There is something very strange about Chinese upbringing. It's not cultural in any real sense, just the result of some other seemingly unrelated things like the demands of the education system, the one-child-spoiled-rotten policy and some other stuff.
But people here are sort of inadvertently taught to think only of themselves. Now obviously they are fully capable of thinking of others when the situation warrants it, but I am referring to their general behavior in public places or where they are surrounded by strangers.
The other day I was coming up the escaltor in my building and there were two women somewhat ahead of me, pulling a small cart that you use when you go to the supermarket, and in this case full of groceries. And they stopped at the top of the escalator to empty their cart and rearrange all the grocery bags. And I mean at the top of the escalator - on the steel plate at the top, still surrounded by the rails. And they just laid out all their groceries right there, with me and lots of other people coming up the moving stairs.
There was no place we could go. They had the entire top blocked, and we had the choice of stepping on their groceries or on them, when the stairs brought us to the top. Someone said something to them and the women were surprised.
That kind of thing happens everywhere. Often when I'm coming off the subway someone will pause right at the top of the escalator and think that is a good place and time to stop and read all the messages on his mobile phone. And when you tell him to get the hell out of the way, he is really surprised and often offended. In his mind, he didn't do anything wrong - he was just standing there minding his own business. It just didn't occur to him that stopping there to read his messages might be a grave inconvenience to many others.
It seems inconceiveable to us that things like this would happen. We would say that 'any thinking person would know', but I believe now this is because we are taught from a very young age to think of others first, to never cause inconvenience to other people. That concept is almost non-existent here. If it's good for me, it must be ok.
So if you have only a few items in a supermarket, you just push your way to the front of the line and hand your things to the cashier. If it's good for you, it must be ok. And the strange thing is that few victims object to this, maybe partly because they do it themselves, but also because the Chinese people are genuinely modest and apparently forgiving. I have almost never seen anyone show the slightest irritation at these (sometimes huge) inconveniences caused by others.
This is not a small thing. In a Western country, some of these actions would get you punched by somebody, but that never happens here. People just adapt to whatever happens and carry on. If you really want to be first, then go ahead. It's a shame that the pushy people get all the benefit of that, but it's a miracle that they don't all get beaten up every time they go to the supermarket or get on a train.
I had an odd experience at an office the other week. One of the girls asked if I would edit an English letter for her. It was a short speech of some kind that she had written for a client and she wanted the grammar polished. So I did that for her, and she called when I was at home in the afternoon to ask if I could polish it one more time because the client had made some changes and needed it returned urgently. So I gave her my email address and told her to send it to me.
But I waited 10 and then 20 minutes and no email. From her difficulty in repeating the address I had a suspicion she'd gotten it wrong. I wanted to call her but didn't have her number. I finally tracked down one of her colleagues and got to talk to her, and sure enough she had the address wrong. So finally I got the letter, edited and returned it and all was well.
But later I spoke with some of my friends about this, and asked what both the girl and I should have done (according to their accepted practice) in that situation. Without exception, they thoughtfully counselled me that I should have done nothing. First, it was not my responsibility if the girl got the address wrong and I didn't receive the email. And, it wouldn't be my fault if something bad happened as a result. One person told me, "You don't have to sweep the snow from other peoples' doorsteps".
So I asked about the girl. She must have been worried when I didn't respond quickly and must have had thoughts about something going wrong, so I asked if she shouldn't have called to ask if I'd received her document. Unanimously, they said no.
It would be wrong of her to call me again because that would be rude and thoughtless, putting the value of the document ahead of the value of the relationship. If you have asked someone for help, that is all you can and should do, and even if that help is needed very urgently you cannot push people because that's rude.
These are the same people who stop to read mobile phone messages at the top of the escalator and push themselves in front of me in the supermarket lineup. And the same man who asks for money ten times. Fascinating, isn't it?
In China, relationships are important, but there are no relationships with the strangers in the supermarket or on the metro, so you have no obligations and you are free to think only of yourself. It isn't easy to bend your mind around this one.
When I was visiting YiXing and Nanjing I was treated almost royally by everyone because I was part of a relationship with a friend of a friend. The same is true for me in Shanghai - depending on where I go.... But without that, you're on your own.
Actually, that isn't quite true. I am often treated excessively well by complete strangers too. People sometimes tell me it's because I'm a foreigner. I like to think it's because I'm handsome and charming, but they may be right. Still, navigating the cultural landscape is a challenging experience.
University entrance here is a unique system, determined by the scores received in a set of comprehensive examinations, spread over two days. Grade 12 marks count for nothing in terms of university acceptance, so this one examination has a great deal riding on it.
Universities here are layered in tiers, in terms of educational quality, status, etc., to a much greater extent than in the West. In the West, we do have the Iveys and Harvards and the London School of Economics, but most other universities are sort of in the middle of the pack, and a general arts degree from one is not seen as particularly better or worse than one from another institution.
In China, the rankings are more serious and a degree will generally determine the level of job you can obtain after graduation, with the best jobs and highest salaries being saved for those who graduate from the higher level institutions. So getting into the highest level possible for a student, is the only goal.
Generally, a student must select several universities of choice that he or she would like to attend, and the marks from the entrance exam will determine which ones accept you. And after that, within a broad framework, your future is decided for you. A high examination score will get you into one of the top universities and a degree from there will get you one of the best and highest-paying jobs, and you're set. A poor score will get you into a low-level college, which will guarantee you a low-level job on graduation, and a not so bright future. Escaping from this system is not easy.
If you choose too high a level of university, and do too poorly on the exams, none will accept you and you can wait until the next year and try again. Hard choices to make.
Generally, graduating from a university is not a problem; not many people fail. Very difficult to get in, but quite easy to get through and out. That's in direct contrast to the Western system where it is easy to get into a university but not so easy to get through and out.
Therefore, a child's life from maybe 5 years of age is geared to only one thing - getting a high mark on that university entrance examination. That consumes a child's life almost until adulthood. Evenings, holidays, summer vacations, are all spent studying. There is little time spent on the leisure activities we take for granted in the West, no playing around, no hanging out, no free summers, no part-time jobs. That concentration takes its toll on the future in many ways.
No childhood for one thing. Children here have long school days then spend hours more doing homework, often not finishing until 10:00 PM. And they usually spend the entire weekends studying and doing homework as well. All the vacations are the same - lots of homework to last for the entire holiday.
And, as it once was with Western countries several decades back, much of the study and homework is repetitive and not likely useful, especially memorisation and repeating exercises long after the skills have been learned. One friend has a teenage girl who was given a copying assignment for the summer. She was given an English storybook of a couple of hundred pages and her job was to copy the entire book into a notebook. The assignment had no purpose whatever, and nobody was going to check the homework, but she was kept busy....
Because of this heavy focus on schoolwork to the exclusion of social and other activities, when these young students graduate, they will be talking to their first prospective employer, with no experience in how to choose a job or a company, so it's easy to make big mistakes. As a contrast, by the time I graduated from university I'd probably had 20 jobs of some kind.
By the time we graduate from university we've had more than 20 years of experience in choosing playmates, boyfriends and girlfriends, evaluating people, learning how to get along, and so on. And we learn all these things when we are small, when the mistakes are trivial and when the pain doesn't last. The children here have little of that, so there are many lessons that must be learned during adulthood when the mistakes are not trivial and the pain does last.
This year's examinations are coming up soon, and in Shanghai alone there will be 150,000 students writing the exam, and more than 10 million throughout China. Only 60% will find a place. For the rest, they can pay their way into a private college or university and still get a degree, but it will require a lot of good luck and hard work to rise beyond the lower levels in terms of future jobs and salaries.
On our trip in Inner Mongolia, our tour bus stopped at a service station and we all got out for a break. Hot sun, no place to sit in the shade except for a small bench by a fruit stand. There were a grandmother, mother and fat 13-year-old kid travelling together. And they put the kid on the bench in the shade while the mother stood in the hot sun and the grandmother was squatting in the parking lot and baking to death. I wanted so badly to kick that kid. I really did, especially when the mother was waving a fan to help keep him cool.
This one-child policy with the favorite sons leads to some excessive behavior that really isn't healthy. On the subway I'll often see a mother standing with bags of groceries while her kid sits. And far too often I will see mothers spoon-feeding 10 or 12-year-old boys. The 'little emperors' grow up thinking they are really important, catered to, and being treated like babies.
I sometimes go shopping with friends who have a 12 or 14-year-old son, and almost always the boy will hold his mother's arm the entire time. If I'd done that in grade school, I'd have had to change schools because my friends would have laughed me out of town. But not here.
Once, a boy's shoelace became untied and there was his mother on her knees in the shopping mall, tying his shoelaces. I know it sound harsh, but I wanted to kick both of them. My friend said she did it because she loved him, but when he finishes university and gets a job, who will be tying his shoes then?
The girls are better, but some of the boys seem to have every whim catered to, never having to do anything for themselves. So far as I can see, they run a real risk of becoming a burden on everyone when they're older. And the women will be marrying little boys instead of men. It isn't universal, but I see too much of that here and it really isn't good. The next generation will be better and different, but this one will be learning some hard lessons when they're forced to grow up.
It's one of the few things I see here that I quite dislike. Perhaps the worst part is a kind of arrogant look of superiority and defiance in the eyes of some of these boys in their higher teens and at university age. Some of them quite obviously feel they are 'better' than almost everyone else, including any and all adults, and that comes simply from being treated like a little emperor during childhood. Not good.
I have been having discussions with friends about the differences in culture between China and the West, and have accumulated quite a lot of interesting material. My friends have suggested it would make good copy for a local newspaper, but also that it has redeeming value and should really be compiled into a book.
My topics cover the huge difference in child upbringing and the conception of the family unit, that lead to many of the social and other difficulties that China is now experiencing. The one-child spoiled-rotten policy, the emphasis on the educational system that leads to children growing up with almost no other life experiences and therefore poorly prepared for some aspects of life.
It leads to very long work hours, a lack of efficiency and productivity, a lack of ability to think things through and plan well, and so on. The same factors also produce great difficulties for young people in finding mates. There may be very many young girls here who will never marry because of the systemic impediments.
China is a complicated country with a mixture of culture, tradition, education, government, and systems that have developed over thousands of years. And these are all suitable for the people who are now here - even though Westerners might find them 'foreign'.
Much of the culture here would seem odd to Westerners. Chinese people can seem quite rude sometimes, in some ways or circumstances, maybe especially to strangers. And yet they have a general attitude of respect that is charming and seems quite deeply-rooted, being respectful in ways that Westerners won't really understand. In the West, we have politeness and good manners in most social situations, but we don't necessarily have any respect at all for other people. It is a superficial veneer of good manners and socialisation that governs our conduct with others. The Chinese may not have that same layer of manners in some situations, but they do have a genuine thick layer of respectfulness. Except for the post-menopausal Shanghainese women in the supermarkets. I've never experienced this anywhere else.
More than once I've been invited to a friend's home for dinner and his wife had hired someone to come in and make the dinner because she wasn't a good enough cook to prepare food for a special guest. In the West, even my own family wouldn't do anything like that. In fact, especially my own family. Nobody here is surprised when I tell them that story; they just nod understandingly.
Here in China, people pass out business cards in a different way, offering them to you with the card held in both hands, as if something quite valuable were being presented to you. It seemed like an odd gesture at first, one of those silly little traditions that people in far-away cultures might develop, and that cause a curious smile on our part. But having participated in this tradition for a short while has produced an interesting result for me. Our Western way of offering a card with only one hand now seems like really a quite rude gesture, almost as if one were throwing the card at you with a bit of contempt and saying, "Here, take it.". The Chinese way seems so much more appropriate and polite, and respectful, in an interesting way.
A friend of mine, Eric Shen, gave me a valuable insight into China's cultural development and the unification of countries.
I have often marvelled at the fact that Europe, with so many relatively small countries, has managed to withstand so many centuries of pressure to merge into a more or less homogeneous whole. Each country there has its own language, culture, personality, traditions, that are quite different from all others around them. It's true that we see a bit of 'melting' near the borders, but when we travel only a few kilometers into a country it is apparent that we are definintely in another country.
But that didn't happen in China; the country did merge into one continuous whole, even though some traditions and customs vary from one area to another.
Eric pointed out that the language in China was unified many centuries ago, and that this was most likely the decisive factor in producing the homogeneity. It's true that the spoken language has differences throughout the country, in some cases making verbal communication quite difficult. But the written language was unified a very long time ago, so all peoples in China had the ability to easily communicate with each other. This was something the Europeans never did have.
And on reflection, it seems to me this unification of language may well have been the determining factor that kept Europe as small separate countries, but merged China into one nation.