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.

12 Responses to “A lack of manners”

  1. jotsfromasmallapt July 5, 2012 at 9:03 am #

    So well done, Jumble. What an achievement…thinking and speaking in your “home” country!!
    Happy 4th of July from Portland…..

    • gkm2011 July 5, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

      Thanks Jots – I hope that you had a Happy 4th too!

  2. Darrell July 5, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    I’ve yelled “pai DUI!” and made no concessions about it. My having limited language skills here and looking every bit Chinese doesn’t help, but at times result to English and hand motions to get my point across is pretty effective as well. Great job BTW,

    • gkm2011 July 5, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

      Thanks Darrell – I have done the Pai Dui mutter/yell as well. It must be frustrating for you sometimes when people expect you to act a certain way – at least with me all bets are off. There was one time though where I didn’t have to – instead the Chinese man behind me really threw a fit on my behalf. That was pretty funny.

  3. expatlingo July 6, 2012 at 5:23 am #

    Thanks for the mention!

    I’m impressed with your quick thinking! A win for the day as an expat in China. Line cutters are the worst.

    That said, having just flown across the Pacific, there are some terribly rude and uncivilized Americans (and flight attendants) on American owned airlines…

    • gkm2011 July 6, 2012 at 8:02 pm #

      I know – sometimes being a way for awhile makes everything clearer. Hope you have a great trip in the US!

  4. sarahinguangzhou July 8, 2012 at 6:30 am #

    I often feel like the invisible woman in shops. It’s not in my nature to push in and so the Chinese get served first. Now I just tell them to get some manners. Unfortunately only in English though, so I doubt it makes much difference.

    • gkm2011 July 8, 2012 at 7:44 am #

      I remember that happening a lot in the beginning, but now most of the time I make a conscious decision if I’m going to be pushy or not. This time – it was more of a reflex which still scares me a little. What is my nature becoming?

  5. buildingmybento September 4, 2012 at 10:31 am #

    I’d usually just lob the offender a “bie chadui” (dont’ cut the queue) or something less encouraging, and the response is always “mei guanxi” (it doesn’t matter). A couple of times, (ugh) when you have to weigh the produce and they cut my position, I’d take their things off the scale and throw them elsewhere, responding “jiu zheyang” (and that’s how it is). Those last two phrases got me a lot further in China than the first one…

    Would turnstiles help? Probably not. But that brings another point of contention into the mix (for me, at least). I can’t stand that there are tvs all over the place in China. Whatever. But if they were installed in train stations, where queues are often clazy, that might be better than a turnstile in trimming the line-cutters.

    • gkm2011 September 5, 2012 at 11:06 pm #

      Yes, I think we all develop coping mechanisms. I am more aggressive than I used to be, but still – sometimes I can’t quite cross that line.


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