Thursday, March 7, 2013

Time for Chinese to rise to a higher plane of etiquette?

Soon after the Beijing 2008 Olympics, a horrible scandal involving milk and infant formula broke out like wide fire in China. It soon spread across the world since the country exported a wide range of food products. Six infants died from kidney stones and other kidney damage and many hundreds had to be hospitalized. Melamine had apparently been added in order to cause milk to appear to have higher protein content. The milk was produced by an enterprise called Sanlu (鹿)in China. The issue raised world-wide concerns about food safety and political corruption in mainland China and damaged the reputation of China's food exports. A spokesman of the World Food Organization said that the scale of the problem proved that it was "clearly not an isolated accident, but a large-scale intentional activity to deceive consumers for simple, basic, short-term profits."

My daughter Monica is already a fairly successful businesswoman in her own right. She owns and runs boutiques. Young and ambitious, she wanted also to start a Ramen (Japanese noodle) outlet in Melbourne. After months of searching, she finally located an Italian restaurant in the General Post Office building which was looking for someone to take over the premises. She promptly approached the General Post Office’s agent to negotiate for a take-over.

“Japanese restaurant is fine… But we don’t want to see it in the cheapee, cheapee Chinese way…” Apparently, this was what the agent said to her – in the most patronizing matter – when they met.

My first reaction was that she should have told him off. She is not a cheapee, cheapee Chinese woman! She has been living in Australia since she was 16 years old. Holden even used her house in Toorak as a background to introduce one of its higher-end cars in full-age advertisements in the local papers – without even asking for her permission! But on second thought, could I really blame this agent? He was just stereotyping Chinese – based on what he has seen and heard. My daughter, unfortunately, has to live with this “brand” of Chinese-ness in this part of the world.

What does this picture tell us?

 This picture appears in Melbourne’s The Sunday Age (16 January 2005) – after Mark Latham, the then leader of Australia’s Labor Party, decided to throw in the towel following Labor’s disastrous showing in the 2004 general elections.

 But what has it got to do with Chinese?

Look very carefully: Inside the shrunk shirt is a label which reads: MADE IN CHINA GARMENT MAY SHRINK.

This is how the Chinese are being seen by the world. To most markets in the developed economies, Chinese products are perceived to be inexpensive but low in quality. This is also the perception the world had for Japanese products in the early 1960s when they began to appear in the world market. But within years, the Japanese manufacturers have leapfrogged many rungs and now their products are rated higher than the Americans and even Europeans, except perhaps the Germans.

When I chanced upon a book The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture (醜陋的中國人), I like most Chinese was scornful of the way we had been portrayed by the author – noisy, chaotic, self-centred, crude, dubious and what-have-you! How can he, a Chinese, say all these things about Chinese? Who is this idiot Bo Yang (柏楊)? I had always been very proud of our history and culture. But this book is full of sarcasm and blunt in criticism in many things deemed ‘Chinese’. Bo Yang compared the Chinese culture to a "sauce jar," in which foodstuffs are preserved in sauce - the sauce can store foodstuffs for a long time, but that is only because it is already rotten to begin with.

I moved to live in Australia in 2001. As the saying goes, in Rome, live like Romans. I suddenly became very conscious of etiquette. I was the owner’s representative and the executive director of two hotels in Sydney – one an art deco hotel in CBD and the other, a hotel designed for celebrities in one of the most sought-after bays there. Business had become lousy after the Sydney Olympics; we had no choice but also to welcome group tours. Many of these group tours were from China – the nouveau riche there. My colleagues were passing remarks about their lack of etiquette – throwing their cigarette butts everywhere, packing goodies away after their breakfast helpings, and the way they weaved in and out of service queues. Clearing one’s throat and spitting “what came to the mouth” into the hotels’ refuse bins appeared to be a natural thing to do. I suddenly took offence at the way they dressed – so outlandish! Some even left  the manufacturer’s label on their jacket’s sleeves, as if to tell you that it was “expensive, you know”. In lifts, they talked to each other as if there were miles apart; and totally oblivious to the discomfort of fellow passengers.
I also attracted many cold stares – when I was trying to cut into traffic lanes that appear smoother or stood on the right side of escalators or trying to move ahead of pedestrians in zebra-crossings. My first instinct was that these people were a little racist; weren’t they? But I soon realized that I was not being singled out. These people simply kept a very high level of social etiquette. They even observed speed limits – this thing doesn’t happen in the place I came from! It suddenly dawned upon me that Bo Yang was a “messiah”! His objective was to rouse Chinese to reflect and change. Most of us don’t see it that way because we were all living in our own community. We are used to habits and conditions that we have already come to accept as norms – picking nose in public, weaving in and out of traffic, dirty toilets, etc.

I took Boh Yang’s message as my personal wake-up call!

Not everybody thinks he or she needs to learn from others. To those who think they already know more than enough of everything, this little book is certainly not for them.

We Chinese like to talk about our 5,000 years of history – our great culture, our inventiveness, our industriousness, our immense capacity to overcome great odds and adversities, and our innate ability to outsmart even the West in many instances. We boast of our K’ung-tze [孔子] heritage, our Yeh Fei and Qi Yuen patriotism, our Li Bai scholarship, our Pao-kung sense of justice, our Chu Ker-Liang genius, our Kuan Yee principles, so on and so forth.

But the cold truth is this: We are a very self-centred people! And indeed can be very ‘ugly’ in the manner Boh Yang cautioned.

To those who do not have any knowledge of the Chinese language, finding your way or driving in Chinese cities can be a nightmare. Huangpu Xilu, Huanan Kuaisu Ganxian, Huadi Beidadao, Haizhu Qu and Huajianghuayuan were some of the more prominent road signs I found in Guangzhou. Of course, if you can read Chinese characters, they mean Huangpu West Road, Huanan Expressway, Huadi North Highway, Haizhu Precinct and Huajiang Garden. But if you know Chinese characters, you certainly don’t need the Romanised names to help you, do you? This “phenomenon” is not peculiar to Guangzhou; it true everywhere in China, including Beijing! It is also Lu here and dao there. It boils down to one simple explanation: We Chinese are simply not capable of putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. No wonder every non-Chinese is either a k’wei lau (foreign devil) or a farn-zê (uncivilised little fellow) to us!

Even in ultra-sophisticated Singapore, upon pushing open a glass door, few would care to see if there is anyone behind when he or she leaves it to swing back. In the state-of-the-art Changi Airport, many users tend to block up “walkalators” by standing shoulder to shoulder with friends, totally oblivious to those who want to move ahead.  Common courtesy would dictate that one should stand on the left and allow people to pass from the right in ‘right-hand drive’ countries such as Singapore. And in neighbourhood elevators and passage ways, everybody seems to be invisible to everybody.

I was browsing through some of the materials brought back by my son-in-law from his recent visit to Xi'an. One was from Jiaotung University, supposedly one of the top centres of learning there. Since it is for the outside world, you would expect it to exhibit a very high level of linguistic competence, lest you become a laughing stock to the academic world outside China. But this is what I found: For its doctoral and master programs, its subjects are classified as 'First-Class' or 'Second-Class' – as if they are offering two qualities of teaching - the former of higher quality and the latter, inferior quality. I believe you intend to mean 'Majors' for the former and 'Electives' for the latter. For their top teachers, the university describes them as “academicians”. But is not an academician someone who is doing academic work? A junior lecturer is also an academician. I suspect these are the senior professors or readers in the university. They also describe their laboratories as ‘State Laboratories’. Again, I believe these have been designated by the Chinese government as laboratories of national importance. Given them the term "State Laboratory" would imply government ownership or a laboratory that is run by the government. It may be less clumsy to simply describe them as "the nation's designated or key research laboratories". Most of the captions are grammatically incorrect. A case in point is "The Figure Reduces Shadow Technology" - I believe what you have in mind is: Shadow-reduction Technology for Figures! Or are they using Google to translate?

I took the liberty of writing to them. Guess any response?

Certainly none! Try to read the labels and instructions of anything made by Chinese. And I suppose you don’t need me to explain to you the moral of this story!

This pictre was taken by me in Dujianyen in Sichuan. Notice the English?

In Australia, wines though relatively inexpensive are highly appreciated by the locals. Visitors from China “yum-seng” with them – to the disgust of the proud Aussies!

There is really more to all these than meets the eye. To many in the west, we Chinese are still “Fu Manchus” to them. We seem to be habitually dirty and socially crude to them. True, we have been sleeping for the last 400 years or so and we have only woken up recently. But their observations are not without merits.

I was flying back from Sydney to Melbourne on Virgin Australia one evening and decided to watch the Sky News which was provided free in an otherwise “pay if you want to use or see anything” airline.  

The anchor newsman John Mangos was reporting on a piece of news about a man who won big in lottery in China. Apparently, this man was trying to hide his identity by wearing a Spiderman's mask over his face. (I suppose he didn’t want to be a target of kidnap gangs there.) Of course, he looked ridiculous and this prompted this TV personality to very spontaneously exclaimed that why should this Chinaman bother to hide his identity since he has “black eye, yellow skin, and squinty eyes!”  In 2001 when China is already the second largest economy in the world, we still have a national TV personality in Australia deriding Chinese as such. He forgets that he is working for Ropert Murdoch whose Mrs Murdoch is formerly Ms Wendy Deng! (I lost no time in writing a complaint to the relevant authority in Australia and I must give him credit for tendering an unreserved apology immediately.)

The fact is that we have strong complexes. When their men win the hearts of our prettiest girls, we think they are stealing these girls from us. And it is a fact that most of our boys are not able to make much headway with their girls. But like all sour grapes, we say their girls are morally “loose”. If this is not inferior complex, what is?

We refuse to look at ourselves carefully in the mirror… Maybe it is time we do now.
More to follow...


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