Sunday, December 03, 2006
Emily Post Is Dead...Again

Ettiquette. Our parents try to teach us as best they can, keeping in mind of course our societally-imposed gender roles. I think my parents did alright: I send out thank-you notes for gifts, I cover my mouth when I cough, and I hold doors open for others. All in all, it's not so hard to be polite. But what happens when hundreds of years of ettiquette history just vanish?

Or more appropriately, I should say hundreds of years of the history of ettiquette never were. China is like the sinkhole of table manners. With all of the pomp and circumstance that comes with business and diplomatic presentations, one would think that the Chinese would prove expert in the area of ettiquette. But I have four months of living in China that say otherwise.

Now, this is not to say that the Chinese aren't NICE people or GOOD people. This is not a matter of warmth and this is not an insult to intelligence. Generosity and scholarliness are qualities absolutely present in every Chinese city I've been to. It is the concept of "ettiquette" a la Emily Post, or lack of it, that troubles me.

All along I have noticed little things. People looking at me strangely when I held the door open for those behind me. Cars cutting me off while I was crossing the street (in China, even if you have the official green pedestrian signal, you still don't REALLY have the "right-of-way"). Literally yelling on cell phones in every possible inappropriate place. Little kids, and not-so-little kids, using the bushes that line the sidewalks as bathrooms. But it was upon the arrival of winter weather that I was really pushed over the edge.

I was walking home one day, and a man walking not two feet in front of me was blowing his nose - not into a tissue - but into the open air. What little bit ended up on his hand, he wiped onto a passing tree. Disgusted, I jumped down into the bicycle lane and sped up ahead of him, so I wouldn't have to watch that display any longer. The Chinese have a philosophy of getting the bad bodily fluids out, which is perfectly medically sound. That's the fastest way to better your health as quickly as possible. But a tissue maybe?

Everything from 'no spitting' (especially not indoors) to 'ladies first' - the history of ettiquette is just non-existent. Which is why it becomes so difficult for Westerners to come here expecting the same treatment and behavior as in the States, only to wind up confused and dissatisfied instead. The non-existence of official ettiquette rules is also why the Chinese don't understand Westerners' reactions. Even now, I'm still thrown for a loop when I have considerable trouble with a store or hotel in China. I mutter to myself, "where is their customer service? No company in the States would EVER do that, they'd lose money." But the Chinese, more generally, don't think that way. Despite my awareness of this fact, I still wonder why my money, my business isn't important enough - especially at a time when business in China is trying to surmount so many obstacles.

In the West, we expect manners to trump one's baser instincts. We expect customer service to trump inconvenience. I think it's a much longer road to global cultural integration than either the Chinese or the Western nations think. Cultural history just cannot be denied.
posted by Rachel @ 9:58 AM  
THE WILD WILD EAST: Everything you never knew you didn't know about life on the other side.
In China, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The Chinese, who call this land "home," and the expats who migrate here. My name is Rachel. I am an expat. These are my stories.
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