People in China are wary of being represented.
While we in our different walks of life are represented by respective deputies when the country’s lawmakers and political advisors meet every year, generally people don’t appreciate being represented, or bei dai biao.
This on the one hand indicates rising individualism in China, which is fine, but on the other it is because they are so often represented by the wrong people, whom they despise for tainting the overall Chinese image.
This was the case in May when a news report said a student named Ding Jinhao from Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, had carved the words “Ding Jinhao was here” in the stone relief of Luxor Temple in Egypt, in an earlier visit. Subsequently an overwhelming number of Chinese Internet users fumed, slamming the boy and his parents for this act of vandalism. Ding is an abysmal representative.
Recently, some fatigued Chinese tourists were pictured dipping their feet in a fountain near the Louvre. The pictures went viral online, and soon many vigilantes cursed their foot-bathing countrymen for tarring the Chinese image overseas. Again the wrong representatives.
With Chinese tourists traveling abroad in ever greater numbers, the question of why they are so uncouth has grabbed global media attention. Feeling ashamed, some Chinese go to great lengths to distinguish themselves from their ill-bred compatriots.
But the futility is obvious since people have the natural tendency to project bias against a small group of people onto a larger population.
This may be a bit overstated, but individual travelers are image ambassadors abroad of his and her native country. Their ways will be judged by locals and possibly fuel existing stereotypes. One person’s lapse will make a whole nation’s reputation suffer.
In their own defense, some foot-bathing Chinese nonchalantly pointed to Caucasian visitors who also soaked their feet in the Louvre fountain. But this is a convenient excuse used by people who look down, rather than look up, in their efforts to vindicate themselves.
Chinese rudeness overseas can be ascribed, in part, to lack of education on proper manners, local customs and somey foreign language skills. For instance, some people cannot read signs in English or other languages that prohibit photo-taking in cathedrals and museums.
A bigger reason is they aren’t aware that they have a patriotic duty to behave overseas. A few Chinese indeed show little regard to the feelings of other people and the environment around them.
Without any realization that their behavior is annoying, they act the way they always do at home, never thinking that someone might step forward to complain or intervene. So it’s wrong to say they are behaving worse abroad. They are just being themselves.
It follows that many of them see the Louvre fountain as no more than a bigger version of the tub in their own bathroom, and an eerily silent metro train in Japan and Germany as no different from metro carriages in Shanghai, where they talk loudly on their cell phones, and indulge in their children’s mischief of turning the carriages into a rowdy, private playground.
Therefore, the problem with uncivilized Chinese tourists is not that they are morally deficient. They are just insensitive and indifferent. In essence, this is a local problem becoming global. And this is as much a cultural problem as a development issue, closely associated with the ongoing urbanization process.
Assimilation failure is apparent in migrants’ behavior patterns. One major reason they are disliked is that they speak loudly in public, a typical way of the countryside, where it’s relatively sparsely populated and they sometimes have to shout at the top of their lungs to be heard over long distances.
For the speakers, the volume of their conversation is the sign of affinity between them. For the rest who have the misfortune of being caught in their loud exchange, it is just plain noise.
All Chinese grow up being taught that when in Rome, do as the Romans do. But they seem to leave that maxim behind when they travel outside the mainland.
Dancing to loud music
Last week, a group of Chinese were dancing to loud music in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York City, when six policemen descended on the site, cuffed and subpeonaed the group leader. Some Chinese said the arrest was inspired by racial discrimination, since the US Constitution guarantees freedom of assembly. Back in China, it is common to see people dancing in squares to loud, even ear-splitting music, with little intervention from pedestrians or authorities.
But the dancers in New York forgot that their lifestyle is not welcome in a wholly different culture, and that the volume of music being played had already triggered numerous noise complaints from neighbors.
So some of the ways we have come to take for granted at home, such as chatting loudly in public, let alone jaywalking, spitting and littering, really need to change if Chinese abroad want to be liked not because of our money, but because of our civility and etiquette.
In an editorial published on August 7, People’s Daily opined that if Chinese leave to the world only the impression of a queue-jumping mass, or “Chinese only” dining area (note: some Chinese tourists take away whatever food is available at hotel buffet, forcing the hotels to ration their supplies), then our civilization cannot “benefit mankind in significant ways.” It is even in danger of being stripped of its place on this planet, said the editorial.
It’s a stern warning, too stern maybe, but it rings true. According to Zhang Yesui, China’s deputy foreign minister, Chinese rudeness overseas hurts China’s soft power, and impacts negatively on the well-being of the Chinese Diaspora and students abroad.
As Chinese consuming power is now world-famous, many countries are courting Chinese money, but the conspicuous display of wealth by some of our nouveau riche compatriots can only make others cringe, to say the least.
They are outwardly ostentatious, as well as loud, vulgar and noisome. What else do they have other than money that would garner respect and civility? Years of hectic growth has so inflated some people’ ego that traditional virtues such as humility, modesty and moderation have been discarded.
On July 14, in their clamor for a prime spot to take photographs in the lavender fields of Provence, France, two young Chinese couples got into a fight. In a sea of purple flowers, some of which were trampled in the brawl, they were the only eyesore.
Partly to prevent its citizens from becoming international laughing stocks, China’s government has unveiled its first regulation on tourism.
According to the law, effective on October 1, tour guides have the duty to restrain tourists’ uncivilized behavior. And scrawling graffiti like “I was here!” will be punishable by fines, it is said. However, it’s not clear if those clauses are binding.
For a nation proud of its etiquette, the necessity of introducing a law to restore civility to its citizens is humiliating. This will only be a temporary coping measure.
In the long term, Chinese can hope of being liked and admired rather than feared or disdained only when they grow mindful of respecting others’ freedom and rights by applying some limits to their own. This job has to start at home, and start right now.