Public Vs. Private China

A couple of blog articles have popped onto my radar screen today concerning a topic that I wanted to talk about – but I wasn’t sure how to go about it.

Public manners in China

When you first learn about Chinese culture and meet Chinese people, you think, they are so gracious, so kind. Upon entering a friendship you may be overwhelmed by their thoughtfulness. There is a ritual for welcoming guests in the home involving tea and food. Families are very close and often live all together. The elders are highly respected and are cared for in the home.

It would seem that there is a high value placed on the family – the whole – not the individual. Maintaining harmony is a very important value in society.

So why is it that if you try to get into an elevator someone will push you out of the way? Or if you try to get train tickets there will be an inexplicable mass of persons pushing and pulling towards the window instead of a calm, orderly, respectful line? Why will the bus or subway doors open and everyone try to get on at the same time, even before the departing passengers get off? Where is the harmony in public places?

This is the question I have had for nearly a year now. From what I’ve been reading, there is no one explanation. Some people say that everything in China can somehow be explained by the phrase “they have 5000 years of history.” You hear this all the time. I read that the years of Confucianism, which valued the relationships between families and friends, but not strangers, has had a big influence on this issue. It is the idea that “I don’t know you so to hell with you…” Of course, if they know you it is a different story. (They really are very kind & gracious with friends and even with acquaintances.)

I’ve also heard the explanation that living with another billion people in less than comfortable conditions can lead you to not particularly care about people you do not know. Others say that the effects of the Cultural Revolution, only 30 years out, are still very much with the population. During the CR, neighbors turned on each other, even children ratted on their parents. No one could be trusted. Perhaps that is still played out in elevators and trains everywhere across the nation.

Public manners in China is very difficult for me to understand. It takes a long time to get used to it and I don’t think that many Westerners are fully capable of dealing with it. For some reason we take it all personally. I’m not saying that in our own societies we are much better. If you bump someone and you say “sorry,” do you really mean it? Who knows, but we don’t aggressively push each other out of the way and we usually let people leave elevators or subway cars before trying to get in. Sometimes dealing with people in public here can be really stressing. Other times it provides great comic relief. I suppose it depends on your mood.

Other bloggers have written on this topic, perhaps more eloquently than me.
Public Manners in China
We’re All on the Same Bus
How China is Making into a Worse Person

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3 Responses to “Public Vs. Private China”

  1. superkimbo Says:

    It’s interesting that you mention the pushing and shoving. I’ve never been to China, but I know the full-on melee of trying to get on or off the U-bahn in Munich. For a somewhat reserved culture, which also highly values close friends and family well over curtosy to strangers, there were some serious elbow jabs and foot crunchers I had to endure before I figured out how to travel on public transportation.

    Now, I can’t speak for China, but I do wonder what foriegners must think of the New York subway. I can’t remember ever seeing New Yorkers line up to get on the train….

    Having said that, I’ve had similar experiences in Italy too. it’s pretty hilarious to see a horde of Italians rush the ticket counter at the movie theater, pushing and shoving to get to the register first, complete oblivious to the concept of a line…

  2. global gal Says:

    I’d say that China beats out any other place I’ve been! The most civilly obedient place I’ve been is Vienna, Austria. As for Spain, my beloved adopted country, well let’s just say they have something in common with those Italians you mentioned. They do queue, but not all the time and they are rebellious at times.

    I have to think that the extreme civility in Vienna – while a novelty we really enjoyed – must get boring after a while. The DH and I were jaywalking just to see the expressions on the Austrians’ faces.

  3. superkimbo Says:

    There is an element to that in Germany as well. There are signs everywhere in Munich above the cross walks that say:

    “The children are watching”

    Meaning: don’t cross against red man, because the children will think it’s OK.

    As opposed to: I will be responsible for teaching my own child to look both ways before blindly trusting that “green man” knows when I should cross the street.

    We had plent of encounters with Germans when we would be jaywalking and they would actually scream at us because we’re setting a bad example for the children. Our usual excuse was “we’re foriegners.” That probably wasn’t the best move, but Germans can be scary…

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