Friday, October 19, 2007


Recently an American workmate said, half-jokingly, “China is great… except for the Chinese people!” Complaining about Chinese manners is a common pastime for foreigners. Some merely express shock at the spitting, the motorbikes on the sidewalks, and the blatant theft of taxis that clearly stopped for you. Getting on the bus during rush hour resembles a medieval battle. The little old ladies are the worst: they push and jab and shove. Then there are the differences in relationships, the concept of “losing face,” the intricacies of cultivating guanxi, or “connections.” These cultural differences have been written about extensively by Westerners trying to “understand” China; my own understanding of them remains sketchy, partly because, I think, I’m uncomfortable with trying to fit the way people behave under refined labels and explanations.

Most foreigners who have lived here for some time accept Chinese manners with weary resignation, admitting that they’re not here to “change China” but wishing things could be just a little bit different. I have certainly had my moments of incomprehension at people’s rudeness: the staring, the giggling, the constant cigarette smoke, the impossibility of walking even on the sidewalk without fear of being run over, the blunt comments about my weight or a pimple on my face (“Oh, you have a pimple!” “You’re fat.”). Recently we were having trouble with our water pipes in our apartment, so we called a plumber. Not only did he smoke (expected), he also decided to leave his cigarette butt on the floor of our shower (unexpected). “Don’t worry,” my roommate said when I complained about it. “He smokes so much that he’ll die soon.” Somehow, that did not reassure me.

Some take the complaining to a much higher level – take a look at the incredibly cynical blog to see what I mean. People like this have a strange relationship with China. The country is like someone whose every habit, innocuous or not, turns into unrelenting irritation, like spending too much time with a roommate. My question for these kinds of people is: why are you still here?

My workmate’s comment is not new. (I’ve heard it in other contexts – a Turkish friend of my family’s was once told something similar on a plane in reference to Turkey, from another European passenger.) Such a statement could be unpackaged – European manners are the standard; those who don’t live up to the standard are “uncivilized.” What interests me is the degree to which Chinese people agree that they are uncivilized. My workmate made his comment in front of our Chinese colleagues, who, if they were offended, didn’t show it. (Surely they must have been at least somewhat offended.) In Chinese cities there are constant and unrelenting campaigns to make Chinese people more “civilized” (wenming). It is unclear what precisely the word is referring to, but it is woven into society in the form of signage: signs implore people to be civilized in relation to protecting the environment, to standing on the bus, to waiting in a line, to driving on the street, to walking in a park, to sitting in a movie theater. Class is certainly a factor – the higher trying to educate the lower. And, of course, there is also a strong sense of China trying to reclaim its “civilized” past (whatever form that would take), both for itself and for the foreign gaze.


hkm said...

china is definitely not for the faint of heart when it comes to manners! what is personal space in a land of a billion people? when i visit my relatives over there, i see my uncle extinguishing his cigarette butt on the floor of my grandma's house (and she can barely walk, never mind clean!) spitting i heard, happens because people believe phlegm is some kind of ill and vile thing that cannot be kept in the body. (but apparently it's ok to be spit on the ground for everyone else to get sick from. sweet mother.) and i definitely am told by my uncles and aunts that i'm fat!! pimple? a topic of dinner conversation for about 5 minutes, while you sit there mortified.

i agree, the old ladies are NUTS! even the ones in canada in chinatown could push linebackers out of the way. generally, i find in asian countries, elders are held in such high respect that these old ladies think they have earned the right to be pushy.

so, all that to say, i concur and hope you have built up a thick skin. :D it'll be a long time before manners change in china. :|

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