Chinese exceptionalism

Jiang Zemin, former Chinese president, in unflattering photo used to advance narrative here
Jiang Zemin, former Chinese president, in unflattering photo used to advance narrative here
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.

JK Fairbank
JK Fairbank
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.

7 thoughts on “Chinese exceptionalism

  1. If the Chinese are rather foreign and not all that compatible with Western ways as they exist, why should we let them immigrate?

    Chinese “birth tourism” (travelling here just to give birth for their kid’s citizenship, even using surrogate mothers) is rather scandalous. Should we rethink that whole deal?


    1. I am not at all happy with this look but have not had time to fool with it.

      If rudeness or boorish behavior disqualifies one from citizenship here, let’s dump Texas. AAA advised us before went to Europe to be low-key, polite and not to make demands on hosts. In other words, she said, don’t behave like Americans.

      I’ve no doubt birth tourism exists, but not on a scale that concerns me. I’m not going that route. The Chinese culture has at its core something we do not – a religious system that trumps life over afterlife. How they have come about such subservience to higher authority is beyond me, but that could have something to do with a shortage of arable land, making survival a group effort, much like out West before the myths set in here. I know where you are going … Some genetic disorder that separates us and them. Have a nice trip.


      1. I know where you are going …

        Yes, that pesky Charles Darwin; bringing up things that discomfort the religious. I’ll endeavor to be more diplomatic about issues that challenge your religious beliefs.

        I’ve no doubt birth tourism exists, but not on a scale that concerns me.

        Yes, we can only fight so many battles, but how many insults to the body politic can we accept? It is blazingly apparent that immigration is a one-way street: many come here for our goodies: our economy; our infrastructure; our institutions… few from here go elsewhere. How long can this go on before we become something else? Something that finally shuts off the flow?

        If rudeness or boorish behavior disqualifies one from citizenship here, let’s dump Texas.

        I wish you could make some distinctions once in a while. We have our vested problems. Why is it incumbent upon us to accept other problems for the sake of some kind of fairness?


    1. I would like to think so. But my ass has been politically kicked so severely in this area that I live in a closet wearing a leather suit with a zipper mask.

      Polls show that people are in favor of immigration restriction, but we’ve got motivated interest groups lining up against it, from farmers/agri business who claim “our crops are rotting in the fields” to Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook who started a lobbying group to get more H1B1 visas; i.e. more cheap labor so the Silicon valley billionaires can make even more money.

      I find this all absurd. We’ve got maybe a million farm laborers in this country, yet we need to import a million and a half every year, apparently. We graduate more science degrees than jobs in this country, yet our business elites prefer to hire immigrants or outsource. This is just the economics of scab labor.


      1. I’ll gladly shut up about racial matters if it gets better policy put into place. But I’m not setting the terms of the debate here. Every other group plays the race card. How long can my side continue with unilateral disarmament?


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