Friday, August 28, 2009

Finding perspectives in China……

Until now, I still find China to be the most difficult place for me to travel to despite having the convenience of knowing the language and sharing the same ancestry of the ethnic Chinese.

I find it easier to travel across Eastern Europe than to travel in China, even in a convenient city like Shanghai. Never even for once can I travel to China without having to quarrel with the locals right in the public.

In my opinion, the level of difficulty in travelling has nothing to do with the knowledge of the local language. I have the experience of “mooing” as a cow in order to buy a can of beef in a shop in Warsaw; I have tried using charade and objects to ask for the length of time to get to the bus station in Hutna Nora in Czech Republic; I have tried asking for direction in Vilnius by simply pointing to the name of the place which pronunciation failed me. A lot of the logistics work in the way that you would expect and most of the people that I met were patient and kind and all these help to make travelling so much easier.

A)The art of being rude

Surprisingly, China is a country which is culturally and socially different for me altogether. Many logistics and mentality of the locals are simply beyond my understanding and tolerant level.

I used to find the list of followings to be very stressful or unacceptable:

- haggling for virtually anything;

- hygiene level (littering and spitting);

- mannerisms: people shouting at you; throwing your change onto the counter; no apologies when people bumped into you accidentally

- no queues or to cut queues;

- to be stared at explicitly from head to toe;

- there doesn’t seem to have any order at all for anything…..

But……the years of living in the UK have helped me to look at all these in a different light.

The thick line between rude and indifferent

I used to find mainland Chinese rude.

But I have learned it through the hard way that there is a distinctive difference between “being not outwardly polite” and “being deliberately rude”. In my opinion, rude is more of the attitude than the mannerism. It is the deliberate attempt to be nasty to someone which I find it to be rude. Courtesy is simply not about saying “thank you” or “sorry” or being addressed in the form of “my love” or giving the perfect smile or 90 degree bow.

I had the following encounters in the UK, a place renowned for courtesy and gentlemen…..

To enter a local pub in England and to be scorned by the locals.

A cyclist and a pedestrian using the four letter F word on me for no apparent reason when they passed by me.

To be made faces at by a stranger on a pedestrian walkway.

To be scorned at by teenagers in public places or to be stoned at.

To be served by a cashier that chose his customers to demonstrate his courtesy to: I noticed he always, without fail, thanked his Caucasian customers for their patronage but when it came to me, he just returned the change to me without a word of “thank you” or even eye contact.

Now, looking in retrospect at the “rude” encounters years ago while travelling in China, they don’t seem to be rude any more in comparison. They were more of a “can’t be bothered” mentality than being deliberately nasty to me.


Some Chinese have the habit of shouting when they speak. Amusingly, that’s the way some of them speak—talking very loudly, in Singapore and Hong Kong as well. I find Taiwanese more “well-mannered” in this aspect.

The habit of talking loudly probably has something to do with the crowded living conditions in the Chinese cities where one has to raise his/her voice in order to be heard. Shanghai city alone supports a population of 13 million.

Sometimes, you will be spoken to by passers-by in a very direct manner without the use of appropriate address or even a hello to start off with. Then they will scurry to their business once they got the information that they want. It’s a point-and-shoot attitude with not an extra second to spare.


If their philosophy in life is fighting to get one’s chance, then queuing will lead you no where.

This is certainly getting better now than my first visit to Shanghai in 2002. I witnessed my Shanghainese friend then queuing faithfully while people kept cutting her queue to get a train ticket. People have no regard for others as they place themselves foremost than anybody else. It’s all about the survival mentality.

But now I see queues at ticket machines, cashiers and ATM machines. Still, there is always the tendency for some people trying to pounce on every opportunity to jump queue. I still get a bit agitated by people trying their luck on me.


To be honest, I am surprised I don’t get bumped into in Shanghai even though it is such a busy city. Sometimes the walkway is only 3 feet wide and there are pedestrians coming in the opposite direction from me at the same time and I still will not be bumped into (there will be some amount of contact). There are people everywhere!

Pedestrians, cyclists and motorists sometimes share the same pedestrian walkway and no one follows any rules of any kind and yet, I don’t feel that kind of stress that I felt when shopping at ASDA where people just pushed you away with their bodies or with their shopping carts. That was rude.

To my shock, I have not even for once been touched by any cars, motorist, cyclists in Shanghai while crossing the road when they were practically running all over the place with no regard to traffic rules.



You get stared at very openly for being foreign-looking. I do get the stares as well if I were to travel away from the cities into the less “city” areas. They are not meant to be malicious. It is definitely the result of curiosity. You will certainly not get those disgusted expressions or swear words that I used to get in the UK for being foreign. So I am perfectly at ease now of being stared at.

But if you are a scantily clothed female, that might be a different story altogether.


I can feel a very strong sense of survival over here.

Mr. T’s parents were borned in Mainland China before migrating to Singapore at an early age. His parents told him that they have to compete for every single thing in their village in China. That was their way of life, or to be more accurate, to survive. When resources and opportunities are scarce, there is an absolute need to compete.

The competitive trait in the average Chinese is strong. From getting a seat to making payment at the counter or achieving the best result in each field. Everyone seems to be fighting for their own survival right in their own way. If they don’t compete, they will be easily over taken by millions of others. I find this very tiring though.

Boarding a bus in the UK is easy as there are always more than enough seats for the passengers. There is no need to compete for a seat at all. For a bus in Chinese cities where the number of passengers is always greater than the number of seats, everyone has to push their way onto the bus to secure a seat. Queuing makes no sense to them at all.

Penalty for being foreign

If your foreign nationality is discovered, you will certainly be ripped off by hawkers. I used to HATE this mentality.

But after being legally and consistently ripped off by governments and big companies (utilities companies, petrol companies……) and international brands that “rip off” cheap labour markets so as to further consolidate their empire, what does the rip-off from these minors amount to? At least the money goes directly to these individuals and at least they are trying all kinds of means to improve their lives rather than sitting on their backsides waiting for social benefits (there isn’t any anyway). Finally, I succumbed to this idea of “penalty for foreigners”—rip-off.


Having said all of that, it does help to make your day a pleasant one to have someone saying “thank you” and “sorry” when you go about your daily chores. It will be most delightful if only everyone can follow the order and be less competitive. It will also be a blessing if some people can avoid spitting in public places.

B)The issue of cleanliness

We certainly have little or no regard to hygiene. Chinese dominated areas can never be clean. Our government spent 20 years educating us not to spit in public places and it was not until the penalty came into force that we saw any outcome of the “education”.

As for litter, it might come as a surprise if I were to say that I find Shanghai cleaner than Manchester or Blackburn. Given the size of the population (Manchester: 2 millions; Blackburn: 1/10 of a million) and given the fact that so much council tax contribution collected, Manchester and Blackburn are poorly maintained in terms of cleanliness. Imagine putting 13 million people in either one of these places. One football match in Manchester Stadium alone seems to generate more rubbish than the whole of Shanghai.

While in Shanghai, I saw many faithful blue uniform attired cleaners clearing litter off roads and pedestrian walkways with their primitive tools throughout the day. I was surprised to see trucks spraying water on the roads although I wonder how effective that would be in cleaning the roads.