Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On living in a land of "bad tourists"

It's easier to think about living here after being away. We were in Ireland last week for my sister-in-law's wedding and answered questions over and over again about what it's like to live in China. In nutshell, our answer was always ,"We love it, but it is very different from here". The following is a big part of what we meant by "different".

Chinese people do not have the best reputations when it comes to tourism. They tend to congregate in gigantic tour groups and wreak havoc -defacing artefacts, publicly relieving themselves, and generally being rude in the eyes of locals.

This has been in the news even more lately as China claims it is creating a national blacklist for poorly behaved tourists to try to limit international embarrassment.

Unlike tourists I have met from other countries, Chinese tourists are not [typically] acting this way because of racism, classism, or thrill of anonymity away from home. People act the same way they would at home. Defacing artefacts, publicly relieving themselves, and generally being rude in the eyes of foreigners.

For example, this video taken at a Korean airport is quite representative of a lot of queuing (or not) situations in China.

I think if I watched this before I moved here I would think it was exceptional but I can attest that transportation hubs, markets, and major tourist areas can regularly be like this. When my bestie Tiana tried to get our Chinese visas for our No Plan Plans trip in 2010, it took her hours to get to the front of the line because she wasn't used to queuing as a contact sport.

The lack of consideration for others in public hit me, literally, at the airport coming back from Ireland last week. After 1.5 weeks of having a ton of personal space and people being extremely friendly, making an effort to ensure my comfort, I, completely stationary in a logical waiting place, was run into twice within a five minute span by people pushing their luggage carts. Jolted back into my China-brain, I didn't react as one traveller noticed my foreign-ness and mumbled "sorry" while the other looked wide-eyed at me as if to say, "Where did you come from?". You get used to this look in China.

The thing is, most local people wouldn't mind.

And I think this is something that many foreigners in China forget. What we perceive as rudeness and carelessness just doesn't bother people a lot of the time here. Of course, no one likes to get pushed out of the way to get into the Metro but the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality is more pervasive than the "publicly shame people into changing" (see video above) attitude.

In my nearly two years here, time and time again, I see Chinese people completely confused by foreigners' reactions to their behaviour.

For example, it's illegal to smoke indoors. But people do it anyway, practically everywhere. If you throw a fit (especially if you aren't speaking Mandarin), the person smoking likely has no idea what the problem is.

And another: My laidback husband had a bit of a freak out at a local museum last year, pushed one too many times. To be fair, we had been pushed and shoved by hundreds of people at this stage and seen pretty much nothing in the several floors of the museum we travelled through. He lost his temper, shouting in English, at a child and the child stared at him like he had two heads. The kid had no clue that shoving my husband was rude. Nearly every adult around him was doing exactly the same thing.

Only a few steps away, we saw a grandmother climb up the side of an aquarium, a few feet off the ground, to knock as hard as she could to get the fishes' attention. (It didn't work and no one stopped her or batted an eye.)

I often wish people would queue, not spit, speak quietly on the phone, bring their child to a more private place to urinate than the middle of a sidewalk, queue, not block sidewalks walking in groups, not hit me with their umbrellas, not stand still at the tops of escalators, hold open doors, queue, not smoke inside, not pick their noses, wash their hands, not take photos without permission, and queue.

However, I choose to live here. I am the outsider here. I don't get to decide how things work.

Of course, as foreigners, we don't have to jump into the local culture to the point of cutting our nails on the metro or growing our fingernails long to pick our ears (yes, that's a thing). But realize when you call people out on what is normal behaviour for many millions of people, you're the rude one.

Take deep breaths, laugh about it with your friends and family, and know that it's perfectly fine to openly take a photo of the pushcart of watermelons blocking a massive intersection or videotape the girl blocking the crowded metro door taking dozens of selfies.

And be patient. Things are changing, slowly, and this might be the main area where foreigners cheer "face saving culture".