Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Beijing Puts on Its Manners Cap

Growing up, we were frequently told to don our "manners cap" upon entering restaurants and other public establishments. The cap was a metaphysical reminder to not act like wild heathens in the presence of our grandmother--if I remember right, my grandmother actually crafted the hats herself and could remind us of their function with one of her classic looks (many have attempted to imitate her legendary facial gestures--few have succeeded).

Anyway, Beijing is apparently attempting to put on its own manners cap. China will find itself in an international media spotlight for the Olympics and, in an interesting act of self-consciousness, has decided to crack down on "anti-social behavior." The Chinese government hopes to thwart major Chinese pass times like spitting and cutting in line.

What I find puzzling is the application of the term "anti-social behavior" to these activities. Spitting and cutting in line is extremely social behavior--it's the social norm. Sitting on a bus in Beijing, Clayton Brown and I witnessed people hurling massive loogies onto the floor of the aisle, which was nothing compared to what happened across streets and sidewalks around town. The most shocking loogie event occurred in the Beijing airport where we watched a greenish glob of goo smack against the pristine marble floors--apparently this behavior knows no boundaries.

As for lines, they frankly do not exist. When an airplane lands, people race for the door in a no holds barred struggle to flee the plane. As an experiment, I once jumped out of a seat on an Air China flight immediately upon landing, yanked my bag out of the overhead bin (smashing two heads with my elbows in the process) and pounded past people toward the door. While this behavior would have horrified US passengers (and likely landed me in an interrogation room), the Chinese accepted my assault as normal behavior. Again, these are social norms--far from "anti-social."

Elevators provide similar forums for chaos. In the US, the doors usually open and the people at the front of the elevator exit gradually. Once emptied, the people outside slowly enter the elevator--usually ladies first.

China presents a life or death struggle for elevator loading and unloading. The folks outside the elevator doors are rushing into the elevator as it begins to open. They slip in rapidly through the doors like a wave of water while those inside have to struggle to get out. We would have to swim out of the incoming crowd or face another elevator ride. Again, this procedure is the social norm.

But China attempts to impose Western social norms on its people--"it's glorious to be polite." The efforts have been highly effective in Shanghai, where public spitting is a rarity. We'll see how it works for Beijing.

This is how China hopes to avoid embarrassment in 2008. But I wonder if they are looking the right direction. After all people spit and blow their nose onto the sidewalks probably because Beijing's air pollution causes serious mucus issues. I would end my days in Beijing by blowing black snot into tissue paper. I wondered how athletes planned to compete in the thick, green air. Long walks left our lungs agitated by the particulates--how will the marathon runners feel?

So, when 2008 comes around, Beijing may be as "polite" as Shanghai with the population kindly withhold their polluted mucus for more private locations. The homeless will likely be shipped out of town, and the government will then expect Westerners to awe at the cleanliness and sophistication of China. But late at night, when the tourists return from the day's Olympic events, they will blow their own black snot into tissues with lungs throbbing from the particulates. That is an embarrassment that China cannot avoid.

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