Rules and My Western Privilege

I disclosed earlier that we are having a bit of trouble getting Mei-mei into school on account of some abnormal medical tests. Although all the medical practitioners involved in the case agree that she is healthy and has no contagious diseases endangering the other school children, the doctor with the power to give her medical clearance for school asserts that “rules are RULES” and, thus, no clearance is forthcoming. My negotiations with the medical establishment fizzled, I resolved to move on to school and university administration. Initially I thought I would just speak to the school folks myself, explaining that I would have the medical clearance within a few months and counting on them to let her start school. The problem is that they don’t really speak English and I don’t really speak Chinese. Once I realized I was going to have to have someone speaking for me, I decided that I would just ask an important person that is involved with our visit.

That was over a week ago and I had not heard whether or not the important person is willing to speak to the school – much less whether or not the school will let Mei-mei in. I ran into the principal today and she asked when Mei-mei would start. I explained that I was having trouble with medical clearance but perhaps Mei-mei could start without it. She made a face that to me suggested that I had asked for the moon and said no.

Now that I have time to reflect on the whole situation, I realize that I have likely made a mistake by making these requests and wonder how it will play out. Is it shocking and completely inappropriate that I have asked explicitly to be excepted from the rules? Will my request to have the important person take up my cause be met with stony and potentially face-saving silence? This is most likely. Or, the failure of Mei-mei to get in to the kindergarten being construed as a problem of international relations, has the important person taken the issue to even more important people and is my request working its way up the chain until Mei-mei gets special dispensation to attend kindergarten from the Provincial governor herself? I am quite concerned that I have committed some cross-cultural faux pas and I worry that I have made the issue too big and run the risk of causing trouble for other people and compromising relationships.

The frustrating thing is, if I had been thinking a bit more clearly, I might have realized that a successful first strategy could have been the one I most deplore: asserting my Western privilege to be an exception and remain (or pretend to be) gloriously ignorant of the rules and the language. This strategy works when you look like me and are walking in and out of stores with your backpacks while everyone else is either checking their bags or having them searched. I also used it to get into one of the campus libraries one time even though I do not have the required campus card – just sailed right by the security check without giving them a glance and tried to look like I had a right to do so. I am sure that my Western privilege works in a lot of other ways that are invisible to me.

In the case of Mei-mei’s schooling, instead of canceling my registration meeting in the face of abnormal test results, if I had showed up with child in tow, waving my tuition money and pooh-poohing the required medical forms, saying something like, “Oh, we will get those to you soon. We are so excited to start! Let’s take Mei-mei to meet her teacher and classmates” I suspect that I might have easily had a month before the principal asked the teacher to remind me of the problem of medical clearance.

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