Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Behaving like a jerk just because you're in China

Yesterday I set a personal record when I completed a 4-hours study marathon at my local Starbucks. Not bad, huh?! Considering I did it all over one cup of ill-tasting 'tea latte' (not to be recommended. It sounded all yummy.... 'black tea latte' but, warm milk and sweet 'tea suryp' doesn't make for a good cup) and a scone. I am now prepared to take on today's speaking exam.

Since I spent more or less the whole afternoon at Starbucks I had plenty of time to observe other people as parts of my 'resting my eyes from the book' breaks. What I found the most interesting to watch was how westerners behaved. And why? Well, because something tells me that their behavior here, is completely different to what it would have been back in their home countries.

Take this one guy for example. I pretty much bump into every time I visit this Starbucks because he always seems to be there. I have actually never seen him order something from the counter (although I assume he does, at some point, maybe a tiny cup of espresso gets him going all day?) but he sure seems to spend a lot of time on the different couches/seats of the cafe. When I say different I mean different, because this man moves around, as in changing his seats -more than once/visit... He is always on the phone (a headset, which allows him to do a lot of hand gestures while talking) and the reason I know this is because he is so d*** LOUD. Like, REALLY BLOODY LOUD. I think it is fine if you want to use Starbucks as your 'office' at times, I am personally one of those who sometimes need to get out of the flat and into a new environment in order to get some work done/chapters studied, but I am not sure if I would like to take ALL of my important business meetings/calls to a couch at Starbucks? I know I am a bit of a loser myself for being so involved in this guy's business, but at the same time, it is kind of hard not to, because he is EVERYWHERE (yes my friends, he moves around while he talks.. from one couch to another.. he goes, sits, stands up, gestures with his hands, speaks loudly, laughs, get angry, walks a bit, sits down at some new place, etc etc.. it can go on for quite a bit). I probably wouldn't have noticed if it wasn't for the fact that he does it EVERY SINGLE time I am there and that he is so loud that it is basically impossible to study when he is around, unless you turn on your iPod.

What I wanted to get to is that this guy, working SOHO or not, probably wouldn't act like this in his home country? I just cannot imagine someone walking around, sitting down at different seats, and taking every single phone call in a high-pitched, agitated voice that is basically BEGGING everybody to look at him at a cafe in Europe/America?! Is this the whole 'I am in China doing business please look at me I am so busy and important' type of guy we have here? I am starting to think so. I visit Starbucks (for study reasons) maybe once/week and I always manage to time my visits with this guy's. Uhh!

Except for this guy I yesterday watched two foreign ladies, in their 40-ies I believe, walking into Starbucks, one of them ordering a tiny latte, and the other one taking a seat, spreading out here 'brought-with-her-lunch'. Oh.. interesting. Soon, the whole cafe smelled of noodles and beef rather than freshly brewed coffee. None of the Starbuck staff said anything, although I saw them glancing at the ladies as they were eating. Hm... Interesting. I wonder if those ladies would have brought their own lunch to a cafe in their home town? I barely dare to bring my own water bottle to a cafe in Sweden. (I am secretly hoping that they were on some special, gluten free diet or something and that was the reason they brought their own lunch).

Another example of a typical 'China behavior' from a lao wai is the whole 'I am in China so I can be however rude I want'. A friend of a friend, normally a quite nice, humble and modest guy, turns into a screaming monster as soon as we walk into a restaurant with him. He has really taken the whole 'yell at the waiters, you don't have to do the polite wave, or say 'excuse me, may I order' but you can just call "fuwuyuan" and they will turn up' -attitude to his heart, and makes sure to use this as much as possible, screaming 'FUWUYUAN' from the bottom of his lungs every time he wants something (napkin, water, beer... toothpicks?). Sure, this is fine, but when we were at the Sheraton hotel some months ago and one girl on our table said something like 'hm.. maybe I should get myself another beer' he just screamed: 'FUWUYUAN PIJIU!!!!!! KUAI, KUAI!!!' (meaning: waiter, bring us a beer, fast!) then and there, without as much as looking around to see if there was any waiter/waitress around us (there wasn't, so all his screaming resulted in was annoyed looks from the table next to ours)? It is almost as if he enjoys that he can scream and behave however over here, meanwhile in his home country, he would get thrown out of the restaurant if he did it (he's Scandinavian).

Hm... Lao wais behaviour in China... well worth questioning at times. I bet I do things that annoy other people too, but I think I am pretty much acting like I do back home even though I am in China. Sure, maybe I push a little bit extra when getting on/off the metro or in/out of the elevator... but I haven't found myself screaming my guts out at a Chinese restaurant yet. And I am pretty sure I never will either.

29 comments:

Tripfriend said...

Nothing like a rant to get a good wall of text going. Reading posts like this have given me a great fear of ending up like that. I know I wont, because but it's just a self paranoia that's kind of hard to shake off.

zhou said...

the chinese have long tradition of being super kind and tolerant to guests but super tough to people they are familiar with.there are several ridiculous stories i read from news recently,

No.1: on Oct.22th 2008, a mexican woman dropped her bracelet into the gaps of the escalator in Guangzhou Baiyun airport, so the airport called in 5 engineers to stop the escalator and open it up to get the bracelet from bottom inside. It took them half an hour to get it.

No.2: on August 22th 2008, a train to Dalian was late. In order to make sure 5 Japanese passengeres on board wouldn't be late for their flight, the train stopped at a station nearest to the airport but it was not supposed to stop at only for them. And the train captain even called local police to drive the 5 Japanese from the station to the airport..

there has been huge debate on the net that whether the officials would do the same thing for local chinese people, and most people agree the answer is definitly no.

Becky said...

I've found that I am completely forgetting my British road etiquette when I'm on my bike - but it is hard not to get caught up with the 'me first' attitude that prevails on the roads here. Reading your post reminds me that I must try harder - I don't want to become one of those awful laowai you are describing. I'm ashamed of myself when I don't even stop to let an elderly person cross the road!

Mark's Blog said...

Sometimes, I just cant help but wondering why these people like to for the worst when there are so many beautiful things around them, equally worth learning.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Zhou -well yeah.. that is another topic I have to remember to write about soon... Lao wais being treated like VIPs in China...

Becky -traffic in China is mad.. when I started riding my bike in Shanghai (in 2007) I also behaved quite badly.. I figured it was the only way to get somewhere.. now I have calmed down a bit, and try not to get upset when cars almost hit me. Riding a bike in Suzhou is a less stressful than in Shanghai though.. thank god!

Anonymous said...

you know, it's the same in hk, but not as bad as in china i believe.
I was lining up to get served in sheraton hotel, since i was next in line, the receptionist decided since i'm chinese i should of course let the Lao wais who standing beside me go first,which he should have been standing behind me. I guess he felt that since there was only 2 of use no need to stand behind me. My first reaction was like wtf. so my friend who was there with me at the time, told the guy off.

It's sad but Asians do treat Lao wais better than their own race.

I was brought up in an environment where everyone is equal regardless of color or status. Being rich does not make you better than anyone.
but i think the chinese here gave the impression that it is ok for the Lao wais to step all over them. which is wrong.

Josh said...

I have learned so much about patience living in China, especially when it comes to lines. It really can get on my nerves when people just jump right in front of me.

But what annoys me even more, as you point out, is how expats eventually get used to these oddities in Chinese living and actually adopt them as their own.

It's like a country boy trying to rap...sometimes you have to be content to just observe.

WoAi said...

Jonna don't get me started on laowai behaving badly. I think I already mentioned the European guys asking my female friends at Lounge 18 if they would like to go home with him and have sex. Try that in France, I dare you!

On the other hand, it is understandable that the longer we live here the more habits we will adopt, no matter how hard we try to resist.

Woai said...

BTW thanks for voting on my blog today. I think the result is pretty clear!

wawa said...

Hi, first of all nice blog!

my2cent,
have u ever heard of the Chinese saying 入乡随俗 (ruxiangsuisu) means more or less when you are in Rome act like Romans do.
maybe some of the people (not all) in your story didn't mean to behave like a jerk, they just act like the Chinese do. haha.

lygcgsun said...

interesting, I guess it should be called"入乡随俗".It is the culture thing not people. You might come accross an old Chinese story, I mean really old, about 500BC, called "淮橘为枳",which is from "晏子春秋", it says the same thing.

Jonna Wibelius said...

wawa & lygcgsun -I know 入乡随俗... Actually, today during my 口语考试 I had to explain to my teacher the meaning of just 入乡随俗.... :) Funny. Yeah, I know what u mean. Unfortunately, I think what these westerners are doing isn't really 入乡随俗 but more like, thinking they can get away with this sort of behaviour just because they are in China... I don't think it is in their nature... also, the whole 'Look at me I am a lao wai and I am Soooo important' has nothing to do with 入乡随俗... that's just some lao wais who seem to think they are 'special' here.. or at least so it seems.

Woai -yeah, clear result on your blog, let's hope America follows!! I actually thought about you when I wrote this post and about that post u wrote some months ago about a western guy smoking a cigar next to a pregnant lady, telling the waiter about his contacts... brrrrrr!! These sort of people gives me the creeps!!

Josh -country boy trying to rap?! haha.. yeah, kind of... I just wonder if he knows himself how completely out of place he looks?!

Emil said...

Kind of complex matter, your guy just seem like an ass that belive Starbucks is hip and him being all so important making him awesome.

But it is true that many foreigners seem to act different in China compared to their own countries. Though few chinese actually notice this, because the average chinese business guy is so much worse anyway.

Being loud and obnoxious is just kind of their culture, and sometimes doing business with chinese people you would not connect that good with them if you tried to act like a gentleman towards everyone, more likely seem weak, and connecting with the people you do business with in China is pretty important.

On the other hand you would score a lot of extra points being nice to lower ranked people, as so few high ranked chinese people would do so. But yelling at someone and being an ass towards someone is completely different in China, while yelling to someone would is considered being an asshole in a lot of foreign countries

Mark said...

Wait, maybe it's just me but isn't this kind of what you are doing? You sat in Starbucks for 4 hours drinking one cup of tea....

I guess I can see that you don't like the idea of someone using it as their office (as you also did), but we do actually see that a lot in the States. We write it off to guys trying to impress people but not understanding how that all works. I think that happens all over the world.

As for adapting to the society and customs around you - that is something that you - and all people need to do. We were also amazed with some of the differences when we first arrived, but to get things done we have slowly adapted to the local culture. In restaurants shouting out no longer seems that strange, more strange would be someone waving their arm around to attract attention as we are accustomed to.

This is seen around the world, based on this one post I would assume you probably have a problem with the loud Chinese in your local haunts back home. I know better.

I guess when you boil it down the question you are asking is - why don't more people try to change the Chinese into being more like westerners?

This seem like a argumentative post the you didn't need to write....

Herbie said...

Interesting read. Like your stories a lot. Keep up the good work.

On the other hand, a lot of lowly "lao wai" these days running around in China. I feel sorry to say this. I agree on your offering an alternative to the "入乡随俗" theory. Everyone loves privilege, isn't it?

zhou said...

hey,Emil,what u said is true only when it comes to middle-aged businessmen. The young generation is much more educated and mannered.
If you just adopt the old people's behavior when dealing with the young people/entrepreneurs, you will be considered to be a twat too.
furthermore, we chinese are also blaming the old bad habits, so please don't act as if you are the only one in china who appreciate western manner, many thanks!

Jonna Wibelius said...

I don't understand your comment Mark.

First of all, to get some details right... I was at the cafe for 4 hours drinking a cup of tea AND eating a scone. I don't have any problem at all with people using it as an office/study place (If you think I do this u need to re-read my post), I have myself done this everywhere I have lived: Eng, Aus, Swe, Fi... All I said is that it might not be appropriate to hold ALL of your important biz meetings/calls at a cafe? Why this guy bothers me is because he is so LOUD and he is moving around all the time, obviously just looking for attention from other ppl. Why else would you act like that? It doesn't make any sense to me? If I would have seen it once I prob would have just laughed but he is there (acting the same way) every single time I am there.. which just makes it a bit... strange. Not to mention annoying.

As for screaming in restos: I can scream and wave too, but there is a time and a place for everything, right? Just because u can scream for a waiter here, it doesn't mean that u should act like a jerk? Screaming out in the air (when there isn't even any waiter around) at a 5 star hotel is has a high jerk-factor to me. Like, u don't know this guy... he would NEVER ever do anything like this in his home country, but here he has like adapted this 'This is China, I can do whatever I want' attitude and it to me he just comes across as disrespectful and I know that many people who would see him act like he does would consider him to be 'rude'. It is almost like he wants to show all the time how very 'Chinese' he is... I often scream for the waiter but I always first look around to see where she is... rather than screaming out in the air. Also, during our dinner at the Sheraton, I didn't see any other person in the whole resto screaming like our 'friend'. It wasn't really the place to do it. The staff had been very attentive all night

Am I annoyed by loud ppl back home? Hm... u know what? I have never seen anyone screaming for a waiter like that back home.. not even at Chinese restos. So there u go.

Finally: "This seem like a argumentative post the you didn't need to write...."
I think this topic is (like Emil said) very complex, but also very interesting, something u can tell just by reading other people's comments to this post. I will def write about it again later if I feel like it.

Herbie said...

Well, I actually don't think Jonna here is crying out loud that she knows manners.
And speaking of the young's behavior, how many of us Chinese now actually give seats to senior people on bus or in subway? Not many, right?

For Jonna it'd be interesting if you ask people something related to Cultural Revolution. A lot will tell you that before it people were nice. Afterward "people's hearts had gone bad" (人心变坏了). Maybe it does explain some middle-aged people's rudeness. Because after all, they weren't really taught of any manners the first place.

Mark said...

I think that overall it just stands out more over here when a foreigner is obnoxious or annoying, but I'm saying that we see that type of behavior all over the world. This is why people think they dislike all British or American tourists, because they have had that run in with the occasional bad one.

Also what you are complaining about seems to be things that you see daily over here, but that you are mentioning that it bothers you this time because it isn't a local being a jerk but a laowai.

Anonymous said...

I think it's been mentioned already, but white people do develop a God complex when in Asia, especially in poorer parts of Asia. You can see the same thing in Thailand for example. Lower class tatooed fat balding old white dudes who would be low on the social totem pole act like they are special.

As for Asians not treating Asians well, I do get surprised from time to time be friendly acts (I'm Asian). One time I was trying lost trying to get to the Airport in HK and I asked a local where it was etc. She not only told me I couldnt walk there (yes I was quite the newbie) but hailed a taxi for me.

Have a good day!

Adrian

Joel said...

I agree that people shouldn't be jerks. But your post touches on a complicated situation. A couple of observations:

- The behaviours that you and the commenters are criticizing (loud cellphone talkers, bringing food into restaurants, yelling at wait staff, me-first traffic, etc) are all very typical Chinese behaviours. Ironically, we're criticizing laowais for being "jerks" because they're acting like Chinese. That's just one small step away from saying, "Chinese people act like jerks." I'm not saying you can't make that claim, but it's hard to do without being culturally condescending.

- In a different cultural context, actions have different meanings. Some things considered polite in the U.S. are really rude in China, and vice versa. It'd be silly to simply act like we do back home, create misunderstanding with the locals, but expect them to adjust to us in their own country. If we did this in Chinese traffic, for example, we'd be a physical danger to ourselves and others. I realize that most of you already understand this, but you can still see the opposite sentiment coming out in some of the comments.

- It doesn't make sense to judge Chinese culture according to British cultural norms (for example). So unless we're willing to claim some universal values that apply to all cultures, then we're stuck using our individual preferences, which are, of course, highly culturally conditioned. Saying that "laowais are jerks because they disrespect the locals by acting like locals" sends a mixed message. It's like trying to respect the local people and culture but being culturally condescending at the same time.

But still, I do agree that treating restaurant staff bad (etc.) is wrong. And I often experience similar culture-related frustrations living in Tianjin.

Jonna Wibelius said...

What obviously hasn't come accross in this post is the fact that I found the lao wais behaviour annoying because I don't think they would do it in their home countries. Take the guy yellin in restos for instance -he would never do it back in his home country as he would get thrown out. In china, on the other hands, plenty of ppl yell at waiters and that is OK. But this western guy is over-doing it. That is the fine line between '入乡随俗' (In rome, do as romans) and being a jerk... And that was what I wanted to point out. I also yell at waiters, but not like he does.. Like i wrote, there is a time and place for everything and although some things that might not be ok in our home countries might be ok here, I think that when ppl overdo it, it becomes jerk-behavior.

sarah said...

If this loud businessman is from the US, namely LA or NY, then there is a very good chance he actually does behave like this at home as well. Most likely for the same reasons you mentioned he is probably doing it in China, the attention factor. Out of curiosity, was he speking Chinese or his native language? I assumed native language, but I often assume things incorrectly.

The women who brought their own food is also something that is becoming not so out of the ordinary in America. There are always new diet trends and people like to show off how health conscious they are and snub people who aren't as "good" as they are.

I am not defending these people, more so just whining about my fellow countrymen. :P

I have nothing for the third example. Wish it were just a case of "when in Rome" but you are probably right that he is doing it simply because he can, and that is plain rude.

Anonymous said...

Why should a foreigner in China act the same way they would back home? People act according to their values, their habits, and their environment. If these foreigners are acting in a way that annoys you, why don't you consider the fact that you are probably much more annoyed than the Chinese around you feel. So in fact, you have brought your own foreign values and judgments to China, instead of adapting to the local environment. Worse, you criticize others who have adapted, however much you dislike the adaptation. Are these people harming China in some way?

What's wrong with a foreigner asking sex from a Chinese girl? She can decide for herself.

I don't see any big deal here, there's much more important things to worry about in Chinese/Foreign relations, seems like the problem you have is betwen 'foreigners', nothing to do with china really. Actually, the problems you say show the problems that Chinese culture presently have, not the problems of foreigners.

Nobody is a "jerk" unless they are mean or uncaring to other people. These people it seems have violated some of your western social norms is all. But we are not in the West.

Jason said...

Sensitive! (the comments)
I agree. There is a difference between 'doing as the Romans' and being an ass.
The people who are chalking this up to 'adapting to the local culture' are 'adapting to behavior of asses in the local culture' without knowing it.
Don't believe me? Ask any Chinese person if it's polite to scream. 'fuwuyuan!' without even looking around or making some eye contact.
It's rude in China too.
There's a big difference between calling a server and screaming for one. Even in China.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Jason -FINALLY someone who understands what I mean. Thank you!!!

Joel said...

I think I mostly agree, especially with Jason's point: that "'adapting to the local culture' [and] 'adapting to behavior of asses in the local culture' without knowing it" are two different things.

My point is about how to decide which laowais are being asses: When deciding what kind of behaviour is inappropriate, I don't think we can use laowai's home culture as a measuring stick.

"I found the lao wais behaviour annoying because I don't think they would do it in their home countries."
I agree with your point about laowais "over-doing it" - like they just want an excuse to do things they normally aren't allowed to do.

But, if someone really (and appropriately) 入乡随俗s, then they will probably end up acting in ways that would be totally unacceptable in their home country. And I think they should. When we're in a cross-cultural context, it's the host culture - and our universal values, if we hold any - that should determine what's appropriate behaviour, not our the expectations of our home cultures.

Kim said...

I don't spend that much time in cafes but still, I have never witnessed a Chinese behaving in the way you described in any of my coffee stops...only in bars. I think that guy is a jerk and I don't think he is "following Chinese norms"...he is just being a jerk.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Kim -100% agree. I think it is jerk behaviour no matter where it would happen.