The gist of Adam’s post was that he had read what Water and I and others had to say on the “gimme phenomenon,” but that he knew a good many Chinese people who were wonderful people. (Adam, if I misunderstood your point, please correct me.)
I absolutely agree with Adam, but this led me to worry that there were maybe two separate conversations being mixed up as one.
The Beijingren I’ve known are among the kindest, most gracious and hospitable people in the world. The issue that I was commenting on was the self-centeredness that manifests itself when there is a situation of anonymity, when you are out on the street, when you are waiting in a line, when you are crossing the road. A lot of the kindness seems to be replaced by an attitude of survival — as in, I have got to go first or someone else is going to cut in front of me. There is no choice. It is automatic.
It’s not about whether they are good people; they are. But for a constellation of reasons, from the lingering influence of the Cultural Revolution to the one-child policy to the Chinese chalk-and-talk educational system, to the huge population, etc., there is the me-first attitude that emerges when, for example, they want to get a seat on the subway or pass another car on the road (and all of you know what I mean). Water gave some examples that were far more vivid.
This is not a comment on niceness or friendliness or goodness, nor is it unique to the Chinese. When I lived in Germany for a year, it didn’t take me long to feel that a crowd of Germans could be dificult to deal with (pushing and shoving in a way I wasn’t used to); and yet the German people I knew were wonderful, and many are still my friends today. But when those same people were part of a crowd, I am sure many took on the less savory characteristics described.
What can be so disconcerting to Western sensibilities is the degree to which this can be carried in China. Pushing and shoving is one thing. But driving in a manner that could easily result in death(s) is another.
One of the most interesting observations I made in Beijing was how I, too, began to adopt some of these characteristics (a sure sign that I had to leave). For many weeks when it was snowing, I would try to hail a taxi, and when I did, a lady or a guy would run ahead of me and jump in, even though they knew it was stopping for me. One fiercely cold and snowy day in January, a young couple waked over to a taxi to ask the driver if he were free, and I just walked to the other side of the taxi and jumped in, and we were off.
And I didn’t feel ashamed. I simply felt, if I do not act like the others, if I stand here with my Western politenesses and courtesies, I will never get a fucking taxi. They did it to me every day, I was going to do it too. My colleague, a New Zealender who’d lived in Beijing with his wife for 12 years, would lunge into elevators before anyone got off, and he told me very matter of factly, That’s just the way you have to do it here. But he’s a delightful person.
My point, I thnk, is that even the nicest people, kind-hearted and caring, can be influenced by a Darwinian environment to do whatever it takes for them to get ahead, to survive. Everyone, absolutely everyone who drives a car in China is a maniac. And I’m sure many of them are lovely people, as well.
Sorry for going on so long about this, but writing it out helped me to understand it a lot better.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.