Many more readers add to the discussion thread:
I can relate to the readers gawked at by Chinese tourists and gawked at as tourists. When I was traveling in Xian, I was stared at and pulled aside for photos by domestic Chinese tourists quite frequently for being tall and white. However, the most disconcerting manifestation of Chinese curiosity was men peering around me at a urinal. Not in a sexual way, but they were obviously just curious if my genitalia was the same. Perhaps a diet of Western pornography had given them a false impression of what normal was in the US.
When traveling, one of my favorite ways to learn about a new culture is to visit a zoo on a weekend, where you can observe families. How they interact, and how they treat animals, can be revealing. In the developing world, these visits can be thoroughly depressing – a reminder of a time when American zoos kept animals in small cages with no enrichment. But even at such places, it can be heartening to see the joy on children’s faces when they see the animals.
Then there are the Chinese. A few years ago, I visited the zoo in Hong Kong. The facilities were quite modern and the park was extremely well kept. However, the design of the animal exhibits departed from the standard in other First World zoos. Instead of trying to find ways to bring the animals closer, great effort was taken to keep the animals away from people. Animal enclosures were kept several feet back from the public and the cages had an unusually tight mesh. When you watched the people, you knew why. It seemed like the favorite pastime of the Hong Kong Chinese visiting the zoo involved throwing rocks and jeering at the animals. It was appalling.
I just have to put in a few words on this topic, which I always find more amusing than vexing. I have three stories.
First, my husband and I traveled to Hong Kong in 1997. We took a flight from Hong Kong to Bangkok and there were many Chinese passengers. We boarded the plane by walking across the tarmac and climbing the stairs to the plane. As we exited the building, all the Chinese passengers just started pushing and shoving to get on the plane first. I found it baffling, because we had assigned seats, the plane wouldn’t take off until everyone had boarded, and this was when people still checked their luggage, so finding overhead compartment space was not an issue. But everyone (but us, and the other non-Chinese passengers) did it, and we were probably last on the plane.
Then as the plane got ready to land, the flight attendants instructed, as they always do, that the passengers stay seated with their seat belts fastened until the plane was at the gate and the captain had turned off the seat belt sign. They announced this in multiple languages, including, presumably, Chinese. The second the wheels hit the runway, the Chinese passengers all stood up and started opening the overhead bins, even though we were still traveling quite quickly down the runway. The flight attendants were shouting at the passengers to sit down, but they ignored them, and just crowded the doorway, and pushed and shoved their way off the plane.
Next story is not about Chinese tourists, but is along the same lines. I was going through infertility treatments, and had to have a blood test on New Year’s Day, which I believe also happened to be a Sunday. One of the few labs open in the city on that day was in Chinatown. I got on the elevator with a crowd of people, and when the door opened, I was shoved right off. I picked up the clipboard with the paperwork I had to fill out, and sat down in a chair to complete it. I had a book with me, as I always do, and put the book on the arm of the chair, and my pocketbook at my feet. I filled out the paperwork, and stood to hand it to the woman behind the reception desk, which could not have been more than two steps away. I left my bag on the floor in front of the chair, and my book on the arm of the chair, and expected to sit back down. When I turned back to the seat I had vacated for 5 seconds, there was someone sitting in it. I know that if you move your feet, you lose your seat, but in my regular blood lab, if you stood up from your seat for a moment, and left your things on the seat, it was understood that your seat is saved for you. Not there.
My last story is more recent. For some reason, the very narrow subway platform at my regular stop was very very crowded. There must have been some problem with the trains. I was walking with the crowd down the platform when I felt two hands flat on my back pushing me faster, which made me push the person in front of me. Considering how narrow the platform was, and how close I was to the edge, I found this particularly unpleasant. I didn’t want to fall on the tracks. I turned to see who was pushing me, and it was an older Chinese woman. I gave her a look, and she rolled her eyes and kept pushing. I think she thought she was helping.
I don’t think Chinese people are inherently rude. I think Chinese culture just defines rudeness differently than Western culture does.
A family member of mine traveled alone on a tour of China a few years back. On more than one occasion, she was in a group that included tourists from Hong Kong. Now, I know that some consider people from Hong Kong different than those from mainland Chinese, but bad manners must be something they have in common. At almost every tourist stop, the Hong Kong tourists would push themselves to the front of every group, jostling others out of their way so they could get a better view. One elderly woman hit my family member with her cane, hard, more than once. My family member turned around and, with a face full of rage, said, “Stop hitting me!” The woman’s response? Hit her again!
The tour guide stepped in and prevented this woman from winding up on the ground with a bloody nose. Her children and grandchildren did nothing to intervene. As the tour guide explained, Chinese people do not travel well, and they just think it’s normal to fight for everything.
Another observation from a guide:
When we were touring China, we noticed many tourists taking photos in public places where “No Photo” signs were posted. When we asked our guide about this, he said that here, these signs were more like “suggestions.” Then after a pause he said: “In China, traffic laws are also more like suggestions.”
Another reader adds to the previous post on the Chinese obsession with blond hair:
These things don’t just happen in Asia. Years ago my husband and I were visiting France with our two-year-old son. We were relaxing in the vast courtyard at the Palace of Versailles when an Asian woman came up to us, spoke something to me in a language I didn’t understand, and proceeded to pick up my young son and run away with him. Frantic, I chased after her. After wondering through crowds of people, I emerged to find my son being held in the center of a very large group portrait with Versailles in the background. I didn’t grab my camera before I bolted to go chasing after them, so I don’t have a picture to commemorate the event. Several of the Asian tourists took pictures, and somewhere on the other side of the world my son is a star, along with the Palace of Versailles, in someone’s photo album.
Years later while visiting the Great Wall of China, Chinese women twice stood next to me while their friends took their pictures. We were traveling with a family that had a very blond little boy. He had so many pictures taken of him on the trip, he took to crying whenever someone brought a camera near him.
What a funny world.