Dancing with Emily Post

October 6, 2011 § 2 Comments

The State of American Manners

One evening last week we stopped in at Target to pick up laundry detergent and a birthday card. We were hardly in the door before a gaggle of teenage girls eclipsed us, shrieking with laughter.  I’d stopped to browse in a bin of inexpensive toys and they snatched and grabbed at things right in front of me, as if I were not even there.  They jammed “roast turkey” hats onto their heads and screamed with the hilarity of it all.

“It’s animal day tomorrow, we have to get these!” one shrieked. A blonde girl knocked into me reaching for something in a bin. She seemed not to notice.

“That would be freaking awesome,” another roared, doubling over with laughter.  They gobbled and cackled in their roast turkey hats, screaming with delight at how ridiculous they were, overcome with how amazing they would be at school tomorrow. The noise rolled over me in waves.

Then, like a whirlwind, they moved off towards the clearance racks in the women’s department, tossing and shrieking and laughing all the way.

I like kids. I even like teenaged kids. It hasn’t been so long that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in the midst of laughing, silly, hysterical group of girls. No doubt I’ve irritated plenty of adults in my day.  (Though the presence of someone my mother’s age would have inhibited me a bit.) But these kids, these nice upper middle-class, well-fed, privileged girls were behaving like, well, savages.

No sooner had their whoops and wails faded from earshot,  they were replaced by something even worse.  The detergent aisle of this store is directly across from Girls Clothing. There, in a shopping cart, a little girl about five was screaming. Sobbing.  Her mother, trying to pretend that nothing was amiss, went on browsing like she was totally unaware of her daughter’s meltdown, examining the details on a sweater collar or holding up a pair of leggings for size.

It was everything I could do not to march over there and ask her what the hell she thought she was doing, and what on earth gave her the idea that it was okay to “teach her daughter a lesson” at the expense of everyone in the store.

I held on to the shelf of Tide, knuckles white.  The little girl continued to wail, hiccupping, sobbing some more.  That spot, just above my left eye, began to throb. Finally, the girl’s father came and wheeled the cart away, the child silent in their departure. I suppose she’ll grow up to think it’s okay to knock into other shoppers and shriek in public and throw merchandise around in stores.

My husband and I talked about the two sets of rude people as we drove home.  It seems we’re spending more time talking about rude people, lack of decorum, the inconsiderate among us. This is what happens all day long in public America—we’re running amok.

Drivers no longer merge onto highways, they barge. I’d point out that “yield” seems to mean nothing to people, but really stop signs don’t carry much importance either. Communities have had to install cameras at busy intersections because so many people blast through long after the light’s turned red.  (Apparently Dayton has $450,000 owed them in unpaid red-light tickets.) People speed up so that you can’t enter the roadway in front of them.

They either park so sloppily over the painted lines that they take up two spaces or they intentionally take up two spaces so their precious vehicle doesn’t get dinged by some ten year old flinging open the door of the mini-van. They tailgate.  On the interstate, they pull in front of you from the adjacent lane with inches to spare, just enough space provided you don’t speed up one more mile an hour. (Which of course they would do if you were trying to get in front of them.) They blow their horn if you don’t jackrabbit into the intersection the minute the light turns green, and God forbid you actually STOP before making a right on red. They pass on double yellow lines. They pass on city streets.  Taking to the public thoroughfare is more and more like something out of Death Race 2000.

The police promise and threaten to be more active in going after aggressive drivers. If they are, it’s not having much effect. A City of Kettering police officer once stopped my husband for driving too slowly. We were meandering home in our Saab on a Friday evening, doing about 25 mph on a quiet city street. No doubt he thought “sporty car going slow equals drinking.”  He was wrong. He said to my husband “Well, at least try to go the speed limit.”  Excuse me?

When another driver actually allows me to merge into the lane in front of them, I am always surprised, and respond with a wave,  “Hey, thanks!”

In Wim Wenders’ film,  Wings of Desire, Peter Handke wrote that our cars are our kingdoms and in them we are kings of our own tiny empires.  Tonight, a man in a minivan (arguably the worst category of drivers) pulled out from a gas station, crossing the road directly in front of us. He pushed past another car waiting for the traffic to clear and turned left across four lanes of traffic, in a cacophony of screeching brakes and blaring horns. He was on his cell phone and seemed not to notice. We may have constructed a cocoon, a paradise of “I,” but we are not islands unto ourselves. Everything we do in public affects someone else.

Not that the sanctuary of home life exists anymore.  My husband is a fan of political commentary and talking heads inundate our living room with a constant stream of lies, scandal and notoriety. I suggested once that we go on a diet from this kind of television, if perhaps that would help us feel less at odds with our fellow Americans, less despairing of their behavior.  There’s just no way that you can listen to a steady infusion of this stuff and not feel pissed-off. Just a week, I suggested, but we haven’t tried it yet.

Certainly there’s no haven from rudeness in cyberspace. It would be hard to imagine a playground where people are less courteous. The comments made on newspaper sites, forums for various hobbies and the ubiquitous Facebook go right past rude and often into the muck of verbal abuse.  And I’m guilty of the same. Without the nuance of gesture or inflection, we are quick to take offence.  Freed from inhibition by distance and a shell of anonymity, we post things that we would never in a million years say to someone’s face.

Sometimes this even happens between real life friends. A comment is made, a retort follows. Maybe the response was meant wryly or with a kind of nudge—but the recipient only sees the naked type on the screen, devoid of charm or affection, and the offense is laid bare.  Friendships, some long-standing, end over these exchanges.

Staying connected via the cell phone has become a kind of hallmark of rudeness. Not just those texting or talking while they pull into oncoming traffic, what about the people who won’t get off the phone in the drive-thru of the fast food place, or the check-out line at the grocery store?  Of course the reverse is true also. How aggravating is it to deal with a cashier who won’t look at you or speak to you or is too busy chatting with a colleague or flirting with the bagger to exert the minimum amount of grace required for his or her job?

One afternoon at Kroger, even though I was in a hurry to be somewhere else, I stomped off to find the manager to complain about just such a cashier.

“Oh, that surprises me about her. She worked at Elder-Beerman’s for forty years, ” he said, not bothering with an actual apology.  I guess after 40 years in a pretentious department store, there’s no need to acknowledge the lowly grocery store customer.

Of course, there are still the garden variety bad manners: a cousin and his wife who have yet to thank us (by note, by email, in person or on Facebook) for the wedding gift we gave them. (A really nice stockpot, but maybe they were offended that we didn’t use their registry?) Of course, they haven’t thanked us for baby gifts either.  Or the kennel club meeting to which I brought a lemon-raspberry cheesecake and one person, one person said thank you.  It’s not that we do these things to be thanked, we make these gestures out of affection and goodwill, but you know it would have been nice to have the effort acknowledged.

I don’t want to give the impression that I think I’ve been perfect in this regard. I haven’t. Sometimes I have failed terribly at etiquette.  I know the thank you notes for our wedding gifts went out far too late.  I know I have been sharp when I didn’t need to be. Once I beeped my horn at a pick up truck about to back into our car in a parking lot and the driver jumped out, rushed back and spewed invective all over me. Not knowing then what I know now, I gave back as good as I got. He went back to his truck briefly and returned with a large handgun. Thankfully, passersby intervened before our lack of manners took a tragic turn.

Though I’ve never drawn a gun on anyone, I too have indulged in a few spectacularly public temper fits.  Years ago, a man took the last table at an outdoor café, racing in front of us (laden with a tray of food) and sitting down to read his newspaper. We argued about his right to the table when he had not yet purchased food. When he turned his back to me and sat down, I slapped him hard across back of his balding head.

On an evening more than a decade ago, a woman in grocery store line behind me started piling up my groceries on the belt, so she could take her groceries out of the cart sooner. She said something about not wanting her bread to get crushed.  It didn’t amount to more than some angry words and still today, there’s a part of me that wishes I’d come even more unglued—that I’d thrown her bread on the floor and stood on it.  If you’re going to have Bad Manners make it a real production number rather than just this day to day loss of civility that’s gnawing away at reasonable discourse.

But I didn’t. And these days I think I could handle it a bit more deftly. (A lesson learned from the gun-wielding nutcase in the parking lot.) That’s a large part of what makes manners—stifling one’s emotional impulses for the greater good.

The other part is making the effort to acknowledge the others whose lives intertwine with ours, no matter how slight the connection.  A wave to an acquaintance still serves to show that we are open-handed and unarmed. A smile begets a nod, even among strangers. Holding the door for other people is still generally appreciated, though there will occasionally be louts that sail through without a word as if you are a uniformed doorman.

Among my books are half a dozen navy blue volumes, each of them a different edition of the Emily Post Book of Etiquette, ranging from the 1920s through the 1950s. I have found them in thrift shops and book sales, each one cast off as something no longer necessary. It’s amusing to read about silverware arrangements or what sort of hat is appropriate to wear to tea, or the proper wording to decline an invitation to lunch.

People think these kinds of manners are archaic, and some of them are. Gentleman are no longer required to walk on the outside of the street to protect their feminine companions from harm. (Though it might not be a bad idea.) You will not be the scandalous talk of the town if you fail to use the correct fish service.

The essential elements of manners are still consideration and kindness, and they are still essential. Yet we are uncertain about them at time, reflected in the  popularity of Judith Martin’s charming “Miss Manners” character  (who has surely penned as many books as Miss Post by now) and the syndicated newspaper columns dealing with ethics. It’s as if we don’t remember quite how to behave—or we know how to behave but we want someone to share our outrage at the boors with whom we have to contend.

Living among others is a kind of dance. Sometimes it seems a series of missteps, other times we find ourselves gliding along gracefully with a minimum of effort.  You lead.

Show a little consideration. Say please when you ask your teenager to take out the trash. Turn off your cell phone and stow it while driving. Let another driver go in front of you. Count to ten. Slow down. Don’t tailgate. Stop and smell the roses. Turn off the television. Write the thank you note, or at the very least, the thank you email.  Don’t say something online that you wouldn’t say in person. Take your exhausted child home. Remember that you may be having an uproarious great time but the person next to you may be infirm or in pain.  Don’t interrupt your wife on the telephone to ask her something trifling. Give a little extra. Stop listening to angry people, especially those that are overpaid.  Smile at strangers. As our mothers instructed us when we were little more than babies, play nice.

I’m going to work at it too.


Speaking in Two Tongues

March 16, 2009 § 2 Comments

There are many ways to learn a language. Most often people seek to study a second (or third or tenth) language, in a classroom or on their own. Or they learn it at their mother’s knee, conversing in the familial Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, Hindi, while speaking English to the world outside.

I saw on Facebook that our son-in-law is using Rosetta Stone to teach himself Swedish, the language of his ancestry. My husband and I joke that our son-in-law is studying Swedish so he can talk with his father without our daughter knowing what they’re saying. Or maybe they’re planning a trip to Stockholm, who knows.

During high school in Canada I was compelled to learn French, so I can scrape by pretty well. I don’t have to use subtitles much when watching French movies, I can find my way easily around the menu of a French restaurant, and on the one occasion I went to Paris, I did not feel utterly lost. But I never think in French and that’s what separates “speaking French” from “knowing” it.

Long before the French though,Mother married an Englishman (I was ten), and when we moved to West Yorkshire,  I developed my second language: English. (“What?!” You say, quizzically.)

Well, I know to look both ways at the Zebra crossing so I won’t get struck by a passing lorry. When I’m tired, I prefer the lift to the stairs. I’ve corrected my mistakes with a rubber (rather than preventing “mistakes” with one) I’ve gone to the Chemists for a plaster, which I’ve then affixed to my finger. I’ve enjoyed the warmth of a good anorak, and I’ve been gone longer than a fortnight. I prefer Trifle to Blancmange (aptly pronounced blahhhhh-maahhnj) and I can never put my hand on a Biro when I need one.

Additionally, I know the difference between a barrister and a solicitor. You probably shouldn’t look for crisps in a chip shop, I need plimsolls if I’m going to play netball, and there’s nowt for the moggies to eat. I’ve never written to an Agony Aunt, I prefer bangers and mash to bubble and squeak, but I’d rather have a butty than either. I’ve exclaimed “Gor Blimey, this fairy cake is delicious” Luckily not too many things have gone balls-up, though occasionally my teachers would say “Oy, you, stop skiving.”  Okay, then, Bob’s your uncle. Oh, and there’s nothing like a bit of cha to raise your spirits.

Which is something that my Chinese American husband would certainly agree with, though he, like all Chinese, would never dream of taking his tea with milk and sugar. Crazy, he says, it just doesn’t go. Like putting fish sauce on your breakfast cereal. He calls it the same thing, though: cha.  The British slang, in fact, comes from the Cantonese word for tea.  “Cha” was the first Chinese word our son learned, picking it up from hearing his parents’ one word question “Cha?” (Tea?) or “Ngeem Cha?” (Drink tea?)

My husband’s mother was an immigrant, arriving here in 1936, just as the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally being lifted.  Her husband was a third generation Chinese-American, but the exclusion act had required him (as it had his father) to go to China for his bride. In fact, Elmer’s father had been born in China and came to the U.S. alone in 1913, at age 12, to seek his future. In 1921, he returned to China to marry (it was an arranged marriage) and then returned again, alone, to America. There would be many such trips across the Pacific for the next 14 years. The couple had five children before the family was allowed to come to America.

When Rose Louie Lieu arrived at the port of Los Angeles, she spoke no English.  Elmer is uncertain if his father tried to teach his mother some English, but certainly he had to translate for her. They settled on Clanton Street in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood, about two miles by bus or foot from Chinatown and the familiar charivari of her native tongue. Five children became six, then seven. All the children always spoke Chinese with their parents, and each of them went every afternoon to a special Chinese school to learn how to write the beautiful Chinese characters.

Dad worked in the shipyards, Mom stayed home and hand painted silk ties. When Elmer, the baby of the family, was about five years old, his parents opened a small neighborhood grocery store on Washington Boulevard. At the store, both his mother and father spoke English with their customers, but the language at home was still Chinese.  (Except for the year when they both got mad at each other, and didn’t speak at all, but that’s another story.)

In 1969, the grocery burned to the ground. The Lieus were in their late sixties, so they took the insurance money and retired. From that day forward, their English language slipped away little by little. By the time I met Elmer’s mother in 1992, she didn’t speak any English at all.  During the many telephone conversations Elmer had with her, he spoke Chinese fluently, and without hesitation. But put him on the spot, ask “What’s the word for this,” or “How do you say that” and he can’t remember.

His mother came from a village outside of Toisan, in the Pearl River Delta. Up until about 1950, three out of every four Chinese immigrants was from Toisan, and the city was referred to as The Home of Overseas Chinese. The dialect that she and Elmer’s father spoke is further distinguished as being a “country dialect.” It is a derivative of Cantonese, but can lead to awkward assumptions: Many people know the Chinese dish Moo Goo Gai Pan. It is chicken with mushrooms. In Toisanese, “gai” means “dog” and “goy” is chicken. Best to have your dialects in a row before you order your Peking duck.

Mandarin is now the official Chinese language, but 70 million people still speak Samyip (Cantonese) and it is the official language in Hong Kong and Macau.  Of course, the dialect that Elmer’s parents spoke is preserved from a time nearly a century ago. In the very same village, they are no longer using these particular idioms or constructions; like many immigrant families, we have preserved for ourselves a vernacular of antique Chinese speech. 

During our marriage, I’ve spent a lot of time smiling in restaurants while Elmer conducts elaborate conversations (in Toisanese) with waiters and waitresses across the country, and in Canada. Especially in Canada. I know the drill. He says “Are you Chinese?”

“Yes,” the person answers, adding his or her own question. “Are you Chinese . . .” and they’re off and running. My ear is attuned to any reference to bak gwee (White Devil, that’s us pale folks) but so far no one has mentioned it.

The best (and most authentic) Chinese restaurants are often the most unprepossessing ones, in strip malls and office buildings. We found one such place in Crescent City, California. The food was excellent and the owner-waitress-wife of chef was from Toisan. It’s a good thing our son was there too, or I would have had to spend the entire meal without uttering a word. Just as we were leaving, Elmer and the woman had a particularly lively and cheerful exchange. As we walked to the car, I asked Elmer “What was that last thing you said to her?”

 “Do you want to go back to the hotel?”


“Do you want to go back to the hotel?”

“That’s the last thing you said to the waitress?”

“What do you mean?”

Julian was laughing so hard at his father’s unwitting faux pas, I thought he would pass out. When my dear husband finally caught on, he started laughing too and we all had to sit in the car awhile to collect ourselves.

The first word my mother-in-law taught me was Heckla. It means “have some more.”  She used it like a blessing, though, making sure that we were well fed, warm enough, cool enough, had enough cash . . . and here, have some more. It did no good to say we were full, or fine, or had enough money; there was always something more to give us. It was a beautiful and generous sentiment and I wish we could have had it etched upon her headstone, but of course, the Chinese are far too formal for such things.

In the 17 years that Elmer and I have been married, I have picked up a bit of Chinese here and there. It’s not as fluent as my French, or my idiomatic British, nor will it ever be the language of my thoughts. But I can urge Julian to hurry up Lwoy-la. (Come on). I can say I’m ready to leave.  Luwht-la (Let’s go.) I know that the antique dress in the lacquer trunk is called a Cheung-Sahm and I know that the carved trunk with the scenes on it is the Jun Muk Lung.

My abilities extend to wishing you a Happy New Year, (Gung Hay Fat Choy), saying Thanks (Wa-deh) and politely asking how you are (Neh How Ma) My husband and his long time friend, Bill Ahaus, are hilarious when they say this to each other on the phone, in what I call Chinese-restaurant-short-order-screech. Bill’s a bak gwee (like me) but his wife Doreen is Chinese American, so it’s okay. It’s not racist if you’re making fun of yourself.

I also know Wah Sun (New China, frequently seen on restaurants and my husband’s Chinese name)  Ma (horse, and also the famous cellist) Haack (black, and Haackas are a dark Chinese minority; Chow Yun Fat is one, so is our brother-in-law, father of the family’s claim to real success: Famous Headline News anchor, Richard Lui) and the ever essential ShiHahngGee (literally: shit bowl paper, but what we polite Americans call toilet tissue.)

Sadly, our son won’t learn Chinese at his father’s knee, as it’s hard to teach Chinese when you can’t remember it except for when you’re having conversations with waitresses.  Julian has picked up some colorful Cantonese terminology (and a few insults) with which he dazzles his contemporaries at school. And he has learned to listen for the music in other languages, puzzling out German and French and now his own choice for speaking in a second tongue: Latin. Deus Succurro Peur




  A Very Short British-American Glossary

zebra crossing — crosswalk

lorry – truck

lift – elevator

rubber – eraser

chemists – pharmacy

plaster – bandage, bandaid

anorak – parka style winter coat

Trifle – layered dessert with fruit, cream, cake and sherry

Blancmange – molded gelatinous dessert

barrister – an attorney who argues cases in court

solicitor – an attorney who represents you in matters not involving court

crisps – potato chips

chip shops – fish and chip shops—chips are slices of fried potato

plimsolls – girls gym shoes (like Keds)

netball – basketball

Agony Aunt – advice columns, like Dear Abby & Ann Landers

nowt – nothing

moggies – cats

bangers and mash – sausage and mashed potato in a casserole arrangement

bubble and squeak – fried potatoes and cabbage, sometimes a bit of bacon or sausage

butty – a sandwich made with meat and butter

Gor Blimey – an exclamation, a colloquial form of “Gosh!,” from “God Blind Me.” Really.

fairy cake  — cupcake

balls up – totally ruined, messed up, SNAFU

Oy – A form of address similar to Hey!

Skiving – to avoid work, dawdling

Bob’s Your Uncle – “That’s it, then,” that’s all there is.

Cha – tea












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