Defacing ancient ruins and defecating in public doesn’t help:
Another reason could be that the Chinese lack a guidebook culture:
The Chinese have gained wealth so quickly that they have become thrust into global tourist culture without the time to create guideposts that other nationalities might enjoy. For instance, there is no Chinese equivalent of Lonely Planet, encouraging young Chinese to go explore the world and respect the cultures and communities they enter.
Plus, bureaucratic and language barriers encourage group travel:
In many countries, Chinese are still viewed with suspicion during visa review processes. Chinese tourists always seem to travel in huge packs because joining a tour group makes getting a visa easier. Finally, tourism sites across the world have learned to accommodate the language needs of the English speaking world, but Chinese tourists are rarely fluent in English or the language of the country they’re visiting, leaving many opportunities for miscommunication and misunderstanding.
Another reason why Chinese tourists are so unpopular:
[O]ne thing many Chinese vacationers don’t want to do with their money is tip – a custom in some places which many have ignored, Wang said. Though most travel agents in China would educate their clients about tipping in a foreign country ahead of their trip, most people ended up tipping very little or none. Some are not used to the idea of tipping, and they fail to understand that staff working at the Maldives resorts, who usually earn a meagre salary, rely heavily on tips, Wang said. This has created increasing tensions between the Chinese and their hosts. Staff would naturally prefer serving guests from countries with a tipping culture. Other staff have gone after Chinese clients and asked openly for tips, a rare thing for them to do in the past.
Of course, having access to guidebooks is no guarantee of good manners; Americans are still widely viewed as the world’s most obnoxious tourists.
by Chris Bodenner
Readers can relate to a recent post:
One of my vivid memories of traveling in Tibet in 2006 is from visiting one of the monasteries in Lhasa to see the monks debate one another. Dozens of them gathered in a courtyard criss-crossed with stone paths to take part in these lively sessions. It was a unique and wonderful experience, but the Chinese tourists who attended were the one black mark. They treated the place like a zoo and the monks like animals. While almost everyone stayed on the stone paths and kept a respectful distance watching the monks debate and snapping the occasional photo, the Chinese tourists would walk straight up to the monks and stick a camera literally inches from their faces. It was jarring to watch them do it, and obviously the history and ongoing tension between China and Tibet colors the dynamic even more.
As you can tell from my VFYW and airplane window photos you’ve published, I get around. And little irritates me more while traveling than Chinese tourists.
I enjoy hiking, but don’t expect to see any wildlife when Chinese tourists are around. They block trails by not letting anyone pass, speak at their loudest, don’t respect personal space and just drive every living thing away from their vicinity. As you can imagine, bus loads are the worst, and the Chinese tour guides don’t do anything to take control of the chaos, as they’re often just as bad as their charges right to the point of using bullhorns.
The main reason I’m writing is to share an amusing experience with a Chinese couple while traveling in Australia. On a flight from Sydney to Adelaide a married couple, probably in their mid-fifties, obviously clueless about air travel, was driving the flight cabin crew crazy with their mild panic about every little thing, with the language barrier only making the situation worse (they didn’t speak one word of English and there was no one on the plane who could translate). We were relieved to be landing so we could be rid of them, but as we were descending, wheels down, runway dead ahead, everyone including the cabin crew strapped into their seats, suddenly the Chinese woman decided it was time to use the bathroom! A female cabin crew member unbuckled herself, bolted down the aisle, grabbed the woman from behind, threw her into her seat and buckled her in, then made it back to her own seat just in time for touchdown.
That was entertaining, but we weren’t through with them yet!
Adelaide has a small airport and an equally small luggage carousel. The Chinese couple pushed their way in front of the waiting passengers to the luggage exit and began pulling every black bag off the carousel in what appeared to be a panic as they looked for their own. Soon there was a small pile of black luggage as they were tripping over themselves trying to pull more off while throwing some of the bags back on after they confirmed, with much nervous discussion between themselves, that each rejected bag was not theirs. At one point the Chinese man even fell to one knee onto the carousel, so I was expecting a recreation of the Ab Fab episode where Patsy was riding it! The waiting passengers were dumbstruck. No one knew what to do or wanted to get too close, so I finally announced I’d go get a member of airport security to take charge.
That’s when I heard “They are my parents!” I turned and saw a young Chinese man in his early twenties, just standing there and watching the spectacle. I realized he had arrived at the airport to pick up the couple, so I blurted out “Help them!” He seemed offended and replied “They never travel before!” We had words about his responsibility to help his parents, so the older couple finally settled down and retrieved their bags with their son’s help. Knowing East Asian cultures, younger people are often hard-pressed to correct or give direction to members of their older generation, even when they’re making a scene.
It turns out Adelaide has several universities that attract large numbers of Chinese students, so we surmised this couple was making a visit to their son, possibly their first time outside of China. Hopefully he gave them some instructions for making it home without any calamities.
My husband and I were in Paris last February and did a tour of Versailles. We lucked out in that we were the only English speakers that morning and had an English-speaking tour guide to ourselves. Over the course of three hours, we were jostled from room to room and throughout the grounds, fighting for space among the bus-loads of Chinese tourists. Towards the end of the tour, our snobby French tour guide, who never seemed to thaw towards us, turned to us and said “I can’t believe I’m going to say this but Chinese tourists make me long for the days when Versailles was overrun by Americans.”
by Chris Bodenner
Some pushback on the thread:
Your reader’s story about the flight to Adelaide was completely underwhelming. Who hasn’t seen oldish folks, of many nationalities, out of their element on airplanes and at airports? How would your reader like it if their first experience with air travel occurred when they were 50, and was conducted in a language they had no understanding of? A bus load of camera clicking tourists is a pain no matter where they’re from. Yes, the Chinese, being new to travel, may be a little worse, but it’s no different than the standards of behavior they follow in their own country. They’ll get better as they gain experience of the wider world. But all this bashing is unseemly and a tad bit offensive. Get a grip people, and try to be a little understanding. Chinese standards of personal space are different from Americans’. If you’ve ever been to Beijing rail station, you know this.
See above. Coincidentally, I had set aside that video a few months ago because it was so striking, not knowing if we could ever use it for a post … but wait long enough and a Dish reader will bring up any obscure, interesting point. Another writes:
The story about the Adelaide trip left a really bad taste in my mouth, because it exhibits exactly the sort of empathetic closure that often underscores unconsciously racist attitudes. First off, full disclosure – I’m ethnically Chinese, but I’m not from the PRC, and as you might have surmised by now, I’m a native writer/speaker of English. And I do agree with many of the comments about Chinese tourists, especially if they are in tour groups. I ought to know; my native country is a favourite tourist and immigration destination for Chinese nationals. In London, if I see a cluster of Chinese tourists coming down the road, I head for the pedestrian crossings.
In the Lake District, I would immediately take another path. In fact I am often angrier at them even than my white friends, because I am caught in a double bind – just as I would avoid those tourists, I am myself faced with suspicion when I go around Britain, despite being perfectly conversant in English. The flip side of “Chinese tourists having a bad reputation”, it turns out, is that a tourist can be guilty of nothing more than being or looking Chinese.
But I digress. That supposedly amusing story sent in by your reader, about the parents visiting their child in Adelaide and getting things all mixed up, is a very different situation from those group tourists who have not learned, or do not care, to respect the culture they happen to have travelled to. The reader himself indicates that when he says at the end that this was probably the first time that couple has been outside China; yet he does not consider the implications of that.
In a country where vast swathes of the population are still quite poor, and where simultaneously the rich generally have no compunction about showing off their wealth by jetting about, it is very clear to me which group the clueless couple belong to. If they have not been overseas before, and yet have a son who is studying in Adelaide, consider the efforts they must have made for their child to make it there. The skill of knowing airports, air travel and customs work, or to know how to navigate unfamiliar terrain, is not a skill these two hapless people chose not to learn despite having disposable income to fling on overseas trips; it was a sacrifice they made so they could now visit their kid who made good in Adelaide. Your reader, who claims to know a lot about East Asian cultures, curiously seems to have completely missed this point about filial piety and parental love.
Do we really expect, in the context of the previous post about the lack of a guidebook culture, or the general lack of cross-cultural knowledge, that a middle-aged Chinese couple – a middle aged couple from anywhere – would have known perfectly how to get about and handle themselves in a foreign country, after a long flight, when they know no one (and their son had yet to arrive) and do not speak the language? That is in no way amusing. Comedy works best when it kicks upwards – against rude, privileged Chinese tourists who defecate in heritage sites and talk at full volume all the time. I’m completely fine with mocking those people. But to kick downwards as your reader does, from their privileged position (since they “get around” and have ample opportunity to be irritated by Chinese travellers), is not amusing at all.
For some reason I suspect that if that Chinese couple spoke the same language as your reader, or were visibly from the same culture, then they might have been better disposed to them, or to consider them for what they are, ie. clueless and uninformed from inexperienced, as one might be expected to be – rather than judging them simply by what they do or look like, ie. ridiculous and worthy of mockery. Clearly, if the reader has seen fit to post this “amusing incident” even after knowing the facts about the Chinese couple’s situation, I’m not sure such empathy is much in evidence.
On a semi-related point, given the long-standing awareness of how the Chinese tourist market is large and continuously growing, I have to wonder why it seems abnormal that the Chinese tourists could not speak English, but very normal that none of the flight crew know how to speak Chinese. In the ’80s and ’90s, certainly, there was no shortage of enthusiasm about putting up signs in Japanese for the benefit of similarly English-challenged tourists. Admittedly, Japanese tourists are generally better behaved than the Chinese; but I don’t remember that snobbery is a key tenet of capitalism (or democracy, or indeed any universal conception of social forms or rights). Once again, I know the complaints, and I agree with them; but just as English speakers mock the French for their arrogance and refusal to budge on their Frenchness, how is it not sheer arrogance to mock the Chinese without making any effort to come closer to their culture and language, if only to tell them to speak a little more softly?
Thank you for your attention, and I do apologise for this rant.
by Chris Bodenner
A reader writes:
I’m really enjoying the Chinese tourist anecdotes. I live in DC and have small children. I take advantage of the amazing tourist attractions here and often take my kids to the various museums and memorials downtown. My children are also very white. Like, Norman Rockwell-white. Despite an ethnic heritage which would seemingly produce darker kids, our recessive genes have created a blonde and a redhead, both with fair skin. These kids are, for some reason, a tourist attraction unto themselves.
On multiple occasions I have been downtown and an Asian tourist or ten (not all Chinese) have gestured to my child and then to his camera and nodded hopefully at me. At first, I would just shake my head and walk quickly in the other direction, but one day I nodded back. I am not sure why. At that point the man (who was in a business suit touring the U.S. Botanic Garden) handed his camera to his friend, squatted next to my son, gave a big “thumbs-up” to his friend, and told the friend to snap the picture. My son was totally perplexed, as was I.
This happens with relative frequency, though I have only consented to it that one time. And it is always Asian tourists. I have attached a picture of it happening to my daughter. I stepped back from the stroller for a moment to document the phenomenon. In this case, none of the tourists asked to photograph my baby. They just started clicking.
by Chris Bodenner
A reader keeps the thread going:
One issue we’ve encountered is the lack of respect for No Smoking sign/rooms/hotels by Chinese and other Asian tourists. That is beyond annoying, as I react horribly to cigarette smoke and will be ill for days and even weeks after being forced to breathe it (sometimes even through hotel ventilation in the wee hours of the morning). One time we were outside DC and a busload of Chinese tourists arrived after midnight to our completely non-smoking hotel. They made a loud ruckus settling in on the floor above us, and within minutes we could smell smoke in our room. Calls to management resulted in demands to stop smoking, which I can assure you were followed for maybe 10 minutes. Headaches, coughing, and bad sinus congestion were my reward for the next four or five days.
That anecdote brings to mind a Dish post from a few years ago:
China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of tobacco. The 2010 Global Adult Tobacco Survey, conducted by the Chinese Centers for Disease Control in partnership with the US CDC and the World Health Organization, estimates that China has 350 million smokers, or more smokers than the entire population of the United States.
(Photo: A group of men in Hong Kong enjoy a smoke as they join a crowd of people watching a large video screen showing footage of the landing of China’s astronauts back to Earth on October 17, 2005. By Samantha Sin/AFP/Getty Images)
by Chris Bodenner
A reader contributes the above photo to the ever-popular thread:
As a blonde, fair-skinned child who grew up in Ashiya, Japan in the mid-90s, I can attest to the Asian obsession with blonde, fair-skinned children. Everywhere my mother took me, we were swarmed. Even the construction workers across the street loved me. And everyone was surprised when this little gaijin started speaking Japanese. In fact, they loved me so much that one year they hoisted me off the street during a festival (to my father’s delight and my mother’s horror) and paraded me around on the town’s danjiri. As you can see from the photo, I was not pleased.
Others had more pleasant experiences:
When I traveled through Asia in 2006, I was frequently approached by other tourists interested in snapping a photo with me, and I never did figure it out. I was a tall, skinny white guy traveling on my own – not a hugely common sight in Beijing or Cambodia, but not Bigfoot or anything. At any rate, after the first couple of experiences, I started taking pictures with everyone who requested a picture with me. If they were going to take my picture, I was going to take theirs, dammit! At any rate, I enjoyed turning the tables. I’ve attached a picture with a family at Angkor Wat:
I’m really hoping one of your readers can shine some light on this phenomenon, because it remains a mystery to me to this day.
I love that story about Asians tourists stopping the reader to take pictures of his kid. I lived in Hong Kong for two years, and at that time my little sister was 5 years old and very very blonde. We could never go out without everybody stopping to look at her with fascination. Some would touch her hair without asking, some would ask for pictures. From Hong Kong to Thailand, everywhere in Asia it was the same phenomenon, but in China most heavily.
It’s the novelty I assume. My parents were very nice about it; they would stop each time and indulge. And oh boy did my sister love this. Everywhere you go people stop and worship you. She was a little blond princess and she loved every minute of it.
It was a nice bonding moment with those Chinese families. We couldn’t talk, but the gestures, the smiles … now that I look back I cherish those moments. To think back now and to think about these hundreds, maybe thousands of pictures of my very cute little sister in all these family albums sitting in China and elsewhere is heartwarming.
A parallel but very different experience:
My sister and her husband lived in Nanjing for 2.5 years. When they moved there, my nieces were 3-1/2 and just-turned 1. Blond hair, blue eyes – both of them. And they were MOBBED every time they went out. It actually got scary, as there would be 10-40 (yes) people crowding around my sister and the stroller, taking numerous pictures. My sister would be unable to move, just hemmed in by the crowd. And not one of them ever asked permission to take a photo. My niece got afraid to go out. When they moved back to the States, she seemed a bit surprised that her public appearance didn’t immediately garner crowds of people.
And it’s not just the blondes:
My husband and his two siblings visited China as tourists several years ago. All three of them have red hair – two of them flaming red. With red hair being a real rarity in China, and with red being the color of good fortune, they were consistently stopped to be photographed with strangers in front of landmarks.
And it’s not just hair color:
A friend went to China with a tourist group that included a morbidly obese American woman. People on the street surrounded her and actually poked her belly! I don’t know if they photographed her or not.
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.
by Chris Bodenner
A reader illustrates how even cultures known for their patience can frustrate people:
Being from Canada, the simple act of trying to exit a crowded city bus usually involves trying to inoffensively indicate to the other passengers that your stop is next. Contrast that with China, where people just push their way through. I went there for the Olympics in 2008 and I soon realized that my apologies weren’t even registering with the locals – in fact, I probably looked like an idiot saying “sorry” every time someone bumped into me on the Beijing metro.
On a similar note, I went to Israel in 2006 and the company that was hosting the visit took us to Masada, the ancient mountaintop fortress. At one point during the tour we ended up in narrow corridor while our group of five Canadians waited for a group of Israelis to pass. After about a minute they cleared out and, as we moved on, our guide laughed at us saying that in Israel, if you don’t push your way through you’ll never get anywhere.
This got me thinking of how my inoffensive Canadian behaviour (standing patiently, not saying anything) could be considered annoying to any Israeli tourists that happened to be stuck behind us.
Another reiterates how rude tourists accompany any economy that suddenly booms:
The “ugly Chinese” tourist has a precedent in the “ugly Japanese” (and the “ugly American” before that). I remember a couple of decades ago, being in a Munich beer tavern, when the previous generation of Japanese suddenly found themselves rich enough to hit global tourism sites. A group of Japanese tourists, seriously stressed over too much wurst and a lack of rice and miso, celebrated the end of their German tour by knocking back a few too many beers and singing impromptu karaoke in very loud voices. In the end, they got absolutely hammered and jumped atop the tables to show the stunned Western patrons a rousing version of their traditional Japanese summer “O-Bon” dance. It was behavior you see here in Asia during any given local community’s annual harvest festival.
This all has a cogent economic explanation. Paul Krugman, before his current role as shrill liberal attack dog, used to explain the Asian economic miracle in terms of “inputs” boosting productivity, or agrarian laborers leaving farms and rice fields for the factories, stores or those other middle-class employment opportunities that migrated to Asia from the developed world. These jobs pay more than farming. First Japan, a now other Asian countries have created a middle class able to afford travel for the first time.
Yet this new middle class remains steeped in their agrarian roots. At heart, they are rowdy serfs with little time for our stodgy bourgeois notions of personal space, privacy or speaking in a relatively quiet voice in restaurants. In China’s case, you need to throw in the fact that decades of socialist mismanagement of distribution networks instilled in its citizens a deeply – deeply – held notion that waiting patiently in line is a great way NOT to get what you’re waiting for.
These notions don’t disappear just because you now have had a few years of better management. Japan, again, shows how this will play out. You now have a generation of Japanese that have adopted a more restrained way of conducting themselves when abroad.
Another turns the spotlight on American culture:
I was born and raised in Brazil, and live in DC. Americans are indeed very strict about enforcing their personal space in ways that can be frustrating. For instance, when riding the Metro, one will often see a “crowded” train car that actually has a lot space that would be available if people were more comfortable standing in slightly closer proximity. Perhaps Americans’ strong sense of individuality gets in the way of accomplishing collective needs, and we could learn something from our Chinese counterparts.
Still, I wouldn’t go as far as the three Chinese tourists I saw sharing one urinal in a restroom by the Washington Memorial.
by Chris Bodenner
I’m surprised a dissent like this one didn’t come sooner:
This thread has gotten really ugly really fast. Your blog is now (once again) becoming a place for undiluted bigotry. There are BILLIONS of Chinese people. Is it really proper to tar that whole group with a broad brush because a small number of Chinese tourists have acted badly? (I’m glad my ethnic heritage allows me to be coy about my nation of origin; if I want to pretend I’m Canadian overseas to avoid anti-American bigotry, I have that option.)
A reminder that all the anecdotes from Dish readers are based in a broader reality, not mere stereotype:
Recent examples [of Chinese tourists behaving badly], which have sparked a firestorm of commentary in both Chinese and Western media, include a group of snorkelers who caught and ate endangered sea creatures off the Paracel Islands, visitors to North Korea who threw candy at North Korean children as if they were “feeding ducks”, swimmers who took pictures with a dying dolphin, and a teenage boy from Nanjing who scratched graffiti on a 3,000 year-old relic while touring Egypt with his parents. In response, Chinese officials are making a concerted effort to improve the behavior of Chinese travelers abroad, issuing a list of guidelines that include no spitting, cutting lines, or taking your shoes and socks off in public. Vice Premier Wang Yang has stated that “improving the civilized quality of the citizens” is necessary for “building a good image” for the country.
As the thread has shown repeatedly, the perceived rudeness of Chinese tourists is a symptom of the PRC’s rapid ascension as a wealthy nation – a nation that now has the disposable income to enable a middle class to join the global tourism market in droves. So the thread, in a way, is actually a tribute to China. Its newly-prosperous people, like others before them, just need time to acclimate to the etiquette of traveling abroad. And after all, as our first post pointed out, “Americans are still widely viewed as the world’s most obnoxious tourists.”
Back to the thread: Many readers are recommending a wonderful essay by Evan Osnos, who accompanied a Chinese tour group through Europe a few years ago:
Until recently, Chinese people had abundant reasons not to roam for pleasure. Travelling in ancient China was arduous. As a proverb put it, “You can be comfortable at home for a thousand days, or step out the door and run right into trouble.” Confucius threw guilt into the mix: “While your parents are alive, it is better not to travel far away.” Nevertheless, ancient Buddhist monks visited India, and Zheng He, a fifteenth-century eunuch, famously sailed the emperor’s fleet as far as Africa, to “set eyes on barbarian regions.”
Over the centuries, Chinese migrants settled around the world, but Mao considered tourism anti-Socialist, so it wasn’t until 1978, after his death, that most Chinese gained approval to go abroad for anything other than work or study.
First, they were permitted to visit relatives in Hong Kong, and, later, to tour Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. In 1997, the government cleared the way for travellers to venture to other countries in a “planned, organized, and controlled manner.” (China doles out approvals with an eye to geopolitics. Vanuatu became an approved destination in 2005, after it agreed not to give diplomatic recognition to Taiwan.) Eighty per cent of first-time Chinese travellers went in groups, and they soon earned a reputation as passionate, if occasionally overwhelming, guests.
Back to the inbox, a reader underscores a cultural rift between people from Hong Kong and those from mainland China:
Oof, your thread hits really close to home for me. I suspect that you guys have been getting droves of emails with horror stories about badly-behaved Chinese travelers blazing paths of destruction all around the world. While I don’t have any novel reasons about why some Chinese tourists behave so badly, I wanted to share my perspective as a Hong Konger who encounters many mainlanders daily (I live right next to a mid-market shopping outlet which has become a popular tourist destination).
As a former British colony, Hong Kong already has a complicated enough relationship with its current overlord. Political differences aside, though, a whole lot of Hong Kongers truly resent the increasingly heavy presence of the mainland Chinese here. There is a perception that they are responsible for (or exacerbate) many of the city’s social ills: wealthy mainlanders snapping up new apartments in HK as real estate investments and thus driving up housing costs for everyone; “parallel traders” who travel from China to Hong Kong every day and buy out entire stores’ worth of infant milk formula (a good that is much more expensive on the mainland than in Hong Kong, so a tidy profit can be made by reselling it across the border), leading to a shortage of formula for HK mothers; pregnant mainland women entering Hong Kong on tourist visas to give birth in Hong Kong hospitals, etc, etc.
And then there are the mainland Chinese tourists.
Unlike the parallel traders and the nouveau riche apartment collectors, who are largely seen as takers but not contributors to the city, Hong Kong benefits from the money of Chinese tourists (who accounted for a whopping 72% of HK’s tourists in 2012) – but very, very begrudgingly so. (Irony #1.) The reason for the animosity? There is a concept in the Chinese language called “公德心” (pronounced gong duk sum in Cantonese, gong de xin in Mandarin, and many Cantonese blogs and forums also write it this way: “公得心”), which roughly translates into “consideration for the public.” This concept acknowledges that every individual is ultimately part of a collective, and as such we each have the responsibility to take good care of the collective. In practice, someone who has 公德心 is always aware of the effects of his/her behavior on others who share our public spaces, and is careful to respect the way those spaces should look/sound/smell. Now, this isn’t an idea that is exclusive to Hong Kong, but a common refrain among its denizens is that the majority of mainland Chinese tourists simply do not have 公德心 when they should.
When we say that mainlanders lack 公德心, it means that they talk too loudly in public, spit on our sidewalks, push and shove on public transportation, and jump queues (this last one is especially infuriating because there is always a sizable line for anything you want to do in Hong Kong, whether it’s for McDonald’s or tickets to see the Big Buddha or adding more money to our Octopus cards). Where things should be orderly, people without 公德心 bring chaos. Just a couple of weeks, ago, the South China Morning Post published an article entitled “Disbelief as Girl Urinates on Train” – along with a reader-submitted picture, no less! – about an unidentified mainland child who with the permission of her mother pulled down her pants and peed in a MTR (subway) carriage. Funnily enough, the collective disdain for the ill-mannered mainland Chinese rube has fostered not only a sense of anti-mainland prejudice but a sort of Hong Kong “pride” (Irony #2): many think (whether rightly or wrongly) of Hong Kongers as being more polite, cultured, classy–a better strain of Chinese people overall. We cluck our tongues when even North Korea shakes its head at Chinese tourists; we feel validated whenever some other country’s citizens point out how rude they can be.
Of course, the kicker is that even while many Hong Kongers agree with the stereotypes and feel superior for being from Hong Kong, they are also terrified of being mistaken for mainlanders when they travel overseas. (Irony #3.) It was mentioned in this thread that mainland Chinese tourists often join together in big group tours because it is easier to get visas and easier to navigate cultural/linguistic barriers; Hong Kongers often do the same thing for the same reason. I myself am traveling to the East Coast with my mother and my 79-year-old Malaysian great-aunt in September to visit my brother. All three of us speak English fluently, but even my normally mild-mannered and even-keeled mom has voiced concerns about how we can best avoid looking like mainland tourists and what to do if someone hurls anti-Chinese slurs at us. So I suppose this is just one more grievance Hong Kongers have against the impolite mainland tourist: they make the rest of us ethnic Chinese look bad, too. (But we’ll gladly take their dollars.)
It’s a catch-22: we can’t live with them, and we can’t live without them.
Finally, I just wanted to respond quickly to your reader’s story about the older Chinese couple traveling to Adelaide: it may be the case in Chinese culture that the young are hesitant to criticize the old, but a grown child should not be allowing his parents to perform all the physical labor, either. True filial piety would have dictated that an able-bodied adult son pick up the luggage off the carousel at the direction of his parents. My mom probably would have smacked me if I’d let her struggle and fall all over the bags while I watched from the back.
(Photo: Chinese tourists take photos on Wall Street near the New York Stock Exchange, NYSE, on April 11, 2013 in New York, New York. The growing affluence and openness in China allows the Chinese to travel. By Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)