There’s much about the Japanese, with whom I share my genetic code and many of my sensibilities, that I instinctively understand and appreciate, but among the exceptions is one trait that I simply cannot fathom. And since arriving in Beijing it has dawned on me that this strange behaviour is also inherent in the Chinese, and with that discovery I’ve been thrown back into a sense of wild bafflement that is both familiar and disturbing.
I’m referring to that which might best be called the Japanese – and Chinese – art of squatting. The physiologically ambitious, visually bizarre, scientifically impossible art of squatting. You see it in every town in every corner of Japan, whether it’s children in school assemblies, trendy girls at train stations, punks smoking in the rain, young men in suits outside a meeting room or old women in aprons sweeping the pavement. And in Beijing, too, everyone’s at it; construction workers eating their noodles, chefs stealing out from the kitchen for a quick phone call, retired men crowding around a game of Chinese chess in the park.
The manual for this kind of squatting reads as follows. You are spending a period of time in one place in an outdoor setting, perhaps waiting for someone, perhaps performing a task. You want to rest your legs, but you do not want to perch on a stone step or wooden stump or – God forbid – sit on the ground as Westerners do and collect dirt, dust or worse on your skirt / suit trousers / coat tails. Besides, it would look utterly inappropriate and socially unsophisticated, what the Japanese dismissively call “darashinai”.
So instead, let’s squat. First, bend your knees and sit back until your feet are full flat on the ground. Collapse your legs entirely so that your bum rests just above your ankles, hovering teasingly in the air. Now you should be magically stable and comfortable, and your arms should be free to do whatever they please, be it play on your smart phone or do your makeup. And if you can’t keep this position for longer than two seconds (and ideally for at least 20 minutes) without throwing your arms manically forwards or toppling backwards on your arse, as you surely would due to gravity and weight distribution, then you’re just not made right.
Before I discovered my sorry lack of talent in this field, I’d already failed at another Japanese way of sitting, the tuck-your-legs-side-by-side-under-your-body-and-sit-on-them way of sitting. It gives me the pins and needles after thirty seconds, and yet, millions of Japanese women – and men – before me have sat that way in the presence of their bosses or elders since the beginning of time. A web of old wives’ tales surround my understanding of this method of sitting, ranging from “it makes your legs shorter” to the more plausible “it gives you back pain when you’re older.”
In this enlightened age of tables and chairs in preference to tatami mats, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has rejected the leg-tucking method, but somewhere along the line, I seem to have missed the training for squatting. It just goes to show that nurture, and not just nature, determines how you use your body, and I – having grown up in the untamed, unhygienic West – am forever condemned to lean on the wall or sprawl out on the floor, and watch the squatters with envy.
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