I wish there was just one big button to press.

“Activate China Mode!” And it would be done.

I would instantly fit in perfectly here. My brain would switch to Mandarin, my digestive system would immediately be used to handling rice every day, my mannerisms would suddenly be Asian instead of screaming “American!” and – as long as I’m dreaming – I would shrink by 6 inches and have black hair.

But there’s no app for that.

I’ve lived in China many years, so I know how to behave here. I know the language, I know the culture. Or rather, I know quite a bit of the language and culture, enough to not make a fool of myself as frequently as I did when I was a beginner. And yet, all those things aren’t instant when I come back. It feels much more like I’m flipping a hundred, a thousand, a million tiny switches.

Bathroom sinkI reach for my toothbrush for the first time, and flip a switch from “Yes, you can use the tap water” to “No, you can’t.” I see a friend again after many years, and another switch is flipped. “Don’t hug people unless you want them to feel irrecoverably awkward.” I sit down to eat and all kinds of rules are activated to replace the ones I learned growing up: “Slouching is fine; chomping with your mouth open is not only fine, it’s a sign that you’re enjoying the food; trash like chicken bones should go on the table or floor, not on your plate.”

I have to re-remember how to do just about everything. How to cross the road, how to answer the phone, how to receive guests, how to do laundry, how to go to the bathroom.

Thankfully, those things are already in my brain. Granted, they’re buried beneath a couple years of U.S. life, but they’re there.

It’s not like when we first got here, when we were tripping over critical incidents left and right, trying to do what seemed to be appropriate here, no matter how weird it seemed. Some things had easy explanations: don’t flush the toilet paper because the pipes can’t handle it. But other things were much less obvious, and we struggled to figure out the deeper beliefs that fueled behaviors we found confusing or downright rude.

Anyone can tell you: culture, Donkey, is like an onion. It’s got layers.

The outer layers are all the things you can easily observe, like no one is wearing a helmet or, that person just dropped their trash on the sidewalk, despite being approximately 3 feet away from a perfectly good trash can (oops, that observation had a little bit of opinion leak into it). You have to peel deeper to figure out the values and assumptions that are beneath those behaviors. That’s how we answer the why’s of culture, and it can take an outsider like me years to dig down that deep.

At the same time, it has also required me peeling back the layers of my own cultural onion to figure out why certain things are just so pickin’ frustrating for me. People cut in front of me. Result? I get angry. Why? Because they’re not following the rules. Whose rules? The rules that obviously govern the entire cosmos. You sure about that? No, because I have clearly wandered into the one sector of the universe where not even Kindergarten-level logic and rules function. I was here first and they cut, and THAT IS NOT FAIR. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.

Yeah, so, apparently “fairness” is a very high value for Americans.

It’s taken me some sorting and discussing, some private ranting (mostly to my poor husband) and lots of reflecting, but after many years of being here, it feels like I’m finally getting the hang of it. I’ve got a lot of the why’s already answered, for both my host and passport cultures. Knowing the answers somehow helps me set aside some of my American behaviors when I am in China, and operate according to the unspoken rules here.

I’m very glad that this time around, there’s not so much confusion, and I don’t get so upset. I don’t have to puzzle and research and ask my teachers and friends about how to decline an invitation or take out the trash or buy rice.

I just have to remember to flip the switch.