Archive | 8:00 am

A lack of manners

5 Jul

I was at the supermarket the other day waiting in line.  Recently the supermarket has labeled different registers “cash only” which means those lines tend to move faster and the experience becomes a little shorter.  That day my grocery load was pretty minimal – if I were in the US I could have checked out in the 10 items or less line, but those don’t exist in China, so I was waiting in the “cash only” line.

I had just started to place my first item on the end of the belt, when all of a sudden I felt someone pushing past me, trying to cut.  Without even turning my head, “What do you think you’re doing? (你干吗?)” popped out of my mouth.  It’s a very short Chinese expression that is typically not used in a very polite way.

I turned my head and saw a middle-aged man hell-bent on cutting.  I physically cut him off and said – “I am putting my things here, you need to wait.”

He registered that I was a foreigner, that I had just told him off and any justification melted.  He finally went to his proper spot, behind me.

Then, the cashier as she started to ring up the things of the customer in front of me looked at the man and said very clearly, “This is a cash only lane.”  He said, “No, I want to use a card.”  She replied, “Well, get out of line.”

I don’t know how she knew he wanted to use a card – perhaps it was in his hand and I just didn’t register it.  But seeing that gentleman (perhaps gentleman is actually the wrong word) back up and move three registers over to the back of the line was sweet.

I checked out without incident but when I got back to my apartment I kept playing the scene over in my head.  Personally I was embarrassed that I spat that Chinese out without a thought – it’s not vulgar per say, but still, not polite.  I was also quite proud of myself for not needing to think about what I needed to say and having very clearly understood the entire conversation around me – when I’m trying to defend myself or frustrated, sometimes Mandarin will desert me.

Then I started thinking about the man.  In the US you just wouldn’t have someone do that.  If someone did need to get ahead they would tap you on the shoulder and say – “I’m in a hurry, do you mind if I go ahead?”  And, stereotypically, a man typically wouldn’t cut in front of a woman in any case – especially someone nearing my father’s age.  What kind of culture is this where it’s ok or expected to do something like that?

One of the blogs I follow – Expat Lingo – recently did a post about China as a superpower (please click the link for her insightful post).  Even prior to this supermarket incident I had started to think thoughts like these.  She included a link to a very interesting This American Life story.  I haven’t listed to Ira Glass much since I moved to China, but this story is probably worth a listen if you are interested in China.  There is a certain amount of civilized behavior that just doesn’t exist here.  I don’t know what it was like prior to the 1950s – if the stripping away of manners and rule of law was the result or whether it just magnified flaws that have existed for thousands of years.  Or – perhaps it’s just the big city mindset – New Yorkers are typically much less friendly than folks from the Midwest?  I don’t know.

Living in China I go through phases – or waves – I ride the highs and lows of every day experiences and interpret them through the lens that I currently hold.  My judgment is not that of a Chinese person – it is based on my own background and morals.  Sometimes I am thrilled, sometimes awed and sometimes disappointed.  This was a disappointing day.

Have you ever had such a realization?  Overall I’m a pretty positive person, but sometimes reality really smacks you in the face.  Have you ever had this realization in your own country or does it only happen in foreign countries?  Any techniques with dealing for disillusionment?  Comments welcome.

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