,” I replied. “I had nothing to do with it!”
But she wasn’t accusing me; she just wanted to be the first to inform me that the bird had been eaten by a cat. The ribbon was still tied to the fence, surrounded by bones.
This carnage took place toward the end of my stint in China, and it was a compelling reminder that, as assimilated as I felt at times, I remained a stranger in a strange land.
In 2011, Eden Collinsworth—who has a self-avowed tendency to make “deeply insane” life choices—quit her job and moved in with her college-age son, who was studying abroad in Beijing. She ended up writing a guide to Western etiquette that became a bestseller in China: The Tao of Improving Your Likeability.
I Stand Corrected is, ostensibly, a book about that book, chronicling Collinsworth’s experiences living in China while working on The Tao. But it is also a memoir: Woven into her observations on Chinese culture are recollections from her childhood, motherhood, and successful publishing career, in nothing resembling chronological order. Indeed, she is so deftly discursive that a reader might not even notice that, in the first six pages, Collinsworth jumps from 17th-century Versailles to 2010 Beijing to 1990s Los Angeles to 1960s Chicago to 1970s New York City to 1980s Shanghai.
Collinsworth’s improbable, globe-trotting life makes for prose that reads like Mad Libs. Here, have a try:
(1) When W. and I were wed on the [proper noun] by the captain of a Peruvian [noun], the ceremony was followed by a feast of [noun] meat.
(2) During a week of sanctioned luxury, the turtle [verb] in its tub, dined on [noun], and wandered among the [noun] of the 19th-century furniture in our living room.
(1) Amazon River, supply boat, monkey
(2) lounged, strawberries, claw-feet