A few days ago the Taiwanese news agency NowNews reported that a mainland Chinese mother in visit on Taiwan let her child defecate in a public area of Gaoxiong International Airport (高雄國際機場), with the toilets only a few meters away. (see original article in Chinese) I think all of us agree that this is absolutely disgusting. So, should we blame mainlanders and think that they are uncivilized?
Anti-Chinese sentiment is quite widespread in the world today. I am planning to write a few posts on this subject, most especially about anti-Chinese bias in the media. In most places where I’ve been, be it Germany, Italy, England, Hong Kong or Taiwan, the image of China is pretty bad.
Well, I am not interested in being either pro-Chinese or anti-Chinese. I think that this country, like any other country in the world, deserves to be respected. It is no question that China has huge problems, and it’s perfectly legitimate to talk about it. But at the same time I try to maintain a basic respect for the country itself. Just like it happens when you talk about – let’s say – Zimbabwe or Italy or any other country where there are major problems, but that doesn’t mean you must hate it or disparage it.
So, let’s go back to the topic. I’ve heard a lot of bad things about mainland Chinese: “they are loud,” “they spit on the floor”, “they are rude”, and so forth. I will tell you a few of my personal experiences with mainland Chinese; some of them are good, others are bad. Let’s start with the bad ones.
Several months ago I visited with a friend of mine Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei. Suddenly, while we were standing near the souvenir shop on the first floor, I heard people shouting at each other as though they were in the middle of a fierce quarrel. I was afraid they might start punching each other at any moment. I turned to my friend and asked her what they were talking about. She put on a slightly ironic smile and said: “They are from China.” Then I realized that they were not quarreling. They were just so loud that it sounded as if they were screaming at each other.
The irony in her smile was due to the fact that we had recently discussed the topic of mainland China. She is a Taiwanese who considers herself Chinese, and if I remember correctly (but I’m not sure after so long) she had told me that many of the things Taiwanese people say about mainlanders are wrong. And now there were loud mainlanders confirming the common bias.
The second negative experience with mainlanders I want to talk about happened around one week ago. I was sitting on a plane going from Rome to Beijing. Most passengers were Chinese. Some of them simply seemed totally unable to follow even the most basic rules. For example, during the landing a woman took her luggage out of the overhead locker and put it right in the middle of the corridor. A flight attendant of course went up to her and urged her in an earnest voice to put the luggage back into the locker, but the woman refused. She wouldn’t let go of her suitcases, and there was no way to persuade her, so we had to land like that.
On the other hand, I have a lot of positive experiences with mainland Chinese. My Chinese friends are friendly, nice and “civilized” (I use this word although its meaning is not always that clear). They also care a lot about hygiene and cleanliness. When I compare them with the Western people I know, they are by no means less civilized or less clean. I cannot of course mention the Chinese I know one by one here, but when I think of them, I just cannot see what they may have in common with all the negative stereotypes I hear and read about China. So, where is the truth?
The way I explain to myself this apparent contradiction is the following. Only four decades ago China was a rural, poor country. Since Deng Xiaoping’s era it has been undergoing a process of fast and radical transformation. We in the West don’t really remember how poor rural societies look like. But my grandfather’s generation does. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, millions of poor peasants from Southern Italy migrated to the industrial, rich North of the country to look for job opportunities. These “peasants” were often looked down upon by Northern Italians. Not only did they call their Southern fellow countrymen “peasants”, but they also suspected all of them to be criminals (I guess all of you have heard of the mafia). It is obvious that those poor peasants who could barely speak any Italian gave a really bad impression. They were dressed like peasants, talked like peasants and behaved like peasants. If you see old pictures of those women clad in long black dresses with a veil on the top of their heads, with big, sinewy hands, emaciated faces and a simple, earnest expression in their eyes you might at least imagine why those masses of migrants were viewed like the symbols of a backwardness young generations were eager to shake off as soon as possible. Many children of these migrants eventually began to feel ashamed of their origin and repudiate their hometowns, because they wanted to belong to the “civilized” and “sophisticated” North.
The fact that people in the cities considered rural folks uncivilized is an old phenomenon. Peasants lack the education and the sophistication of rich urban areas. Nowadays, China’s society is still in a process of modernization, of a shift from a poor to a rich society. Many of today’s rich were yesterday’s poor, who had to endure the hard life in the countryside. And given the huge income inequality in China, it is obvious that the struggle for survival toughens people and doesn’t make them much more lovable from the perspective of foreign people.
I am not trying to defend China, but we have to see the current situation in its broad context. Because if I look at the Chinese elite, they don’t seem to be less civilized or less sophisticated than people in high per capita income countries.
I would interpret the behaviour of some mainland Chinese as a consequence of factors like education and low income (in the past or present). China is by far not the only country where such things happen. In many low-income, rural or recently industrializing countries these phenomena exist. Just to give an example, the BBC reported that in India “spitting, urinating and defecating in public are a common sight […], and in rural areas many people continue to go out in the open even when they have toilets at home because they prefer the outdoors.” Against these unhygienic habits, Indian authorities have employed volunteers who will “shout, beat drums or blow a whistle” when they see someone urinating or defecating in the open.
The real problem is that the already existing anti-Chinese sentiment makes this misbehaviour appear much more dangerous and appalling than if it happens in India or Africa. As a matter of fact, if so many Indians urinate and defecate outdoors, why is it never reported in the news? Why does no one want to read about it? Well, I guess that it’s because the reaction of the public would be different. No newspaper would sell with the picture of an Indian or a Nigerian child defecating. If it’s a Chinese, it simply sounds much more irritating and outraging.
One day I was walking near Gongguan station in Taipei, crossing the road between Eslite Bookstore and a bakery. Suddenly, I saw an old, poorly dressed woman squatting and urinating in the middle of the street. Now, I don’t know what her nationality was, but she could have been a Taiwanese. I don’t know if anyone took a picture of that woman, but I’m not sure if Taiwanese media would have reported on the news of an old Taiwanese lady urinating outdoors in the same way they reported on the mainland child.
China has, for sure, huge problems. And it is right not only to criticize the bad things in Chinese society, but also to condemn a behaviour that is disrespectful of others. But let’s not generalize and ascribe these phenomena to an inherent lack of civilized manners in China. I think that many Chinese feel towards that woman at Gaoxiong Airport the same revulsion Taiwanese and many of us feel.
It will take time for China to shake off the inheritance of its previous social and economic situation. And above all, it will take a good deal of public campaigns, a higher per capita income and more income equality to eradicate such kind of misconduct.