People do bad things, and regrets – I have a few.
The chocolate laxative-laced milkshake I served to my ninth grade rival.
Wearing a T-shirt with the words, “Afternoon Delight” to a family reunion.
Trying to get my boyfriend to like me by planting itching powder in his underwear.
Regret is a cultural thing. For westerners, Americans in particular; regret is like a frozen dinner. It’s efficiently packaged, easy to prepare, and quickly forgotten. For Asians, regret is like a ten course banquet; public, overly complicated and slow to digest.
Westerners in general, view regret as a bad thing. It’s a downer, it’s old news and especially in the land of liberty and reinvention; there’s always the “Second Act”. Take for example the case of the former Governor of Illinois, USA – Rod Blagojevich. Caught up in a scandal that had him trying to sell President Obama’s vacated senate seat; he has since unapologetically published his memoirs, “The Governor”, earning him a million dollar advance and an appearance on the Donald Trump reality show, “Celebrity Apprentice.”
Now compare that to a typical Asian soap opera; the high school daughter having forgotten to pick up a bunch of turnips for that night’s stew is confronted by her mother who is convinced her forgetfulness is due to a of lack of love and filial piety. The surly grandmother chimes in criticizing the mother for marrying below her status resulting in her having to share a room with the teen daughter whose late night Tweeting is contributing to her insomnia and surely responsible for her bunions doubling in size. It all ends in a giant cry-fest with the guilt-racked daughter running away in secret to find some turnips but blinded by her tears, steps into traffic and is run over by the Elder-care bus on its way to pick up the grandmother for a night of mah jong. And for that the uncle gets blamed (don’t ask).
Asians “do” regret. For us, regret is indelible, eternal, permanently linked to the past, present and future. Whereas westerners want to forget about their indiscretions and live “in the moment”, Asians pay long-standing tribute to those they have offended if only in their mind and not necessarily in action.
Like the Chinese hot pot, Japanese shabu-shabu and Korean barbeque, regret and its cousin, guilt, is communal. Best served with a few bottles of rice wine, it’s something to be shared among family and friends over a long night of door slamming, finger pointing and self-inflated righteousness interspersed with periodic breaks of sullen silence.
But for all the drama; it’s our way of saying “I love you.”
Sure, we could do it the western way; with roses and chocolates and flowery compliments for getting that B- in your science test, but for Asians that seems too insincere and in the end, unhelpful. Some theorize our culture of “criticism = love” stems from Confucian values, but Confucius was building on what was already there. Perhaps it’s because our physical stature when stacked up against larger and stronger non-Asians, makes us inherently aware that we have to work harder or rely on each other to achieve the same goals. Whatever the driving force, we express our love more as drill sergeants than collegiate cheerleaders.
But sometimes we step over the line because we commonly forget that a sweet word spoken in love does better for the soul than a harsh word spoken in responsibility. And so we regret. And after chastening ourselves, we try to make amends; cooking an elaborate meal, buying a gift, skipping out early from work to watch that piano recital. At times, it’s as simple as a greeting at the breakfast table where normally there was none. As always, we let our actions speak our words.
So you see, regret gets a bad rap in the West when Asians recognize it for the positive thing it is. When “if only…” transforms itself from wistful daydreaming to solid chunks of wisdom tucked away for future use, given the right attitude and situation.
And the itching powder? Let’s just say he married me regardless of the prank. But I don’t recommend it for would-be lovers – enemies on the other hand? Definitely.
Dinah Chong Watkins has been around since the age of Methuselah – oh no wait, that’s her husband. Still a child bride (it’s all relative), she escaped the cold, snowy winters of Toronto for the cold, smoggy winters of Beijing. She likes Pina Coladas, long walks on the beach and is counting on her husband’s 401K to provide all that. In the meantime, she hopes you’ll get a chuckle or two out of her writing because laughter is priceless or at least that’s what her editor said when she asked for a raise. Enjoy more of her writing at http://aletterfromabroad.wordpress.com