It had been a busy week. It was the end of my visit to northeast China and every day was packed with lunches, dinners, and afternoon coffee meetings with friends and former students who wanted to see me one last time before I left.
In the midst of everything, my brother Michael and I hadn't had a chance to go to the store to stock up on essentials. And we were out of toilet paper. So I decided to make a quick trip to the supermarket near our school before meeting some of our Korean students for lunch. Michael told me to "spare no expense" and get the best kind I could find, and that he would pay me back. It was worth the few extra cents per roll to have perforated squares that actually tear on the lines, and the bit of extra softness rather than the cheap sandpaper kind I usually get. So I splurged on the 18-roll bag "Kleenex" brand with the golden Lab puppy on the package. I didn't have time to drop off the toilet paper at home before my lunch appointment, so I had to take it with me.
Knowing I couldn't show up at our students' house empty-handed, I hurriedly popped into the fruit market on the way to pick up some tangerines. Chinese culture dictates that a guest should bring fruit or juice when they are invited to someone's house for dinner. So armed with my toilet paper and tangerines I knocked on the door of the apartment.
Sixteen-year-old "Peter," one of our Korean high school students, met me at the door with a big grin and quickly took my bags, coat, hat, and scarf for me. He was a gracious Asian host, thanking me for coming and showing me where I could sit and offering me a drink. He thanked me for the tangerines, putting them in a bowl on the table where we all could start eating them. And then he smiled really big and thanked me for the toilet paper, putting it in the bathroom. It all happened so quickly that I didn't realize what was going on until the toilet paper was already put away.
What could I do? I couldn't take it back. Peter thought it was a gift. And then I remembered that in Korean culture, toilet paper is a common gift for a guest to bring when invited to someone's house. So it was natural for Peter to assume the toilet paper was for him!
On the last day I was in town, Michael and I had a final lunch with my Korean "host mom" and her family. As we were getting ready to leave their house, one of the kids came back from a run to the store where he had picked up a package of toilet paper rolls. Michael eyed the bag and then asked if he could please have just one roll to take back to his house. We told them the story of how our toilet paper had been taken from us, and our host mom thought it was hilarious. So she agreed to let us have one roll.
We were going from her house to another Korean family's house for a last goodbye, so Michael decided he better hide the toilet paper in his coat or they might take it from him! He stuffed it deep into his coat pocket and didn't take it out until we were safely home and beyond the danger of having it stolen!