When I traveled to China in my teens and twenties, I inevitably committed cultural faux pas.
For instance, when I spent the summer of 1995 in China, I kept in touch with friends and family by writing letters. I had been using e-mail in Hong Kong for about a year at that point, but this new way of communicating was virtually non-existent on the mainland.
I wrote many letters that summer in China.
When I went to the post office in a small city in Hubei province, where my former in-laws lived, I paid for enough postage to send this letter (left) to my grandma in Albany, New York. I then took the stamps to a counter where I planned to adhere them to the front of an envelope with a sticky paste, not unlike a gritty rubber cement.
“You don’t put stamps there,” my then husband told me.
He flipped the envelope over and glued one stamp over the envelope flap. And then another.
“Like this,” he said as if I had never mailed a letter. Soon five stamps lined the back of the envelope, right over the sealed flap (plus a small stamp below it).
I’m not sure how this custom started. Was it to prevent censors from steaming open envelopes to see if letters contained anti-government writings? Or was it just a cultural difference without a story behind it?
It seemed like an extra step for the postmaster to check the destination, then flip the envelope over to verify the correct postage. But who was I to argue with tradition?