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Day 117 – Chinese Went Chinese (Thoughts on Chinese Culture on The Bund)

June 28, 2010

Dateline: Shanghai, China – Tuesday, June 28, 2010

Maybe I’m an idiot, but I figured China would be more like Japan, a collectivist culture where the good of the many superseded those of the individual. It’s the stereotypical Asian mindset, right? A society where the group’s interests are paramount. Where the individual is a footnote, not the center of the universe.

After nearly a month in China, I realize that this was a silly misconception. Today, while walking through the Pudong area of Shanghai, I mused that Chinese people are the most self-centered people I’ve seen.

To understand why, let’s look at what I’ve seen and heard. From what I can tell, Chinese don’t seem to see anything beyond their own faces. To a Chinese person, the world revolves around himself and everyone else is sort of like a ghost—they’re there, but he only notices others when they draw attention to themselves. Otherwise, he cluelessly walks right through them.

For example, I’ve been bumped into without apology more in my one month in China than I have in my previous 32 years. People just don’t look where they’re going. I’ve had men run into me on an empty sidewalk because they didn’t see me standing there. Best of all, they don’t notice that they’ve bumped me so they never apologize.

I’ve had an old woman put her hands in the middle of my back and shove me out of a train on her way to the exit. She wanted to get out and she believed she had to get it for herself. I mean, why would I step out of the way for her?

People regularly cut in line. I was next in line at a subway ticket machine. When the person in front of me finished and I was stepping to the terminal when an old lady slipped in and started pushing buttons and feeding coins. No excuses. No eye contact. No shame. I’ve seen the same thing happen to local Chinese at long lines at ticket counters. People here are out to get theirs, even if that means taking yours.

My favorite example is elevators and train cars. Every other culture I’ve seen has figured out that before you board an elevator or a subway car, you should let people get out before trying to get in (speed, efficiency, creating space on the train/elevator before trying to fill it). The Chinese have not. Even though the government has placed little arrows showing that people should step aside for passengers getting off the train, people here will literally block the exit and push their way on before passengers have a chance to get off. The boarders think that if they don’t fight for a spot, they won’t get it.

The inability to look beyond oneself can be more subtle, though. Bri works with Chinese doctors who can’t see that they have room to improve. In self-evaluations, they all give themselves the top score in every category. When Bri pointed out that there’s no way that they’re perfect, the Chinese doctors got offended. They didn’t understand that in the world beyond themselves, there might be someone doing the same job, only better. They are the standard by which they judge themselves, therefore they are perfect.

A host of people who’ve worked with Chinese say that a contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Word on the street is that Krow’s Nest, a pizza place, used to be a partnership between an ex-pat named Krow and a Chinese person. Krow provided restaurant business expertise, created the menu, and successfully catered to ex-pats. In time, though, the customer base became mostly Chinese (there are a lot of them in China). The Chinese partner, having learned how to run a successful restaurant from Krow, decided he didn’t need Krow anymore, so he cut him out. He didn’t buy Krow out. He didn’t’ compensate Krow. He just took over. I’ve heard similar stories, many between Chinese business people.

What’s fair or what’ been agreed to is not as important as getting yours. Unless there’s a longstanding relationship, Chinese will neither give nor expect any quarter (and even then. . .).

Even the idea of maintaining harmony is a selfish idea. Chinese people are interested in harmony only to the extent that they themselves are not humiliated. Don’t make me look bad in public and I won’t make you look bad in public. We’ll just stab each other in the back, quiet like. Doctors at Bri’s hospital don’t confront each other about problems (that would be uncomfortable). They just quietly undermine each other to management.

It’s important to note that I don’t think that Chinese are selfish, because it’s not like they’re being greedy. It’s even hard to accuse them of being rude, because they have no concept of what it means to be polite. The culture just doesn’t have the same idea of propriety that much of the world does. To paraphrase the philosopher Christopher Rock, Chinese people aren’t rude, Chinese people are just Chinese.

Some of this has to do with the country being so crowded and people having to fight for resources. Some also probably comes from all the only children–every child has grown up a prince or a princess. As an adult, they believe they are the most important person in the world. They don’t understand that sometimes it’s better to share.

Regardless, it’s the way that it is. No place I’ve ever visited has ever felt so foreign. In some ways it’s quite freeing. For the past month, I’ve guiltlessly run into people without so much as giving an apologetic look. Saying “excuse me” is going to be a bit of a culture shock.

GALLERY: Click through to today’s gallery to see more pictures of Pudong and the Bund as well as one picture of Mervyn with a terrible (non) haircut.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2010 11:20 pm

    Well, that explains our experiences with mainland Chinese in S. America, as well as on airliners heading here and there. We were just astounded at what seemed like us to be complete rudeness, but which appeared to be standard operating procedure to the Chinese person in question……

    Amazing.

    • July 6, 2010 1:40 am

      It’s a totally different culture. Like nothing I’ve seen before. What’s interesting is that certain Chinese–people from Hong Kong, Shanghai, and depending on your sentiment, Taiwan–are just as apalled as Westerners. It adds to the regionalism. They don’t want to be associated with their “less sophisticated” countrymen.

      Max said to me that one generation here is equal to five in the U.S. It will be really interesting to see where the culture’s at in 20 years.

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