Travel is a good thing. It allows us to experience foreign cultures first-hand. If done without stereotypes interfering with impressions, it can be a rich experience.
On the other hand, being in a country for a short time, experiencing mostly the tourist interface, tempts us to form far-reaching conclusions based on scant evidence.
That in mind, I wanted to share a couple of experiences, not direct interactions, with Chinese people on our Asia trip.
When we landed in Katmandu, our first task was to secure a local visa. The guide book made no mention of the fact that it could involve very long waits (we could have gotten it in advance), and that day there was a large influx of tourists. We stood in line for well over two hours. As we approached the desk and the harried clerks, a Chinese family with three our four kids appeared towards the head of the line. The father busily handed paperwork to each child, and then the mother gathered it all up, went to the front of the line and presented it to the clerks, demanding preferential treatment.
People waiting in line were furious, and the clerk did a very funny thing. He ignored her. One man in line (not me) loudly lectured the woman about manners. The line proceeded normally, the Chinese woman not served and left standing at the desk scowling as we worked our way around her. That’s how we left her. That was one impression.
After our Himalayan trek, we stayed at a small resort in Pokhara, Nepal, and there was a large group of Chinese people there as well. In western culture there is politeness everywhere we go. People hold doors, make eye contact and greet us, smile, offer places in line. In the buffet lines for breakfast and dinner, westerners behaved in that manner.
The Chinese group did not make eye contact or interact. They did not acknowledge anyone else in the line. They sat in a cloistered group in a corner of the dining room. Among themselves their words and laughter were loud and raucous and their gestures were highly animated. That’s a second impression.
From those I concluded that one billion Chinese people are rude.
Not really, but I did mention to our daughter, who lives in India and has far more experience over there, that my impressions of the Chinese that I had met were that they were cloistered and rude. She agreed, that had been her experience as well. The word “Mandarin” came up.
Then this morning I read the following:
The Chinese system was always very ethnocentric in that they not only saw themselves as the center of the world, but saw themselves as the only civilized unit in their world picture in a planetary arrangement in which lesser peoples encircled them and lived in increasingly dark barbarism, depending on their distance from [Beijing].
That’s 1965, Carroll Quigley, Tragedy and Hope, so there ya go. Now I have three impressions and that pretty much seals it. But I’ll add one more: The Siberian couple we met on the trek had also spent time in Tibet, and were not impressed. They said it was filthy and smelly. When they entered the country they were shaken down almost, the border guards going through their possessions. Among them was a Living Planet guide book, as we had. The guards went to a page towards the back of the book where there is a picture of the Dalai Lama, and tore that page out, and then handed the book back.
In fairness to me, many years ago I read some of the work of John King Fairbank, a scholar and Harvard professor who specialized in Chinese culture and spoke the language(s). He was one of the few cultural bridges that our government had during the early post-war years, but the McCarthyites got him. They could not harm his career due to his tenure at Harvard, but he and others like him were ostracized. That was a tragedy. From him I learned not to be black/white with them, communist/capitalist, and to expect that they are a world unto themselves and have little regard or interest for Western, especially American attitudes. It’s as if we do not exist.
To that I add Chairman’s Mao’s observation that the Chinese invented gunpowder and made fireworks, while the West took it and made weapons. It ain’t true, but it is the attitude.
There now. I’ve read and traveled. I’ll answer any questions you might have.