December 7, 2008

If Only The Olympics Were Year Round

The other day, I was going to my office and saw the elevator doors standing open. The arrow was pointed up, so I hurried to catch it. When I got in, I noticed two other men were also headed towards the elevator so before pushing the button for my floor I held open the door for them.

Upon getting in the elevator, one of them brushed past me so that he could hit the button for his floor, in the basement. This was no accident. He knew that if he hit the button first the elevator would go down instead of up, and so he pushed in front of me in order to do so. I could only shake my head and smile.

Anyone who lives in Beijing can attest to countless similar examples. What to Westerners are simple acts of courtesy--holding the elevator door, waiting in line, yielding to someone in front of you, waiting for someone to get off the bus before you push your way on--are rare events in the Chinese capital. If you cannot shrug off the many instances of public selfishness which you encounter on a daily basis, then your time in Beijing will be a long, slow countdown to bitterness that will only end with your grateful return to a civilized world.

But there is another aspect to China that is not as obvious to the visitor. Whereas in public, with perfect strangers, people may behave atrociously--it is a rare week I do not witness two strangers getting into a shouting match--among their friends, Chinese people are extremely generous and kind. A Chinese friend will consistently embarrass you with his or her generosity, and from our Western perspective it can actually be quite awkward. I cannot count how many kidneys I have had offered to me.

I once got run into by another biker while pedaling near Wang Fu Jing. Of course the woman saw a foreigner and tried to blame me. A crowd gathered and the police were called in, even though neither of us were hurt. I had to go to the local police station where no one spoke English. They called an off duty officer who could speak English, and he asked me several times if I had a friend that could speak Chinese that could come down to the station.

This was in the middle of the afternoon on a Thursday. All my friends were at work. But he kept prodding me to call someone to come down to the station. Later, after observing the way Chinese people will drop everything to go and help a friend in need, I realized for this police officer, it was only natural that one of my friends would leave work to come help me translate with a traffic cop.

The lesson is you can never judge a foreign culture. Just acknowledge that it is different and try to understand it more deeply. It is no better or worse than your own culture. What seems normal to you, like taking a vacation on your own, may seem outrageous to a Chinese person. And what seems outrageous to us, like the left turn lane cutting off oncoming traffic as soon as the light turns green, may be an everyday occurrence in Beijing.


pug ster said...


Interesting blog here. I live in NYC and a funny thing happened to me on the Subway today. A man who seemed to be cornering a woman which seems to be like some kind of domestic dispute. The woman asked if someone can call the police. One person called the police but I looked and did nothing. Personally, I would not have interfered unless the man would do something like punching the woman.

In any case, I don't think it is unusual here in NYC about your situation in the elevator, as there are rude people in many big cities.

I was in Shanghai about a year ago and I noticed that many people don't wear helmets and many car drivers seems oblivious about driving in the sea of bicycles. Maybe it is the mental attitude that people never needed one.

The Good Doctor said...

thanks for the comment. i agree. i am from indiana, and we also had an awareness that when you go to the big cities, like ny and philadelphia, you would encounter more hostility and much less courtesy. saying hi to a stranger is common in smaller towns, but very rare in metropolises.

but i also think that there is a definite cultural aspect to it as well. there is a much more willful disregard for other people in china, that i have never experienced in new york. if you acted this way in america, you would end up getting in a lot of fist fights.

and as to your observation about helmets, it is very rare to see a chinese biker wearing a helmet. when i do, it's usually a group of totally kitted out cycling enthusiasts who have every piece of equipment they can get their hands on. i've just recently started wearing my helmet everywhere, after being hit by a car for the third time. as if being a foreigner weren't enough, i'm really drawing attention to myself now.

maneuvering through beijing traffic is a sport unto itself.