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March 21st, 2009

One thing you can say for Chinese people, they’re not shy. Three or four times now I have been in line at stores and people come up from behind and shove their way in front of me. People on the street treat you as if you’re not there, even more so than in Japan; they assume you will get out of their way, and have no problem stepping right in your path and stopping.

Automobiles are even worse. Instead of like it is in America and Japan, cars in Shanghai assume that pedestrians will get out of their way. They do not stop until the very last inch, and every moment up until then they show no signs of slowing or hesitation in anticipation that you might not see them coming or might not stop for them. I remember once in Palo Alto, when driving with Sachi, I rounded a corner and a pedestrian was coming up. He did not reach the intersection until I was just rounding away from him, but he was able to reach out and touch the car–and he did, banging on the rear corner edge and shouting at me for the close call. I thought he was being a bit touchy, getting pissed because I took a turn in which I didn’t even come close to hitting him instead of stopping and waiting for him to arrive and to cross; at worst, all he had to do was slow down a bit, maybe not even that. I can only imagine what this guy would think of drivers in Shanghai. You can be in the middle of the street, with right of way, and they will come at you like you don’t exist. I suppose that people here get used to dodging the cars and jogging out of their way.

Last night at dinner, I asked one of Sachi’s friends what she liked about Shanghai. She said that you don’t have to be reserved here, you can say what you feel any time you want. I can certainly see what she means by that–people in China do not hold back. People here say what they feel, tempers flare, shouting happens–and it’s not a big deal.

The thing is, that’s one of the reasons I like Japan–that you don’t have this constant barrage of confrontation. I prefer everyone holding back in public. I got tired of always worrying in the States about who would find some reason to start an argument with me. I’m probably just over-sensitive, but then that’s probably why I like Japan that way better.

Last night, after the dinner where I asked that question, we saw a good example of this assertiveness. As we left the restaurant and waited for a friend to arrive in his van to take us to the next destination, we were assaulted by three women with a little six-year-old girl they had trained to walk up to each of us and beg for money.


The women were using the kid to get money, and it was uncomfortable to say the least. The girl seemed to treat it like any chore adults set kids to do, but you kind of cringed at what this kid’s life was like, being used by adults like that. Yeah, I know, happens all the time. Still.

The thing is, that was not the end of it. As the van came around, we piled in. There were a few bottles of tea in the door I was getting into. After I climbed in, one of the women came up and just took one of the bottles out, holding it as if to say, “hey, thanks for the gift!” When I protested–it wasn’t mine to give up–the woman gave it to the girl who quickly cradled it close and turned around as if to keep me from getting at it. Quickly enough that it was obvious she did this often; she even smiled, as if she liked this part because it was like a game of keep-away. I left it at that, which is certainly what these women expected. I imagine that it’s a usual move–grab whatever you can from the car that is worth having but not worth someone trying to tear from a little girl’s arms.

When I told the others about what had happened, I added the qualification of how poor they must be, and everyone in the car hooted at that one. The common opinion is that these people are doing very well, thank you–all of the grown women were clearly clean, well-fed and sheltered, with clothes that looked new. They probably collect enough from tourists to claim a better income (tax-free) than most people in the city. And the little girl–no one was sure, but some doubted that she was the child of one of the women.

Lots of people like that on the streets in this town. Probably lots of people like that everywhere, but you see it a lot less in the U.S. and rarely if ever in Japan.

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  1. Tim Kane
    March 22nd, 2009 at 12:10 | #1

    I must say, for the most part, the more I hear about Japan, the better it sounds to me: Polite, circumspection, clean, and economically advanced.

    Some of that assertiveness that you describe exists in Korea. I should say, a lot of it. Koreans are a very pushy lot. They may not have always been that way, but they are that way in recent times.

    A lot, I’m told, has to do with the version of Confucianism that they have here. In Korea the family is the key group. You can’t really trust anyone else. Historically, resources have been scarce. You had to grab for what you can get and being aggressive, I think, is seen as being well disposed towards helping ones entire family to get ahead. Still, I’ve had some awkward situations where Koreans have rushed ahead of me to get a seat on a bus or a subway or something like that. I am told that before they gave out numbers, it was impossible to get Koreans to wait in line quietly and politely for anything.

    Likewise, I’ve been told that their version of confucianism is such that they don’t feel guilt, just shame. That means they are capable of doing anything provided they don’t get caught.

    Another thing is emotionality. Emotions are not seen as a bad thing here. As I understand it, one is entitled to ones emotions and some things are best understood from an emotional level. You really don’t have to explain to someone why you did something based upon an emotion. That’s a nice thing. But also you can hear Koreans get quite loud and yell. In America, the person that goes emotional is considered in the wrong until proven otherwise. In Korea the person that made someone go emotional is in considered wrong until proven otherwise. If someone is yelling at you, they are likely to wonder what you did wrong, what violation of that person did you do to cause them to chose the emotional route.

    In an argument or in bargaining situations, Koreans will quickly pull the emotional card in the extreme, to establish their bargaining position. This explains some of the antics of the North Koreans.

    Having said all of that. Koreans tend to look down on the Chinese these days because a lot of crime seems to be traced to Chinese immigrants, presumably illegal immigrants running around – even though Koreans look up to China and Chinese civilization. When the Virginia Tech shooting occurred, the first word out was that it was an East Asian. The Koreans surrounding me at the time told me that it was probably a Chinese student. Of course they felt great shame later when it was revealed to a a Korean immigrant. Many felt compelled to apologize to me personally for the shooting. I explain that the person who did it was raised in the United States, and that his character was formed in America, and so his dysfunction was attributable to American conditions, not Korean.

    I am surprised to hear that the Chinese are like Koreans on steroids. Especially the open emotionality. I had heard that in China, emotionality was not a favorable trait to show to the world. I had been told that the Koreans were the only ones who were like that in East Asia.

    I must say, China sounds interesting.

  2. Paul
    March 22nd, 2009 at 16:07 | #2

    I don’t know about it being Confucianism, though, Tim. My understanding of Confucianism is that it’s pretty strict in terms of how everything is supposed to work; then again, if it’s a totally family-oriented version, where everyone outside of the family is basically ignored or seen as an obstacle, I suppose it could make some sense.

    I doubt it, though. The Korean language has a ridiculous number- something like 7 or 8- different ways of speaking to someone, depending on whether they’re a “superior” or not, their age, family relation, or whatnot.

    There’s a terrific passage in the recent Malcolm Gladwell book “Outliers” that talks about how Korean Air had planes crashing all the time for a while, and a big part of their extremely successful fix for the situation was to force all the cockpit crews to speak English ALL the time.

    By doing so, they threw out the honorifics you’d normally see; while we might not speak quite as formally to our children as we do the CEO of our company when we speak English, we also don’t literally have 7 different verb paradigms that actually change the “speech level” based on how formal and polite we want to be.

    What I find curious about these situations in Asia is how incredibly stratified and seemingly strict people are in SOME situations, and yet how amazingly rude (to an American, anyway) the same people are in OTHER situations.

    My own family offers a bit of an example. Ginger and I visited her birth mother, who is Korean but lives in Okubo, the “Koreatown” of Tokyo (or so I guess you could say).

    Much of the time, Ginger speaks to her mother in a fairly casual manner. (Maybe it’s just her Americanness coming out; she lived with her birth mom until she was 11, then was adopted by a Caucasian-American family here in the Seattle area.)

    But when we presented our gifts to her mother, we went through the formal bit of kneeling and then bowing all the way to the floor, pushing our arms and flattening ourselves out towards her. Ginger and I presented the gifts to her very formally.

    So same people, different situations, different behavior.

    I almost wonder if the line-cutting and crowding and traffic behavior was like that back before places like China and Korea went to the hyper-capitalistic model they’re following the past few decades.

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