Thursday, November 23, 2006

"Civilizing" The Masses

In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, the Beijing government has launched a long-term plan of public service announcements to "educate" its citizens as to how to behave in a "civilized" manner. Examples include plastering the subway stations with posters depicting commuters on escalators, standing to the right and passing on the left. Other similar posters illustrate, with a series of arrows, how to wait a couple meters behind someone in front of you at an ATM machine, proceeding only after the previous person has collected his/her cash and receipts and stepped away from the machine.

In its efforts to showcase the best possible image of China during the Olympics, one of the many concerns of the local government is that some of the cultural differences will not be well interpreted by visitors. Apparently Chinese tourists have gained a somewhat negative stereotype abroad for being "rude," and some visitors to China feel the same way about the locals.

A few weeks ago I witnessed a discrepancy between a foreign tourist and a Chinese woman in the bathrooms at a major tourist site. While many westerners will wait in a single-file line for a bathroom stall to open up, Chinese people tend to stand in front of individual stalls and wait for that particular one to open up. So as a group of a few foreign woman were waiting in a line for a free stall, the Chinese woman was shouting about their being open stalls, wondering why these women were loitering near the entrance to the bathrooms rather than proceeding ahead. The foreign tourists, of course, couldn't understand what the Chinese woman was saying, and replied (in English) that they were waiting for someone to exit, as they continuined to block the entrance to the bathroom stall area. Eventually the Chinese woman became so annoyed with waiting that she barrelled past the foreign women and found a stall that had, in fact, been empty all along. While I couldn't understand the language the foreign women were speaking to eachother, I could infer their reaction by the tone of their voices. I'm pretty confident it wasn't "oh, look, that stall was open all along! How silly of us!" but rather something along the lines of "I can't believe that woman just pushed us out of the way, these people are so RUDE!"

While I do understand the governemnt's concern about what these foreign visitors will have to say about Chinese cultural differences when they return home, I find it ironic that they have launched a very pointed campaign at reforming these habits. One of the biggest customs they are trying to address is the Chinese tendency to push and shove to get somewhere or something, rather than waiting in a single-file line. I'll be the first to admit that I hate feeling like someone is giving me a kidney massage every time I'm pushed into the crowd while trying to board a packed bus. I've had public transportation experiences here that seriously redefine the word 'crowded.' However, as long as the government isn't providing enough resources, people are going to rush to the entrance, and push their way in. Hopefully one way they'll bolster their own efforts by adding more transportation resources. Maybe they'll even come up with a campaign to discourage people from hollering "hello!!" in the face of every foreigner they see....

"Civilized Conduct: A One-step Difference"

"Civilized Conduct: Leave A One-meter Gap"

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