In which I rant about China

I’ve been in China for less than two weeks now, and it’s really getting to me. I’ve known many Chinese people over the course of my life. Some Chinese by nationality and some only by extraction. Some of them are two, three or more generations removed from China, and some only two weeks. I liked some, I disliked others. They’ve all just been people. Regular folks with the same mix of good and bad as everybody else. But in China, removed from the adulterating effects of the West, my experience was entirely different.

I know very well that the Chinese aren’t a naturally demonstrative or expressive people. They don’t smile at strangers. They reserve their intimacy for family. Family isn’t just the most important thing in China, it’s the only thing. People in Western cultures are accustomed to dividing our affections and loyalties between family, friends and strangers to some degree. 50% of your goodwill goes to your family, say, and then 30% to your friends. The other 20% goes to random strangers you meet throughout the day - holding doors for people, not jumping queues, helping people with directions. The sort of thing that builds a community and makes cities into liveable places. It’s not like that here. If I had to put some gut-feeling numbers to it, I’d say that the Chinese reserve 90% of their goodwill for their families (which, admittedly, can be very extended), 10% for friends and associates, and something approaching zero for strangers.

I’ve heard a lot of apologia and a lot of semi-explanations for this. People will tell you that you’re judging unfairly, viewing China through the distorting lens of a western upbringing. That’s true. As a westerner, my ingrained sense of politeness and how to behave is precisely at odds with the norm here. What I think of as polite friendliness is more likely to be interpreted as creepy weirdness and an unwelcome imposition by the average Chinese passer-by. But that’s not the whole story. Strangers are genuinely treated discourteously or indifferently here.

To strangers, and especially to a westerner in China - strangers twice removed - the Chinese are appallingly, unspeakably rude. It’s awful, sometimes, being in a crowd in China. Just walking down the street in a big city can be a numbing, brutalizing experience. You’ll have your toes crushed and your ribs cracked by vicious elbows. You’ll be in constant danger of blindness from every woman’s umbrella, which she carries for the dual purpose of shading her from the sun and as a weapon that she wields viciously and indiscriminately at eye level.

You’ll be followed from aisle to aisle in stores by workers who watch your hands like hawks, assuming you’ll steal something. Reflexively, not having learned better yet, you’ll smile at people or hold the door for them, only to have them look at you as if you’d just licked a dog’s ass. People will push you out of their way at shop counters, elevators or taxis without a backward glance. They’ll spit on your feet or blow cigarette smoke in your face. Why? Because they don’t know you, and so they hardly give enough of a shit about you even to recognize you as a living creature, let alone a human being.

Why is it this way, in China? It can’t be the (undeniable) crowding of Chinese cities - India’s more crowded and I found everyone to be unfailingly cheerful. By the same token, it can’t be competition for scarce resources - I’ve visited a dozen poorer, friendlier countries. I think it’s a collective hangover from the Cultural Revolution years of paranoia, distrust and betrayal. Sheryl thinks it’s a nationwide case of only-child disease - the so-called Little Emperor Syndrome. Older people are ruder, though, which would seem to support my hypothesis over hers. It’s much worse in the larger cities - the time we spent in small towns or villages was a great deal easier. Too, people got friendlier the further south in China we went. So maybe this is mainly an urban, Northern Chinese problem.

I’m certain I would have had a vastly different experience in China if I spoke the language, or if I looked Chinese. China’s a very closed place, to a foreigner. In many other countries, social interaction and behaviour is allowed to be visible, but in China it’s all hidden away behind locked doors and blank faces. It’s very hard to find a way in to that kind of deliberate inscrutability. It’s certainly not all bad. There are still plenty of nice, friendly, generous people, and there’s still always someone to help a traveller in difficulty. You just have to try a lot harder to find them, here. Every culture has different behavioural indicators of politeness, and China’s are about as different from those of the west as it’s possible to be. Things get much easier once you acclimatise and stop expecting things from the Chinese that they’re not prepared to give.

In the end, I have no real insight to offer. I can only report my own personal experiences, and I had a very mixed time in China. There are a lot of interesting things to see there, but the challenges are immense. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I regret visiting or that the overall experience was negative, but it was a close thing. This world tour of ours has taken me to 37 countries as I write this, and China, still, is the place I liked least. So the dispatches for the coming weeks will probably be riddled with ranting and negativity. Sensitive readers might want to skip ahead to Vietnam when those dispatches become available. I regret the unpleasantness, but I’m writing a travelogue, not an after-school special - the bad comes with the good. If I have to live it, then you have to read it.


One Comment on this Dispatch:

June 20th, 2010

I think there are two kinds of travellers…. the ones who Love India, and the ones who love China.
I know what catigory we fit in :).

¬ Sheryl
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
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