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Stranger in a Strange Land

Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page C12

Dear Miss Manners:

I am living just now in a large city in China. I am not asking about local Chinese etiquette, but rather travelers' etiquette.

Although the city I am in numbers millions, I find I see other non-Chinese people out and about only twice a month or so. When I do, I used to smile a little and nod in passing. This seemed to serve at first, but I have now had several encounters that cause me to turn to you for assistance.

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Please understand that I am enjoying my stay here, and the nod and smile are just meant to say, "Hello. Isn't this fun?" with some confidence that my manner was not offensive or forward.

The last person I nodded to really glared at me, and turned to stare at me as I went by. I behaved as if I had not noticed, and moved on. Her reaction made me think, however. I realize that seeing someone in a public place in China does not constitute an introduction; however, it felt as if some small acknowledgement of the other person was permissible.

Have I offended? Should I stop this practice?

In a word, yes.

Miss Manners knows that you mean well. This gesture among strangers can be charming when the shared circumstance that prompts it is cause for either pride or sympathy. Hikers on trails nod hello to one another, for example, and owners of the same kind of sports car often wave. Parents traveling on airplanes with small children may throw one another glances of sympathy, or the people sitting near them may do so among themselves.

But it is unquestionably a we-they gesture, and therefore not so charming when the shared characteristic is race. You will protest that you mean it as acknowledging that you are both foreigners. But you used race to decide that, and you could be wrong. There are Caucasians who live in China.

Besides, tourists are notoriously insulted as being recognized as tourists. Their huffiness may mean no more than that, but it is good enough reason to stop.

Dear Miss Manners:

Is it impolite for one of the bride's attendants to wear an engagement ring during the festivities (given that the bridesmaid is newly

engaged)?

No, but Miss Manners is puzzled about the thinking that prompted this question.

Is it the idea that bridesmaids are a chorus line backup for the bride, and are supposed to suppress their individuality for aesthetic unity, even down to their own symbols of attachment? Or that the excitement of this lady's new engagement would somehow detract from that of the wedding?

Either notion would be a sorry negation of what bridesmaids are really supposed to be: the bride's dearest friends, all of whom are individuals with lives of their own. The bride is supposed to care enough about them to wish them happiness, and should be especially disposed to appreciate the happiness of love and marriage. And certainly nothing detracts the proper attention from a wedding as a self-centered bride.

© 2005, Judith Martin


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