Part IX: Culture Frustration

Xi’an, May 14thWe traveled for six hours today to get to Xi’an. The effort was in patience rather than movement.

Our Chengdu hostel didn’t facilitate much in the way of a sleeping environment. Window curtains were white cotton, so sunlight ripened quickly, before five it seemed, and street traffic was close and ubiquitous. Waking early was predictable and staying up to be expected. The deficit summed into a concrete nap of two hours, which I take at the start of our bullet train journey.

I remove my earplugs when I wake. My hearing calibrates to the happy chimes, texts, ringtones, and videos emanating from numerous phones. It seems that such omnipresent distraction fosters nothing but indifference in the passengers. This astonishes me. Perhaps it’s patience, not indifference. Patience wouldn’t surprise me, especially considering patience is a requirement for any a country where rice is the staple food and chopsticks are the tools of choice. Whether patience or indifference, I want an elixir of it, something I can bottle and make a fortune with, or swig now.

I ruminate a bit more on the distinction. I have a new conclusion: this attitude is Taoistic. A functional Taoism, updated for modernity, that doesn’t require of its adherents abstinence from technology in order to reach a place of cool and placated calm. Accepting as okay a cell phone’s constant interruption reminds me of the allegorical story involving three old men and a vat of vinegar. The Tao of Pooh readers will recall this. Two of the men taste the vinegar. One says it tastes too sour, the other shudders at its bitterness. The third man tastes it. Now, his taste buds are no different, nor has the vinegar’s constitution changed, yet he smiles. The vinegar pleases him because it tastes exactly as vinegar should.

Whatever the calming virtue, what necessitates it is a sin. I’ve been warned of this. These warnings involve some semantic softening; they don’t include the word “rudeness”, but the hint is there. Be prepared for…erm…behavior…that’s a bit unlike what you’re used to. In Hong Kong, this behavior was spoken of with enmity, as if nearness in relation granted them unique license to do so. Examples of this behavior: failure to queue (I was amused when waiting for a ticket machine or for a subway door to open and was just bumped out of the way by those with a more pressing need to be in front); personal space as a less-than-sacrosanct idea (once (while queued), a woman began to ram a stroller into my legs to get me to move. I had to grip the stroller for it to stop. Even so, I felt her continued exertions push into my palm); gathering then spitting phlegm regardless of location…

There’s little use heaping on more examples, just as there’s benefit in noting kindness and courtesy are here too, of course there are, but occurrences of the sort sit at the periphery of an experience that threatens the whole.

International disapproval of this verisimilar stereotype seems more common as China’s nouveau riche venture further afield: countries are not so ready to abandon their etiquette expectations for the sake of cultural broad-mindedness. In Egypt, Din Jinhao graffitied his name on an ancient frieze. In France, a student slapped an airline check-in attendant. In Germany, a group hopped atop Berlin’s Holocaust memorial to take selfies. In Japan, a Chinese national stole a toilet seat from his expensive hotel (in fairness, Japanese toilet seats are the gold-standard). There are websites dedicated to listing these various faux pas, and the attraction there seems to be in the giddy delight of pointing-and-laughing at others rather than making a step towards understanding. Whether it is right or fair that such egregious examples are used to craft a stereotype is a separate matter. China’s government, for its part, restricts travel rights for those nationals accused of shocking misbehavior.

China does not have a monopoly on embarrassing or rude national representatives, nor on appalling behavior. Also, it’s one thing to host Chinese visitors and want them to abide by your etiquette, it’s quite another to visit them and expect they’ll abide at home as well.

Differing cultural expectations or not, I wanted to derive the root (or roots) of these deviations. Why is curiosity. Chinese behavior differs quite a bit from Vietnamese, wildly from Australian, and by a whole universe from Singaporean. After engaging in a crude and flimsy bit of anthropology—equal parts reading and asking questions—I discovered a stitch-work of answers. It’s presumptuous to use any of them to explain even one complex character let alone a populous nation made of such characters. And while the answers are myriad and difficult to lump categorically, they have at their core a deep and sympathetic sense for how history influences individuals and how political decisions have a monumental impact on culture.

The answers skew towards highlighting Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the preceding Great Famine. The Revolution sought to extirpate from China’s new culture Western traits and their attached values. While the etiquette of “the West” was not per se targeted, those reared with and ascribed to it were. They were imprisoned, and thus their habits were isolated. In addition, the Revolution sought to out heretical thinking. Heretical here meaning anything “anti-Revolutionary.” Neighbors turned on neighbors, often for actual political transgressions but just as often for petty grievances. The result was a turn inwards to family and a destruction of traditional culture and values.

The Cultural Revolution shattered what was already a tenebrous balance between people, and people with government, that came about as a result of the Great Leap Forward and resultant Great Famine during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The causes of the Great Famine are worth an aside. No doubt prolonged drought and un-alterable environmental events played a central role, but so too did China’s ignorant, incompetent, and criminal Communist bureaucracy. Chairman Mao pointed to four pests in need of eradication: rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows. All across China, denizens embraced the “Four-Pests Campaign” with red-blooded zeal. Roving bands of people beating cooking pots prevented sparrows from landing. They destroyed nests and stoned birds. A few sparrows actually sought and found political asylum: Poland’s Beijing embassy refused entry to the Chinese personnel who’d come to kill the sparrows that had landed in the courtyard. Millions were killed, and likely were near extinction in the country. The sudden dearth led to a surge of the insects sparrows feasted on. Locusts, within two years, swarmed across China’s farmland and decimated crops. Local officials were punished for reporting the accurate but low yields. This, coupled with a system of favor that encouraged competition between officials in different regions, led to the systemic practice of inflating crop yield totals. Owing to collectivization and Communist re-distribution rules, a percentage of a region’s reported yield was acquired to be re-distributed. The problem therein lay in simple arithmetic. 15-40 million people died.

For those who survived the Famine, the trauma is irreversible. It uncovered those tribal and selfish atavistic tendencies that prosperous times block out. Service to the needs of me became an essential mantra. Yet multiple generations came of age with it.¹ Thus those didactic principles, so often set early in childhood, could not pass from parent to child, for parents too were reared without them. “Don’t cut in line! Wait your turn! Ask politely!” Then came Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, which opened China’s economy to the world. Then came the wealth, which lifted famine weaned citizens with legs set by rickets into economic prosperity. What lessons they learned in order to survive were revealed by a sudden and broad international spotlight. But the contextual circumstances that gave rise to those lessons had lessened or ceased to exist. Purchasing and hoarding grain during a famine seems like good sense, purchasing and hoarding baby formula or Louis Vuitton bags feels less so. The underlying value is the same. The environment has shifted.

The mid-century diversion in China’s values and cultural history is what makes the new Social Credit System a fascinating bit of social engineering. It’s a stick to force individual change, a top-down approach to building etiquette. Perhaps attempting to understand the root of the absence is a better first step. But what do I know? I’ve been here for a week, and the quote I’ve heard from expats is this: The longer I live in China, the less I understand it.

♦♦♦

¹ The Great Famine was the worst of three food shortage events. One lasted between 1916-27, then came famine during the Nationalist Period between 1927-1949.

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