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Overcoming culture shock in China

Grant Tobin | Tuesday, November 27, 2012

BEIJING – Before I came to China for my semester abroad, my mentor, a local business owner in Florida and longtime friend, gave me two pieces of advice. No. 1: Think before you speak. No. 2: Keep an open mind. He conveyed to me that China is a land of stark contrasts: immense wealth and abject poverty, deep-rooted history and the fastest-growing infrastructure of any country in the world, intense racism and the most giving of friendships. I had absolutely no idea what was in store for me.

During orientation for the program, the director of the Council on International Education Exchange Beijing gave us an easy comparison to put things in perspective. If you take your parents’ income and divide it by five; take your house size and put five times as many people in it; take your public transit system and put five times as many people in it; and take the difficulty of getting into college and make it five times harder, then you have China.

The thing that perhaps has gnawed at me most since coming to China is the lack of awareness about making and keeping lines. You could say I was in a state of unconscious incompetence when I arrived in Beijing. I was waiting in line at one of the restaurants on campus one morning to grab some 包子 (baozi, steamed buns) before class. The building was pretty packed and people were struggling to push their way through the door, trying to get closer to the front of the line. To be honest, I was a bit shocked. I passed it off as a busy morning or thought there must have been a massive event or something going on. At this point, I had progressed to conscious incompetence. I refused to form a negative view of Chinese culture.

A few days later, it happened at a bus stop. There was a large group of people trying to get on a packed bus, and people began running from the back and shoving their way onto it. I told myself it was rush hour and people needed to get home, but something felt somewhat off. It wasn’t until people began attempting to push in front of me at the ticket office that I realized that is how things are done here. I did some research and we talked about the event in class. At this point, I reached a level of conscious competence.

It turns out there was a massive pre-Olympic campaign to prevent this from happening in the face of the world’s tourists and the global audience. There were slogans, such as “我排队,我文明。我礼让,我快乐,” (“I wait in line and am cultured, I display courtesy and am happy”) that Beijing used to campaign, along with a national 排队日 (lineup day) held on the 11th of every month leading up to the Olympics. Four years later, the inability to queue still seems pretty prevalent. I am told, however, this is only a fraction of how bad it was in the past.

I have learned a few less rude ways to say, “Please stay in line.” These include: “请排队,好吗?” (Please line up, OK?), “不要插队” (“Don’t butt!”), “后面去” (“Get to the back!”), and my personal favorite “你丫怎么插队啊?” (“Why do you jump the line?”) I feel it is as much a problem of overcrowding as it is a problem of scarcity, despite there being only a slight difference between the two. If there are 250 people attempting to take a 100-person bus, it is inevitable there will be commotion trying to get on board. I have no doubt that this would be true in any society on Earth. I’ve witnessed it during rush hour in New York. I think because much of China needs to do it so often, it has permeated into every location: pools, workout rooms, stores, bars and security lines.

I’ve tried to keep an incredibly open mind and have learned to appreciate how different everything here really is. I feel understanding these cultural differences and learning to embrace them has already begun to benefit me and is something nearly everyone needs to accomplish at some point in his life.

Contact Grant Tobin at [email protected]