It is one thing to travel somewhere for a vacation or touring visit. It’s quite another to actually stay beyond a few days or even a couple of weeks.
Because when you actually stay for a while and live among the people, then your perspective shifts. Those odd, ‘cute’ ways of the locals you might have observed – but were mostly shielded from – as a tourist, turn into curious, annoying, frustrating elements of everyday life.
Take for instance walking on a city street – or really anywhere for that matter. To use an animal kingdom metaphor, I’ve come describe the Chinese way of walking as similar to a bat’s flying, whereas the Westerner is more like a cat.
Most of the time, the Chinese will turn into you – literally starting to walk towards you – as they approach, with only a last moment turn to the side to avoid brushing against you or literally bumping into you when you pass…just like the chaotic flight of a bat whose sonar enables them to avoid crashing into each other at the last second.
A Westerner on the other hand, starts making room to one side or the other, well in advance of passing another, so that there is plenty of extra distance between you and them when you actually pass each other…just like a couple of cautious cats passing, giving each other a wide berth of space as they cross paths.
Another example, which as a boy raised in Texas I’m perhaps especially attuned to, is the difference in common courtesy, especially with women. Things you never see in Shanghai: a man opening a door for a woman, a man letting a woman get on the elevator (or subway) first, a man giving up his seat for a woman on a full subway or bus.
I recognize that this custom smacks of a particular male Southern tradition that, frankly, may even annoy certain American women who think there shouldn’t be any special treatment for women, as equally as the custom might perplex a native Chinese man. But, in China, all I can do is model my upbringing, because I’m certain not to see any others practicing this form of Southern gender hospitality.
While these little differences in personal space and courtesy can wear you thin over time, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight some of the behaviors that seem to me quite admirable. Here are a few of the more noteworthy:
People do their own community policing – in my short time in Shanghai, we’ve seen:
- a purse snatcher chased down and caught by people on the street,
- a taxi driver who ran a traffic signal (which is alarmingly common) at night and t-boned a scooter driver in an intersection thwarted from leaving the scene of the accident by a crowd that surrounded him and his taxi, and
- a bonfire that was lighted on a city street in memorial of a passing relative closely monitored and ultimately safely extinguished by a citizens brigade of neighbors.
Closeness between men/women – It is very common (typical in fact) for women to hold hands and cross arms and for men – mostly younger men, under 40 – with their arms closely slung over the shoulder of another man, walking down city streets, in shopping malls, etc.
Personal relationships – While the younger generation practices it less, there is a long-standing Chinese way of building relationships over meals, drinking, and shared activities (like karaoke, known as KTV in China) that include conversation that is given ample time to explore, go deep, provide room for learning your colleagues’ personal stories, etc.
And later, when they are working age, there seems to be a much greater acceptance of young men and women assuming roles of expertise or leadership.
Whether it is the apartment complex repairman or the director of a computer outsourcing center, it is far more common to see these same roles filled by people at least 5-10 years younger in China than in the US.
Taken up a notch, at more of the community and regional level, there are other admirable social qualities like a heavy emphasis on recycling materials of every and all kinds, as well as what appears to be a full employment philosophy about making sure there are jobs for everyone.
And, of course, one other social quality I favor as a foreigner, is that English is taught in school from an early age, so I can nearly always find at least one person who can understand me at a bar, restaurant, store, etc.
It’s been a fascinating time living in Shanghai, so far – unlike any other travel experience we’ve had elsewhere in North America, Europe, or Australia. Next: some novice observations about Chinese business practices.