THE BLOG
05/25/2014 05:39 am ET Updated Jul 25, 2014

Why Won't the Chinese Line Up?

The title of this blog is not quite what I mean to say. It should read instead, "Why won't the mainland Chinese line up?"

The distinction is crucial. My point isn't about race.

I am not sure what is worse.

On the one hand, there are Chinese tourists who are loud, rude, and numerous. Most trying of all, however, is that they display no comprehension of the principle of queuing to wait one's turn.

On the other hand, there is that very image of Chinese as impertinent, coming to take the place of the notion that Asians are excessively polite. The transformation is ironic, since China once had the most elaborate etiquette -- witness rituals of bowing.

Perhaps my own exasperation upon encountering Chinese travelers reflects contemptible self-hatred. I am a Chinese American who has from time to time been dismissed by Chinese as not properly Chinese at all. I'm not sure if they have meant that as an insult, but I am not moved to complain. My experience suggests that I am not alone; many of us are more dismayed by the crass and vulgar conduct of our cousins than the same on the part of others. We know they will impress the public negatively, who in turn will associate us with their transgressions.

My instinct is to resist any racial stereotyping and then protest it. Inconsistent standards are at play. While errant Chinese teenagers who deface ancient artworks have their actions attributed to their cultural identity, similarly witless white American hikers who topple primeval geological landmarks are excused as idiotic individuals. Japanese tourists toting cameras have long been mocked. English, German, French and Italian guests have no reputation for being boisterous or boorish (except at soccer matches that do not instill equivalent emotion on this side of the pond).

The anger of Americans toward Chinese visitors reflects aggravation about more than a busload descending upon an American national park or high-end boutique. It reveals uneasiness over the relative roles of the sovereignties they ineluctably represent. The backlash against Chinese vacationeers may serve as an excuse for abuse. What is said about lining up has been said before with regard to cleanliness and Christianity. People who fail to arrange themselves in an orderly manner, it is implied, are not hygienic but heathen.

Yet this generalization about Chinese shoving, cutting in front of others, and being on the whole uncouth has truth to it. It alas is not, to be precise, racial in its basis.

I realized that while traveling in Taiwan. On the island that continues to have a most complex relationship to its giant neighbor -- not only politically but also economically and culturally -- there is a resentment of Chinese sightseers that is not all that different from elsewhere around the world. They too consider the Chinese aggressive. Whatever their partisan affiliation, they distinguish themselves from the mainlanders. Even their scooters are parked in neat rows.

The concept of lining up is not merely about decorum. It lies at the core of rule of law. The respect each of us has for another person's priority, based in this instance on chronological precedence that we try to teach young children, is integral to the social contract writ large.

A person who does not heed the arrows and stanchions at the entrance to the airport, bank, or theatre is aptly deemed a person who will not honor her word. They demand more than they contribute.

The commonality of Chinese behaving badly leads me to wonder what explains it. It might have to do with unbearable population density or unanticipated consequences of the one-child policy creating princelings. Maybe it is due to mass migration from rural areas into urban centers and stupefying rates of economic development and technological advancement.

Perceptions deceive. We Westerners occupy more space than others. Chinese may be rushing into any gap that opens up within the crowd.

Those all seem plausible as influences on collective deportment. As rationales, they present less risk of moral error than those relying on race.

But I am persuaded there is another story. I was chatting with a renowned scholar of China, who has done extensive fieldwork there. He immediately named Communism as the cause of Chinese not lining up.

When totalitarianism was at its worst, anyone who tried to be fair and courteous at the market, which had hardly anything for sale, would have been pushed aside to eventually starve. You had to throw your elbows or you would leave empty-handed. The vestiges of Communism continue to affect people who have endured it. They recall hunger, and they are driven by it.

There are parallels in America. A longtime expatriate returned to the States from China said to me that these goings on were a robust version of the proverb, "You snooze, you lose." It is fear that compels a person to grab what she can. It is only through confidence in social norms that we can relent, as Thomas Hobbes foretold centuries ago.

In casual conversation over dinner back home in San Francisco with a group of Chinese Americans, I queried my peers. One mentioned the contrast in Hong Kong. In that most chaotic city, the residents line up. They are punctilious and patient.

I had not wanted to say it, but others were willing to praise British colonial rule. Queen Victoria imposed expectations for the empire upon which the sun never set, and lining up may be English in origin. Some of my companions who had emigrated from the territory since ceded back to mainland China acknowledged that. They added that the English were among the first to cheat on the various protocols they wished to enforce upon others.

As the Chinese emerge into the world, they will test our our shared ideals. Once a person sees that civility is not mutual and thoughtfulness will be detrimental, she will respond rationally -- which is selfishly.

The next person has no motivation to do otherwise. Ratcheting phenomena are difficult to reverse. After the course has been set, it proceeds to only worse.

The Chinese will improve. They must. They will learn that it is a virtue to line up.

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