When I first went to live in Taiwan to study Chinese, I met a local girl called Peggy. She was around the same age, about twenty-two, with a wide, generous smile. I liked her very much. One day, her parents invited me home for dinner. It was her birthday. I spent the whole day looking for a present. I wanted it to be special.
In the big department store I found a beautiful necklace. I had it wrapped, bought a card, and took a bus to her apartment.
Peggy greeted me at the door, smiling.
Happy birthday, I said, handing her the present. In true Australian style I was dying to see the look on her face when she opened it.
Without unwrapping it or even a thank you, she put it down on the hall table and led me by the hand into the living room. I was shocked. Nobody could be so rude. Her mum came out of the kitchen and fussed over me, sitting me down on the couch with a cup of steaming hot tea and a bowl of salted watermelon seeds. But I was still thinking about Peggy and my present. I just couldnt get over how rude she was. After all the trouble I took buying it, not to mention the cost.
While we ate our meal, I tried to forget my anger but the delicious dinner that Yang Mama had cooked was soured as Peggys insensitivity nagged me like a constantly dripping tap.
When the evening was over, I decided that I would give her one last chance before I called an end to our friendship. Surely she would open it after I left, and would call me the next day to say how beautiful the necklace was. But the next day came and went, without a word from her.
The following week she rang to ask if I wanted to go to the movies, yet she still didn’t mention the necklace. That was it. How rude could one be? I said I was busy. And I kept saying I was busy when she called me again and again. I should have told her why I was angry, but I couldnt. Eventually she gave up.
One day, a few months later in Chinese class, our teacher began talking about manners. I had forgotten about Peggy and the necklace until the teacher brought up the custom of gift giving. In China, she said, it is extremely impolite and appears greedy to open the present in front of the giver. Only little children do that. Only little children cannot wait and have to satisfy themselves immediately,’ she laughed. She turned to me as if she was reading my thoughts. Oh dear. My ignorance about Chinese customs, had cost me a valuable friendship. Was I too late to salvage it?
Right after class I rang Peggy and asked if she wanted to go to the movies with me. I explained to her why I had acted so strangely, and how I had stupidly jumped to conclusions. She just laughed and was as friendly as ever, as if nothing had ever happened between us.
Was this another cultural difference that I had not picked up on? I still had so much to learn about China.