Hey! What’s under there? Under where?

By the

February 22, 2001

It takes a lot to embarrass me. I am the girl who does the kind of stuff you thought little teens made up to submit to Seventeen magazine’s “Poor Me: Listen to This” section. I do things such as tuck my skirt into my stockings or trip while walking across a stage in front of a large audience. Usually, I just laugh with everyone else at the jackass who dropped her lunch all over the floor of the cafeteria, even if that jackass happens to be me. But there is one instance when I get extremely embarrassed and shy: when I have to wash a bunch of underwear in the laundry room.

The laundry room is a tough place in general. Should someone decide to leave his or her clothes in for one more hour, you will see the glares of the masses who have been waiting hours for a dryer. And you can cut the tension with a knife as he or she explains that the clothes “weren’t completely dry yet.”

There is a lot of “performance anxiety” involved with doing laundry. I feel a lot of pressure to make the transition from the washer to the dryer to the laundry bag in a smooth, successful, speedy process. When lots of people are waiting to use the machines, all eyes are on the one girl who is emptying her machine at a speed that can only be described as kick-her-ass slow. When 10 people are waiting for one machine, multiply that pressure to vacate by a thousand; nobody wants to be that annoying kid who takes her sweet-ass time clearing out of the way.

I am now friends with a guy from Village A whom I met during a rather awkward encounter in the laundry room when I dropped some of my wet laundry at his feet on my way to the dryer. And yes, I dropped my underwear. There was absolutely no chance that I would drop a pair of shorts or a tank top. Of all things to fall out of my hands as I ambled over to my “claimed” dryer, I dropped a big ole’ pair of grandma underwear.

Now, the chance of dropping intimate clothing at the feet of a stranger is directly proportional to how awkward the subsequent encounter will be. Normally, when people drop something, a polite person picks it up for them. For example, if I dropped my dryer sheets, you’d pick them up; if you dropped your laundry basket, I’d pick it up. If I drop my underwear at your feet however, you should politely ignore the fact that I just flung a pair of Hanes-Her-Way at you and keep your eyes focused squarely on the pile of shorts which you are folding. Then, please allow me ample time to sheepishly slink over and fetch my undies that are now shamelessly sprawled all over the concrete floor for the entire world to see. Finally, just nod politely. Please don’t laugh at me until I am out of earshot.

Laundry rooms are just one of the places that are ripe for observing the interactions of people and the unwritten rules that we all tend to obey. It seems that there are unwritten rules all over campus. I remember last year in Harbin how the people on the ninth floor felt as if they had special elevator privileges and would all rally against the annoying third floor people if they ever tried to take the elevator. I lived on the fifth floor and was never quite sure where I fell into the grand scheme of “elevator rules.” Technically, it is OK to take the elevator to the fifth floor; but when you are crammed all the way in the back with a crowd of people from the eighth and ninth floors, it feels pretty crappy to try and slither your way out past all of the contemptuous stares.

But I may have discovered the epitome of all unwritten but mandatory rules: those that govern the New York City subway system. God help whatever poor soul tries to walk up the “down” stairs during rush hour. This past summer, I was that poor fool.

On my first day of work, I was getting off at a crowded stop where hoards of angry capitalists were trying to shove themselves up two narrow escalators. When I saw that there was a huge line for the escalators, I decided to take the stairs, even though there were packs of people swarming down as I was trying to ascend. It wasn’t until I was halfway up the stairs that I realized my error?both escalators were going up, so the people coming down had no option but to take the stairs; there I was, selfishly making their thankless duty more difficult. No wonder they yelled at me. I literally had to shove them out of my way as I weaseled myself into their path. In retrospect, it is funny to think about. But at the time, when two men hissed “Bitch” at me as I crept past them, I wanted to bury my head in shame. At least I have learned something now.

I have really high expectations for myself. I have the fullest confidence that I will continue to embarrass myself in the years to come?especially in situations where it is most socially awkward. But, as long as I can laugh at myself, I will never cease to be entertained. In the meantime, I’m going to start writing some of these rules down.

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