Yesterday, August 13, was International Left-Handers’ Day, and no one here even noticed. After running out to my mailbox to check for cards and gifts (I’m sure they’ll arrive soon; China Post is slow) and waiting around the apartment all day for flower deliveries (none, but I’m allergic to most flowers anyway), I finally placed a solitary candle in a cupcake, lit it, and sang “Happy Left-Handers’ Day” to myself. I didn’t have anyone to celebrate this important (and totally real) holiday with me because even though they call it “International,” it’s really not. There are no left-handers in China, the world’s largest country.
Plenty of Chinese are born left-handed—probably about 10-12 percent of the population, based on statistics from other countries—but they aren’t allowed to stay that way. Vigilant parents and strict schoolteachers work together to turn children who favor their left hands into righties: they’ll grow up never knowing the frustration of being unable to operate a can opener or squabbling with other children over the single pair of left-handed scissors in the classroom. Ink won’t smear as they move their hands across the page while writing, nor will they have to rearrange people at the dinner table so they can secure a prime spot on one of the left ends to avoid bumping elbows with dining companions. Life will be so easy.
Eliminating these irritations, of course, isn’t the reason that Chinese adults train kids here out of left-handedness. I’ve always heard that they do it because it’s easier for teachers to instruct large classes of young children in writing Chinese characters if everyone is doing the same thing with the same hand; Chinese schools aren’t known for their flexibility or tolerance of individuality. For many years, American teachers did the same thing when left-handed children appeared in their classrooms, though that ended several decades ago—my father and his two younger siblings managed to go through elementary school in the 1960s-70s and emerge with their left-handedness intact.
In China, though, forcing left-handed children to go right is an absolute. As a result, someone will almost always comment when I pick up a pen or pair of chopsticks with my left hand, and they’ll watch me carefully to see if I write or eat in an unusual manner. It is, like my red hair and freckles, just one more mark of my foreignness here, another way that people can catalogue how China differs from the rest of the world.
“China doesn’t have any left-handed people,” I inevitably hear whenever someone strikes up a conversation on the topic with me. Occasionally, the other person will go a step further and declare, “You can’t write Chinese characters with your left hand.” If I jot down a character or two to demonstrate that I do, in fact, write Chinese left-handed, my show-and-tell will often be dismissed. “Maybe you can write them, but they’re not right.” Even when my stroke order is perfect (the sequence in which you compose a character really matters in Chinese) and the character is technically correct, my left-slanting characters will never be viewed as “right.”
I’ve been told this for a decade now, since I began my first-year Chinese class in fall 2003. Once a month or so, our professor would bring in ink and brushes so we could practice our Chinese calligraphy. As Professor Liu circled the room commenting on our efforts, he would always sigh over my ink blobs and shaky strokes, then shake his head and absolve me of any guilt: “You’re left-handed, and you just can’t write Chinese characters correctly with your left hand.” He didn’t seem to agree with my assertion that the real problem was my total lack of artistic talent or ability to wield a brush. I think he half-hoped I would switch to being right-handed in Chinese—even if the results were disastrous, at least I would be doing things correctly.
I never made any attempt to turn myself ambidextrous, though, and have become accustomed to the interest that my left-handedness draws in China. In fact, many people here will often hasten to assure me that being left-handed is a positive thing: after all, they inform me, lots of brilliant and famous people are lefties. (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are the two usually mentioned first.) So I’m in good company, even if I had to celebrate International Left-Handers’ Day alone.