Friday, January 29, 2010

When China is #1, will they do better than we did?

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote an op-ed piece speculating on a few decades hence, when perhaps China will occupy the world position America does now. Here's my comment:

One phenomenon already evident in Southeast Asia is the presence of the Ugly Chinese. We've been to Bali half a dozen times in the last decade, and there the locals tell us that a group of Chinese tourists will go into, say, a batik shop, talk loudly with each other in the shop, trash the place by grabbing merchandise to inspect it, then tossing it in a heap, then offer the shopkeeper less than he paid for the merchandise himself and insult him in the process...After they've left, it takes the shopkeeper an hour to make his shop reader for business again.

The Balinese observe that the Chinese have no idea of "win-win" in bargaining. For them there is only win-lose. They win, you lose. And they don't think they've won unless they've basically humiliated you.

This is all a stereotype, of course. There are wonderful Chinese tourists in Bali. But enough of them behave the way I've described here to give them a bad rep with the locals, who find Americans--the ones who go all the way to Bali, at least--easy-going, cheerfully respectful of the locals, and always interested in getting to know them instead of just treating them like the help.

So there we're actually the Pretty Americans. And the Chinese exemplify the stereotype of American tourists that I've heard all my life (in America at least).

China has always been inward-looking, and as their exports of tainted products demonstrates, they tend to treat anyone they don't have a personal relationship with (including other Chinese) instrumentally.

They think we're immoral because we don't cheat on behalf of relatives, interestingly. This is why Costco warehouse stores in the U.S. now packages produce in more or less sealed packages--too many Chinese housewives were swapping, say, pears they didn't like for pears in other flats, then just grabbing pears from other flats and loading twice as many purloined fruits in their flat and shamelessly trying to check out with it. After many complaints, Costco now puts them under plastic and wrappers and whatnot in order to cope with this, um, cultural phenomenon.

So becoming good world citizens is going to come very hard for them, I predict. Especially since they take criticism badly. I'm guessing most of them have no idea what the locals think of them. Of course it's likely that they don't care either.


Someone who read this in the NYT put a comment into my Avatar a right wing plot? piece (see below). He wanted to know where I got my point about Costco.

I got my general thoughts about Chinese cultural character from a fascinating book

The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why.

Here's a teaser for that book: if you show a page with three pictures on it--of some grass,
a bird, and a cow--and ask the viewer which two of those three items seem to go together more, most Asians will say cow-grass, while most Westerners will say cow-bird. Read it to see why.

I got my observations about Costco from personal experience. I live in an area with a huge Asian population, including many recent immigrants, and I saw the Costco shenanigans time after time over a period of years--also the paucity of anyone else doing same. I complained to Costco myself, and I'm sure other shoppers did as well, since, unlike normal shoplifting, it was completely brazen. I think they thought "If there's no rule against it it's fine for me to do it."

Remember, from the Chinese viewpoint this is not dishonesty. It's just prioritizing those close to you over strangers. So from that viewpoint we're the immoral ones, since we don't normally cheat on behalf of relatives.

So rather than say they're dishonest, I'd say their priority stack is arranged differently than ours--and it behooves us to keep that in mind.


Anonymous said...

You said that you live in an area with mostly new Chinese immigrants. That tells me you aren't much better than they are. In fact, you are an idiot. Have you been to Cupertino and Milpitas? Oh yeah! You can't afford to share a 1/2 room there. Hope you are not living in Chinatown basement.

Ehkzu said...

Regarding this comment:

I don't get it. Now smart alecks (and my spouse would tell you I'm definitely one of those) will often pretend to not understand something as a rhetorical gambit/or a form of Socratic teaching.

I'm not doing that here. I guess this commentor didn't like what I said--or doesn't like me--but I honestly don't understand the point he/she is making, so I can't answer it.

A little help?

dwm said...

maybe you have 'insulted' one of his relatives by remarking on his behavior. i recall that, in college, the asians would sit next to each other and essentially 'openly' cheat; their idea of taking a test was comically a communal event.

Ehkzu said...

As dwm implies, by our standards they cheat shamelessly. What we have to realize is that we aren't seeing their criminals in action--we're witnessing normal, accepted behavior in their culture.

We persist in thinking that others' values have the same priority stack as we do. They don't. The Chinese know right from wrong, but harmony and helping out one's peeps are far higher in their priority stack.

So for us the principle in dealing with them should be "fooled me once, shame on you. Fooled me twice, shame on me."

It's a pity that successive administrations have so much trouble learning this from previous ones--especially if they're from the other party.

When Bush gained office, he put into action the principle "Whatever Clinton did--we'll do the opposite." I'm not convinced Obama has improved on this when it comes to dealing with Asian countries, but I'm not convinced he hasn't either. We'll see.

But on whatever level, we have to realize that what we regard as principled behavior the Chinese regard as us acting like defective Chinese. But since they aren't defective Chinese, they aren't about to point this out. They're just going to take advantage of us to the max.

Let me reiterate: it's not that they're alien. They have all the values we have--just arranged with a different set of priorities.

"The geography of thought" traces this to Chinese rice farming culture, which requires everyone's cooperation for anyone to succeed, vs. Western wheat farming culture, which doesn't. That's just a hypothesis, but it certainly fits the facts.