I originally planned to be in China for just three months in early 2005. I stayed for more than twenty. I even learned the language at Xi’an Normal University, while helping some post-graduate students who were learning English.
China is an amazing country with thousands of historical monuments, breathtaking scenery, and the very best cuisine in the world. And the inhabitants, when you meet them individually, are warm, generous and helpful. If you can hold a conversation in Chinese – mine is accurately pronounced, if a little slow – then they become even more welcoming. But their ‘street manners’ are a little different to what you expect in the west. For example, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in a queue, and someone has just pushed in front of me. Several times on the Beijing subway I’d be about to buy a ticket and someone would calmly pass their money through the window. Sometimes I’d take it from them, point behind me, and say, “duibuqi, ni yinggai pai dui.” (I’m sorry, you have to queue.)
I was about to buy a train ticket in Lijiang, where metal railings meant that there actually was a queue of sorts. It was 5.25 and the window closed at 5.30 for thirty minutes. As I started to explain where I was going, a large lady moved in front of me and spoke to the man behind the counter.
“Laotaitai,” (a respectful word roughly translated as ‘madam’), I said. “Ni yinggai pai dui.” She looked at me as if I was stupid, and turned back to the window. Putting my hands on her shoulder and turning her to face the queue, I said, loudly, “Laotaipo,” (a colloquial and very slightly rude rural term roughly translated as ‘old lady’), ni kan, ni jui shi yinggai pai dui.” (Look, you really have to queue.) She gave me a black look and went back to her original place, about twenty feet away, where she would have to wait for at least forty minutes. As I watched, the people immediately behind me in the queue smiled and gave me a thumbs up. But if she’d pushed in front of them, they wouldn’t have complained. Because they would have ‘lost face’. As an ‘ignorant’ Westerner, I could get away with it.
Buying shampoo in Watsons for the first time, I couldn’t understand why the lady behind was standing quite so close. Every time I shuffled forward a little, she moved to press against me. My students in Xi’an explained that if you leave a space more than three inches between you and the person in front, someone will fill it.
In the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the authorities employed ‘queue wardens’ to get the residents to form single lines when waiting for the buses. They did this for just one day on the eleventh of every month. Only, as soon as the wardens’ backs were turned, the queue became a wedge again. It’s ingrained.
I joked that when you’ve been a long time in Asia, you try to get into a crowded lift before anyone has a chance to get off. It’s not a joke. On several occasions I’ve arrived at the ground floor with my rucksack, to find my exit completely blocked by people waiting to get on.
Waiting for my flight to Manila, I watched the next gate as Air Asia called the passengers to board. They were all Chinese. Air Asia doesn’t assign seats. Several passengers almost came to blows as they fought to get on the plane. Resigned to the same fate when my flight was called, I watched in amazement as the passengers around me stood and formed an orderly line. Then I realised, they were all Filipinos.
If you enter a building in England, you instinctively look to see if there is anyone behind you before letting go of the door. And if someone holds the door for you, you smile and say thank you. When I held doors open for people in China, the westerners said thank you, the Chinese just looked at me strangely. And on the one solitary occasion in nearly two years, in a shopping mall in Beijing, I was so surprised when a Chinese lady held the door as I exited that I just walked out. When she said, slightly ironically, “Bu shi” (you’re welcome), I turned, gave her an apologetic look and said, “Duibuqi, tai xiexie ni le.” (An emphatic and friendly form of ‘thank you’, but not as effusive as ‘thank you very much’.)...