Saturday, 21 September 2013

What's the Manner?

Ok, tough topic - I'll do my best not to look like a complete racist gimp by the end of this post, we'll see how it goes. It is certainly not my intention to get anyone offended by any means, so bear with me please! The thing is that every nation is different, have different features and customs - just think how different it feels to be surrounded by Russians or Indians for instance - not better or worse, but sure as hell different. I don't want to start explaining how the following things don't apply to each and every individual and how it's an unavoidable generalisation etc... I hope that goes without saying.

If you are from the West, like I am (actually I'm from Hungary, but for the sake of argument let's be a little generous and call it the West), the Chinese culture is as different from yours as it gets. The two cultures have as much in common as painting landscapes and flying a fighter jet. When someone arrives to China, the first two weeks seem like a blur of incoherent randomness. Then after a while, you start to have a grasp on why the things happen the way they do - they are still random mind you, but a rare sort of random you can calculate with.

To the western eye the Chinese can - and usually do - appear rude and impolite to the point that the word 'barbaric' emerges in the mind. One infamous reason for this would be the sordid affair with the chronic spitting disorder they tend to have, and trust me it's way worse than you imagine. No matter where you are - it can be in the metro or the Imperial Palace - about every five minutes you will hear someone around you hawking up industriously a massive clot of slime, sparing neither time nor effort, then spit it in a neat trajectory somewhere that seems suitable. That's usually a spot on the floor right in front of you. I can only wonder what sort of terminal glandular disfunction is having its toll on the population that makes them produce two pints of thick mucus a day. They also burp a lot.

These examples, however, can be disposed as 'one of those cultural things' that one just have to put up with. The locals probably don't have any idea how repulsive public spitting and burping are to most foreigners, as they were brought up in an environment where these things are perfectly acceptable. I'm pretty sure that we have quite a few customs that they find absolutely horrendous. There are other features though that are not so easily redeemed just because they are cultural. Being an asshole, for example is one of them. I don't care wether it's cultural or not, there are certain interpersonal rules that if you repeatedly break, well... you are an asshole. Like you don't just hit people with your car, just because they are in front of you and were too slow to jump away. Call me a perfectionist, but I think that's not too much to ask from a society.

That's a general phenomenon in China - because of the astronomical number of people living here crammed on top of each other, the Chinese had to adapt their everyday behaviour in order to survive.
Now, they could have change their ways in a manner that everyone just looks out for the other, collaborate and try to minimise the social friction that's bound to arise in such a dense society. They could have, but they didn't. Instead they chose to become total selfish cunts. It's jungle rules out there, everyone for themselves. They always force themselves in front of you let it be an elevator, a metro coach or just about any queue. The idea of letting those who are inside coming out first, doesn't even come up in their minds that's completely blinded by the imperative to get in first and swoop down on the only available chair, tripping over a pregnant woman and two disabled people in the process. This reflex is so deeply embedded that they keep pushing themselves even if it's absolutely pointless - like when there's no one else around, or when there are thousands of people and it really doesn't make any difference that you could get in front two people somehow thus trimming off 5 whole seconds form the 45 minutes waiting time. Since the whole society works like that, it reached a point where there's no tuning back - you are forced to act like a selfish bastard otherwise you will be pushed aside like a fragile leaf by a charging steam engine.

Gollum, is that you?

The Chinese, however, are a pretty contradictory bunch, and for every bad aspect of theirs they flourish a rather impressive one as well. As selfish as they act with random people on the street with whom they have no connection whatsoever, they are unbelievably attentive towards those who are in their personal circle - alert like a tiger ready to pounce, they watch your every wish, and try to even over do it by a notch! It's as if they have a given amount of attention, and they don't want to waste it on the faceless riff-raff they have nothing to do with, rather save it up and pour over the ones they have an immediate connection with. That sort of equals out the general experience - You get trough the city, wanting to slap in the ear every second muppet who barely missed hitting you with his car, and when you arrive somewhere just enjoy being spoiled by those you already know.

Sadly racism doesn't stand too far from the Chinese either. Most of the time it's almost harmless household racism, in which case they don't necessarily consider you inferior, but inherently different. Which is true, we are different, but the problem is that we are deemed different not just because of our culture, but our ethnic background as well. You can be born and raised in China, speaking fluent Mandarin whatever, you still won't be considered Chinese - you look different. At times it can get rather more obvious and offensive, like when multiple times we've been denied entry to nightclubs based on the colour of our skin. That's outrageous by any account, but after you put up with all the weird crap you have to endure in China with a broad smile in the name of cultural diversity and tolerance just to be told 'Fuck you whiteboy, you're not getting in' - well that could tilt anyone over the edge after a few drinks and stomp the racist bastard at the door. I would advise against it however, as double standards towards foreigners go high up in the bureaucratic maze - if you get into any confrontation with Chinese, especially with a nightclub personnel who's backed up by some well connected moneyman, you can quickly find yourself chucked out from the country for life, without any trial or other fancy bullshit. It's a horrible feeling to be so exposed to the caprice of the authorities, but so are the Chinese - it's a dictatorship after all...

Subtlety is not one of their strong points either. Even though non-Chinese people are not such a rare sight in Guangzhou, most locals wouldn't miss an opportunity to take a picture of an expat. It's not even that they shyly ask for a picture together or something - they just walk right up and flash you in the face! Can't imagine what's so great about it. They go home and show the picture to all their friends like 'hey I saw a white guy today, they really do exist!' I think the Chinese would be really surprised if back in Europe we just started to take pictures of them as if they were an attraction.

Chinese and foreigners don't mix very well either, at least not on a deeper level. Most expats I know here, told me that even after seven or so years of living here, they still barely have any real Chinese friends. They've got plenty of buddies, but real bonds seldom develop for some reason. Most of the relationships start off as love affairs, as even the Chinese tend to be adventurous in this regard. The same separation is true for the Chinese who live abroad - they form close guarded communities and hardly blend with the locals.

So all in all - mostly due to these deep-rooted cultural differences - I wouldn't say that China is an easy place to live in. Not even closely. But exactly because of these differences it's extremely rewarding. For someone like me, who is repulsed by the drab and the mundane, China is refreshingly chaotic. If you like to be out of your comfort zone then China is made for you - you can live in China for 50 years, and you'd still be out of your comfort zone I promise you that!

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