Impoliteness & China

PolitenessEvery foreigner who’s come to China for a length of time has said or thought some variation of this: China is such a rude country.

This statement opens up a large can of worms. Who decided what’s rude and polite in a foreign country? What does it mean to be rude? Is an action impolite if the person performing it has no idea that anyone considers it rude? And finally, while I hate to use cultural differences as an excuse for anything, some actions that we as foreigners consider rude, really are the result of a vast cultural gap between two groups of people.

Common Complaints

Before writing this article, I asked some friends what behaviors they’d noticed in China that were impolite, coming from both Chinese and Westerners. As one might expect, the list was heavily slanted towards rude actions that Chinese people performed. Here’s some of the major complaints:

  1. Spitting, especially in public places
  2. Not lining up (queuing) for anything, and not respecting a person’s “place in line”
  3. Yelling at waiters in restaurants
  4. Staring, pointing and taking pictures of people (foreigners)
  5. Honking all the time when driving, and the general lack of driving etiquette
  6. Not respecting “personal space”
  7. Never being afraid to ask private questions to strangers

Whew, that’s a lot. On the other side, the main responses I got regarding foreigners were regarding foreigners refusing to accept or become a part of Chinese life or culture, and foreigners openly stating, in the presence of Chinese people, all the things they didn’t like about China in a very direct manner.

Bicycles in China

Let’s try to address a few of these without resorting to “that’s just a cultural difference.” There’s a difference between behavior that differs from culture to culture (for example, stepping on money in Thailand, because it has the kings face on it, is one of the rudest things one can do), and behavior that is rude or unkind on a more basic human level.

Spitting & Talking Loud

China spittingIt’s difficult to argue that these are good in any way, but honestly a lot of the people who told me they noticed these behaviors were Chinese people. When looked at a bit closer, it is mainly the older (or uneducated) generation that does these things.

One thing that needs to be said about China is that the generational gap, and different ways of thinking, are the sharpest I’ve encountered. Older generations in China have endured cultural changes and development that we as foreigners might not be able to truly comprehend. Does this excuse spitting on the street? No, but it helps to understand that this behavior is something that is most likely on the way out. A lot of my younger Chinese friends I talked to said they despise this behavior.

Gawking at Laowai

One other rude behavior that falls under this category of old behavior is the staring, pointing at, and taking pictures of and with foreigners. It’s hard to comprehend that as little as ten years ago in many cities, Chinese people had never seen a foreigner before. I went to Komodo Dragon Island in Indonesia several years ago and literally couldn’t stop staring and taking pictures of these massive lizards. I hadn’t seen anything like them before. I’m not saying Chinese people view us foreigners as giant lizards (well, not all of us), but the principle remains the same. While it’s irritating, I think for all of us when we first came to China we loved this attention.

There’s nowhere else in the world I’ve been where people think you’re this special (in a good way) just for looking different. There might be a day not too long from now where people in China won’t care that we’re foreigners. I, for one, will miss having my picture taken on that day.

China Driving

While I said before I don’t like to use “cultural differences” as a blanket excuse for anything, there’s one example of rudeness, however, that must be explained this way: traffic. Where I’m from, if someone were to honk a horn at you while driving the way Chinese people do, they’d be asking for a fight. My blood still boils sometimes when some obnoxious taxi driver just continuously blares his horn as he drives down the street. That’s a natural reaction based on the culture in which I grew up.

The sounds is grating, but what are horns really for? To alert people, especially when there might be a dangerous situation. In China’s traffic system, one with no real rules, horns are a necessity. I’ve tried to explain to Chinese friends that in America, to honk a horn at someone like this is a real sign of disrespect, but the fact remains that in China it simply isn’t. Just like cutting someone off is expected. Everyone drives this way, but somehow the system works.

China traffic

By now I’ve delved pretty deep into a lot of what foreigners here consider rude behavior, but let’s look at the other side of the coin. It’s important to remember where we are and why we’re here. This isn’t our country. That doesn’t mean we have to agree with how it’s run, or how its society functions, but it’s a bit useless to constantly complain about it as many foreigners do. To take an (utterly idiotic) American phrase: “if you don’t like it, you can leave”.

A Sense of Adventure

It’s also important to think about what brought us all here and what keeps us here. For many of us, it was that sense of adventure, a chance to explore the unknown. What keeps us here differs from person to person, but here’s a few reasons.

Much of the scenery surrounding Chengdu is captivating. Especially Western Sichuan:

Western Sichuan

But we’re in the city, and in many ways it’s incredibly easy to live here. While it may not be the most glamorous job, it’s unfathomably easy to make a living as an English teacher here with no experience and very little effort. Tell me another profession that’s going to pay you as well (compared to the average Chinese salary) just based on your country of origin and the color of your skin. Besides that, China provides many of us the opportunity to find work as musicians, models, dancers, DJs and other such professions that would be pipe dreams back in our native countries.

The Bright Side

Despite all this, despite how welcoming China is to foreigners for the most part, many of us still do nothing but complain about life here, often directly to Chinese people. It’s a very elitist thing to impose your values, morals, and sense of right and wrong on a group of people. As an American, I feel that this is one thing people around the world despise my country for doing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not innocent of this behavior at all. I’ve caught myself many times telling Chinese people what I think is wrong with their country. Often times, they even agree, or at least don’t get angry with me. Why? Because they’re being polite probably.

One thing that Chinese people will almost never do, out of politeness, is criticize you or your opinions to your face. That, along with being incredibly open and friendly, are two of the most redeeming qualities I find in this country. The openness is especially noteworthy. People will come up to you on the streets just to say hello. It’s way too easy to get free drinks at a bar or club just for being foreign. As a guy, I don’t think I need to delve too deeply into how easy it is to meet Chinese girls and get them to “like” you. Strangers will often help you to do things simply because you’re a foreigner in their country.

Chengdu street

While all these things may not be derived from “politeness”, so to speak, they are good qualities of a country whose behavior we all too often dismiss as rude and uncivilized. Just the other day I encountered a situation where, while waiting in a Starbucks line, an English guy launched into an expletive-filled tirade directed at a Chinese guy who he thought was trying to cut him in line. The Chinese guy said that he was trying to look at what pastries they had in the case in the front. Whatever the truth was, the western guy’s reaction embarrassed me, as I know that his explosion would forever remind that Chinese man how awful “foreigners” can be. This western guy actually went as far as to call the Chinese man a “stupid Chinese c***” in an effort to criticize the Chinese guy for having a lack of manners. If that’s not the pot calling the kettle black, I don’t know what is.

I want to reiterate that the point I’m trying to make is not that one culture or country is ruder than another. Nor am I trying to say that we, as foreigners in China, should dismiss every rude action we encounter as a cultural difference. We are living in a foreign country with a drastically different history (especially recently) than any of our homelands. Whenever I encounter a situation that makes my blood boil in China, I try to think of this.

Try to realize that the old man who just missed hitting me with his loogie is quite possibly someone who grew up in a rural village during the cultural revolution, has little to no formal education, and has no idea that what he’s doing would be considered rude by anyone. Do I still see red and start swearing to myself when some taxi driver starts blaring his horn at me for 10 seconds as I’m in front of him on my bike? Yes, that’s never going to change. It’s a product of where I grew up. But I try not to take the lessons and morals I grew up with and enforce them on the people of another culture who’s country I’m lucky enough to live and be treated quite well in.

What do you think about this topic? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.

24 thoughts on “Impoliteness & China”

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report
  2. Nice article, Deven. You’re right on.

    I went into a Wowo in that unbearable neighborhood of tongzilin after getting my check done. I sat at that window bar thing and consumed my purchase. These two white, hungover losers came in talking just as loud as any Chinese I’ve ever heard. Just bullshitting everything and talking about some “slut from last night” or whatever. When they got to the register to purchase their candy bars, the alpha-ape guy started arguing with the old auntie lady who was working the counter. He was trying to tell her in his squawking mandarin off-tones that she was short-changing him two mao or something. His dumbass friend just stood there like a retard. He was accusing this middle-aged cashier woman of something that was not only negligible but obviously not true. I heard her response, in which she clearly explained his purchase and correct change. He wouldn’t have it. There’s a lot of local behavior that drives me up the wall, but white people in Asia embarrass me on a completely different level. Like Europeans in SE Asia. Holy shit.

    • Thanks! Yeah, I’ve encountered quite a few foreigners like this in my time here as well, and it bothers me mainly because I feel like these people give a bad name to all foreigners. And don’t even get me started on some of the tourists in SE Asia…

    • That is unfortunate to hear. Some people are jerks no matter where you are. However, the article is about widespread cultural practices which are widely interpreted by visitors to be impolite behavior. Quite different from isolated experiences with rude individuals like you describe. I have never witnessed the type of thing you describe (a foreigner berating an innocent local person) but if I did, I would say something. That is embarrassing since that kind of behavior indirectly reflects on all Western expats in China.

  3. I think it is a common problem anywhere in this world. Pay a visit to Texas. Or lets have a trip to London. Same issue. Nice article and right pointing this facts out. Maybe some will learn a lesson.

    • Whaaa? Texans are renowned for politeness, especially to visitors. People will go out of their way to make sure you have a good time while you’re there. And Britain? The land of politeness.

      Did some Texan steal your British girlfriend or something?

    • Please do pay a visit to Texas. You will find the people there incredibly friendly and engaging.

      However, when others denigrate it out of hand, such ignorance produces justifiable, but restrained retorts.

  4. In any discussion about Chinese politeness, we must remember that the Communist Party deliberately eradicated it for 40 years. People with manners were considered bourgeoisie. Proletarians would spit and chew with their mouths open and that was all right, it meant they were safe.

    This was no laughing matter. You know that thing you do where you raise your pinky finger when you drink tea? That was a dead giveaway you were a right-winger, and whoever saw you do it was sure to denounce you.

    Let’s also remember the horrid conditions in China, which did not exactly inspire respect for your fellow citizens. The truck arrives at your factory with winter coats for the harsh cold – but there are 500 people, and due to right-wing saboteurs and traitors stealing to sell on the black market, only 300 coats arrive. Are you going to line up politely and wait to find out you’re going to freeze to death this winter? No, you’re going to kick and fight and shove people to get to the front, because it’s a matter of life and death. This kind of thing happened over and over again, with food, medicine, you name it. Lining up politely only works when there’s enough to go around.

    Older people have no manners? Yes, that’s because the older people with manners were all killed by their own government. It’s a kind of selection bias. Ever been to an old folks’ home and noticed that there are no fat people there? Same thing.

    • Spot on. The line-cutting thing used to absolutely infuriate me, until someone pointed out to me that it’s only been 40 years since the Cultural Revolution ended. That’s comparatively no time at all, especially in a country like China that has millennia of history. Most of the people you see on the street over there can remember a time when it was basically every man for himself, when being last in line could mean you didn’t eat food for the day, when you couldn’t even necessarily trust your own family. Going back further makes it even worse—I met elderly people who’d lived through the Great Leap Forward and described to me how they had to survive on strips of tree bark. TREE BARK. Times of trouble change people, and China’s cultural memory runs extremely deep. Once I realized that, I became WAY more tolerant of all the behaviors I saw over there.

      • I’m not sure if it’s completely relevant to your comment, but one thing I (as an American) have to often remind myself of is just how short our cultural history is compared to China’s. It’s easy for me to look back o something that I heard about happening in America 40 years ago and say “well that was so far in the past it doesn’t really affect me”, but when you have a couple thousand years of history, I doubt it’s as easy to be so flippant about these things. Obviously there’s more to it than that, but the gap in terms of length with it comes to the history of my country vs. China is pretty staggering.

    • This is what I was trying to get some of my Chinese friends to talk to me about, but none of them really articulated it with examples well. I mean, I’ve heard about this stuff before but obviously have no way of understanding just how terrible it was. I tried to bring this up a bit in the article (just mentioning the “generational gap”) but I think it’s difficult for any foreigner here to grasp just how much and how drastically China has changed in the last 40 or so years

      • They don’t want to talk about it because they’re traumatized survivors. Right-wingers have a lot to answer for. Again and again they blocked Chairman Mao’s reforms and prevented food from reaching the people so they could sell it out of GREED. There were wreckers in every factory, again and again they were sent adequate supplies and failed to reach their production targets. Again and again, Mao tried to weed these people out of society, but eventually failed.

        After his death, Deng Xiaoping hijacked the people’s revolution onto the capitalist road. And then things really started getting bad: environmental disaster, poison milk, and tuhaos.

        • I just can’t get the point why are you hating the communist party that much either under the tenure of Mao or Dengxiaoping.Sounds paradoxical when you say both of them were doing wrong in steering the country,ok, supposing cultrue revolution a certainly mistake(which is actually widely accepted either by the communist party or normal people) and made lots of people died of hunger and the country suffered long-term eccnomical regression,Dengxiaoping was apparently set the right direction to lift the people out of poverty and let them enjoy a better life like we have today.

          Desipte some notorious news happened recently like prison milk, tuhaos or whatever,our country is and will be on the right track,as a Chinese I can tell you,generally, the living standard is hugely elevated compares to 30 years before, I believe you can get almost the same answer if you ask anyone whose age is beyond 30 about living standard now and past.

          The terrified story happened and being told in the culture revolution won’t be verified by any offical information channel for obvious reason, so scientifically speaking,they are all rumors.I suppose some words I heard from you like “eradicate” is too much exaggerating and overly used.however ,I do agree to some extent that the history of culture revolution itself have some impact in forming the character of generation
          now ages beyond 50s, either in a bad way as you discussed and in a good way which you won’t have any interest to learn and never understand since you are a outsider.
          PS. I guess you really can learn a lot from the author of the article, He is nice!

          • Thanks very much for your comment! I openly admit that I have no way of knowing what life was like during these times in China, and I don’t think any foreigner will ever be able to (or any younger Chinese person that didn’t experience it to be honest).

            The one thing you said about the living standard being better overall than it was 30 years ago is something I’ve heard almost every Chinese person I’ve spoken to about this issue say, and I thank you again for giving your thoughts on this from a native perspective.

    • This adds an entirely new dimension to this topic. Thank you for commenting. It is unfortunate that there are many facets to this conversation which we are not at liberty to touch upon.

  5. “While all these things may not be derived from “politeness”, so to speak, they are good qualities of a country whose behavior we all too often dismiss as rude and uncivilized.”

    The “things” being referred to above are strangers saying hello, getting free drinks at bars, and girls being easy to pick up. You attribute these things to China’s “openness” I think the type of treatment you describe foreigners receiving is a result of foreigners still being seen as exotic, and it’s that treatment which gives some foreigners here a sense of entitlement. I personally don’t really consider these the good qualities of Chinese, more just a product of being closed off to the world until relatively recently, and something that will gradually disappear as China becomes a more globalized country, though that’s a far way off.

    I don’t think that will be a bad thing; we discussed this in our White Monkey podcast episode. The one-off “white monkey” gigs will slowly disappear and English teaching jobs will be harder to come by, but the upside is Chinese people will not put foreigners on an undeservedly high pedestal, and those foreigners like the guy in the pastry line will have less of a sense of entitlement.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’ve benefitted greatly from this perceived sense that I have more to offer as a foreigner living here (and I think there are some reasons to highly value human resources that have been educated at a Western university), but on a day-to-day basis, I don’t think the relations between foreigners and Chinese will be hurt by a decreased perception that foreigners are “special”.

  6. Good article. While I acknowledge that our actions and behaviors are partially a product of our background/upbringing/culture, I also dislike the habit (also prevalent in the west) of victimhood or excuse-making (and I’ve been guilty of this myself). She’s/he’s a shitty individual because of the cultural revolution or because mommy didn’t hug her enough? Some people are just awful, selfish (again, shitty) people and should be called out for it. Generally, when I’ve called someone out for being impolite here, they don’t protest in indignation; they acknowledge that they were being shitty and they were called out for it (except for the woman who called me “foreign garbage” for daring to ask her “ni mei kan pai dui, ma?”…)

  7. Well I’m from Turkey, currently live in China.China and Turkey share a lots of similarities such as you’ve already counted the 7 major complaints, Turks all do same things, I guess because Ancient Turks originally came from Northern&western China, interestingly they share 90% similar cultures and customs.

  8. Good article. I only read the last part. As an Chinese who lives in California, I have to admit your observation is accurate. One reason that Chinese is polite is because they think western foreigners are general good people, perhaps some impression from long ago. They often do not say NO direct to your face because it is not the culture. I saw in US people are also nice to you when first met, welcome you and nodding to say Hi. But free drinks in the bar, man, that never happen.

  9. I was in China in 1980 with a delegation installing a museum exhibition first in Beijing then in Shanghai. People we very nice. we drew crowds of gawkers on the street wherever we went, especially as we had “special” security badges connected with our museum work, the fact of which astonished the Chinese. The Cultural Revolution had recently ended ca. 1976 and many of the English speakers we met had been horribly victimized by it. I live in Malaysia now, but always ask Mainlanders what they were doing in the 1966 to 1976 period. Sometimes this is an uncomfortable interchange.But Chinese ask me any damn thing, so turn about is fair play. To me the spitting is the worst Chinese habit. “Hawk around the Clock” I call it.The terrible air quality is probably the main cause.

    • Nice to hear that people were nice way back in 1980. People in Chengdu are still incredibly friendly, on the whole. Things like spitting are not uncommon (despite numerous government campaigns to address this) but I find that it is mostly out of a total misunderstanding that it is not a good thing for society. Thanks for your comment Kurt.


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