Easy-going people are hard to find. Simple it may be to encounter people who,
upon your first glance, meeting and impression, seem easy-going, but it is difficult to discover
the truly relaxed soul of a person who is at ease most of the time. The strange thing about my
friend Martha from Changzhou is that she is a paradoxical combination of well-meaning nervous
flutter and entirely unaffected self-assurance. In one moment she’ll be watching your face,
actively seeking the smallest sign of your emotional reaction to her previous comment, and in the
next she’s divorced herself from such nervous concerns entirely, simply by issuing a light laugh
and shake of her head. Her laugh is quick, high and short, but her smile is lasting, and it remains
on her lips long after the sound of her laugher has faded into the air, as if bemused by itself.
Martha and I first met at my school, so I frequently encountered such behavior from her during our lessons together. She was always interested in studying, and even a bit anxious to improve her oral English rapidly. She paid steadfast attention to any corrected mistakes, but unlike many of the other students, she never became embarrassed or depressed by making them. Such embarrassment was never too great for her quick laugh and bemused smile to dispel.
Often we would have class with other students, those of a more serious and darker dispositions. For these students, each mistake, no matter how honest or minor, would drag them down for minutes on end. In these moments, coming to life with joke and laughter Martha would successfully pull almost everyone out of their funk and back into the discussion. Martha was frequently the butt of her own joke as she put herself and her own flaws on parade all for the benefit of others. By doing so she was usually able to ease the other’s embarrassment at their own perceived shortcomings simply by virtue of drawing their attention away from themselves and towards her.
Her self-deprecating sense of humor only became more apparent as our friendship solidified. Spending more time together, and with other mutual friends, I saw how Martha applied the same methods to many different situations; her particular sense of humor existed in almost every aspect of her life. She was genuinely concerned about the well-being and happiness of the others around her. She was always keenly aware of everyone’s emotions and attitudes and was careful to make herself, and never someone else, the cause of laughter. Martha employed her brand of humor to diplomatically restore a sense of calm and balance within many different groups.
Martha and I spent much time together, in and out of class, but perhaps my
favorite of all our shared memories are those of the night we went out dancing. Together with a few
other friends, Martha and I decided to go out for a ‘girls’ night.’ We piled into a few cabs and
trekked out of the city center to a favorite pub. It was a smaller-sized, Western-style place, with
an oak bar, Christmas lights perpetually strung from the ceiling and an owner who allowed his
patrons to select their favorite music from his computer collection. It was this final feature
which made up, at least in part, for the bar’s slightly over-priced drinks.
On this particular evening, we were a rather large group of women of varying ages. Looking back now I realize that Martha must’ve been the eldest member of our party by quite a few years: most of the women in our group were unmarried, and Martha was certainly the only one of us with an adolescent son.
Martha, like many of the other Chinese women in our group, professed a dislike of liquor and beer, preferring to sip slowly on a sweet fruit mocktail, a cocktail lacking the essential, mind-obliterating ingredient. I can respect a desire, on anyone’s behalf to be responsible, especially when it comes to liquor; however, drinking can also facilitate kicking back with friends. It was my sneaking suspicion that the reason so many women I met in China disliked drinking was two-fold. Firstly, it is traditionally considered inappropriate for women to drink liquor in China, and still today many do so only on special holidays or occasions. Secondly, I suspect that many Chinese women, like many women I know from back home, dislike the bitter taste of beer and the burning taste of liquor.
Going out with a group of foreign and Chinese women alike this cultural difference could become a topic for discussion and occasionally even breed discomfort along both sides of the divide. I had Western girl friends who felt awkward drinking among other women who abstained from liquor, fearing that they would be looked down upon. Likewise, I had Chinese girlfriends who felt that if they did not drink the Western women would think them unadventurous and boring. Luckily for our small gathering, we had Martha, who true to her nature, helped to bridge the gap between us that evening.
When questioned about her intention to abstain from drinking, and when cajoled to “just have a drink, just one,” Martha stood her ground. She had a plethora of excuses, all of which were delivered in a most amusing fashion. First, she claimed to be too old to drink with us younger ladies; as the eldest among us the responsibility of age precluded her from cutting loose in such a manner. Second, she was a mother of an impressionable young boy, who, she professed she knew, would grow up to be a drinker, but for now was still a cherub-like innocent who she preferred to keep in the dark. And finally, she being of a particularly singular character had no need of any added stimulation; she was quite capable of keeping up with all of us, and in danger of lapping most of us, by simply sipping on her sugary virgin beverage.
As usual, Martha had the majority of her audience giggling by now, and the rest of us in stitches with her performance. The discussion came to a merry close and everyone congregated on the dance floor, and forgot to continue such a silly argument. I will always remember Martha’s abandon when she began to dance; she was neither the most graceful, nor the most captivating of dancers, but her long-lasting smile rarely strayed from her lips as she bopped coolly around the floor, joining her voice with the choruses she knew.