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Tea Time Chat — Are Chinese Tourists ‘Uncivilized,’ or Just Misunderstood?

(via Flickr/Roamme)

Welcome to Tea Time Chat, a real-time discussion between Tea Leaf Nation writers about the issues that matter to them. 

Tourism season is approaching in many parts of the world, so we asked our contributors their thoughts on a recent assertion by Chinese politician Wang Yang that the ‘uncivilized’ behavior of Chinese tourists abroad was damaging the country’s reputation. 

***

Liang Pan is studying political communication at New York University. He has lived in China, the Middle East, and the U.S.

There’s no excuse for spitting, urinating and littering in public places, but some Chinese tourists’ “uncivilized” manners deserve more understanding.

First, due to China’s low per capita income level and foreign countries’ rigid visa policies towards Chinese citizens, for many Chinese, an overseas trip is still a once-in-a-lifetime luxury.

A journey to European countries or the U.S. can easily cost a middle-income Chinese person from a big city like Beijing or Shanghai at least four months’ wages. Additionally, a Chinese person has to go through a very selective visa application review and visa interview process, which most citizens from “civilized countries” could never imagine. People usually don’t spend fortunes and endure bureaucracy just to behave themselves or be “civilized.” It’s more Spring Break than it is a museum visit.

Second, Chinese travel in groups. There is a language barrier, and tourist guides are needed; however, another major reason for group travel is, again, the visa policies: many developed countries don’t accept individual tourist visa applications from Chinese. The Chinese have to be bundled together and vouched for by a qualified travel agency in order to obtain a visa.

When people travel in groups, the code of behavior of the origin country can be observed within the social perimeter created by the group. It lowers the cultural pressure from an unfamiliar environment and lessens the travelers’ interactions with the destination society, much like an Africa safari in a packed bus instead of a solo excursion.

Lastly, cultural differences create awkwardness. Western eating utensil etiquette is perplexing to chopstick users. Ordering from Italian or French menus is like deciphering the Rosetta Stone for many Chinese. Table manners and dress codes are always intimidating to inexperienced travelers. Think of the knives, folks, and awfully translated Chinese menus presented by friendly Chinese to foreign tourists, instead of shaming someone who is “uncivilized” condescendingly.

***

Jessica Levine is a Johns Hopkins University graduate student with an emphasis in digital communication, and is based in Michigan.

Let’s make a few clarifications, here.

Wang Yang’s assertion that Chinese mannerisms, like speaking loudly (a hallmark of tonal Mandarin), will “damage the image of the Chinese people” is an overreach. Quietly, he is echoing President Xi Jinping’s lofty hopes for the “Chinese Dream” or what Xinhua described as the “renewal of the Chinese nation” à la polished, “professional competence” worthy of international envy.

To the claims of coarse behavior by tourists from the Mainland: The slurping of noodles (slurping’s a hat-tip to the cook) didn’t cause hoteliers in the Maldives to yank tea kettles from bedrooms in a fit of bigotry. No, the hospitality industry guns only for one color—green; for a buck, tourism bureaus happily overlook personal habits different from their own. But wreck something of value with the stickiness of boiled ramen? Or, litter a restaurant floor with spit-out duck bones?

Hardly tinged with racial overtones, these kinds of actions instead challenge overseas property and public health laws.

So, in a roundabout way, Wang’s call to “consciously obey social and public order and social morality” abroad hit the mark.

***

Christopher Magoon is a Philadelphia-based writer and graduate student who has lived in Yunnan and Beijing. 

Last week, a Chinese deputy foreign minister named Wang Yang made headlines by criticizing Chinese tourists’ “uncivilized behavior” while traveling abroad saying, “It damages the image of the Chinese people and has a very bad impact.”

This was not a gaff, nor was it a fringe official gone rogue—Wang’s remarks appear to have the backing of the Chinese state.  Wang is a seasoned politician who made a slow-and-steady climb through the party ranks to Guangdong Party Secretary before being named one of China’s four deputy foreign ministers.  His remarks came during a teleconference on a new set of tourism laws, hosted by the tightlipped Chinese State Council.  Rather than censoring Wang’s critique,state-controlled media published his urgings for more polite tourist behavior.

While notable for their intensity, Wang’s comments were not the first state-sponsored critique of Chinese tourists.  In 2006, Chinese media announced new regulations that made “travel agencies and tour guides responsible for Chinese tourists who are rude, dirty or generally behave badly in public.”

Wang’s remarks come in the wake of an explosion of Chinese international travel that has amplified the profile of Chinese tourists in host nations.  In 2012, China became the most important international tourism market in the world, passing both the United States and Germany in dollars spent abroad.  Western readers will not be surprised to learn of a backlash against spitting, line cutting, and loud talking in the U.S. and Europe, but many of the loudest complaints come from China’s Asian neighbors.  Recent reports from IndonesiaSingaporeThailand, and South Korea all voice complaints of the increasing flow of “rude” Chinese tourists.

Though somewhat bizarre, Wang’s remarks were a calculated response to a small—but growing—thorn in the side of a country that is desperately trying to improve its international profile.

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Tea Leaf Nation

  • http://www.facebook.com/carolynjao Carolyn Jao

    I’ve worked in luxury retail for years and my best and worst days are Chinese tourists. They would swarm in and start yanking stuff off the shelfs demanding full attention as well as discounts.

    • SDtriton

      so….look but don’t touch? Is that what you are saying?

    • CrankyFranky

      last night we had a free sausage sizzle at our local library/community centre – lo and behold all the local Chinese descended like a horde and grabbed all the food before I even got there – included empty buns intended for later – and then complained that there wasn’t enough food !

      when some more cooked sausages appeared a while later, strangely some buns re-appeared from inside jackets

      community spirit – hmmm – didn’t see it there – dog-eat-(hot)dog it seemed to me … I waited 20 minutes and left without eating anything – while many Chinese remained waiting hungrily … just an unpleasant sight I’m afraid

  • Mona L

    Worst is witnessing them taking a crap, literally, in core downtown public areas.

  • diogenes

    total boors. push, yell, take pictures where they are not allowed, make those damn victory signs in front of altars in churches, spit, never never stop talking, even during mass — crowd, butt in line, raucous, and dirty dirty dirty behaviour (littering, throwing food). Unbelieveable. I can’t believe I’m missing the Japanese…

  • Visitor

    Let’s clarify a couple of things. First, it has been historically impossible or very difficult for the average Chinese citizen to even get a passport to leave China even on a short trip. That is a legacy of communism — fear that if freedom to travel is granted, then the whole nation would leave. Fortunately this is changing, but last I checked one still needs permission domestically to travel to much of the world. Even applying for a passport leads to inquiries about where one wants to go, etc. In other words, the restrictions are primarily at home, so let’s not spin this to imply it is foreign nations’ erecting unneeded barriers.

    Which leads us to the second point. Many nations, the United States included, essentially offer reciprocal agreements in how visa approvals are handled. The reality is that US citizens are subjected to what has become increasingly nosy and restrictive visa application in order to enter the PRC. Recent changes now require full itineraries. Foreigners are technically not permitted to stay in friends’ homes without government permission. The visas are expensive. China could have easier access to the United States, but not until it lihtens up on its own police state mentality. Recent changes to the PRC visa forms now ask cell phone numbers and email addresses — information that is really none of their business.

    • Eddie spaghetti

      They also want a full work history going back 10-years and your mother and father’s details- phone numbers addresses and place of work- over the top for a month visa. (This was last time i applied for a tourist visa in HK, ended up going to Burma instead, their visa process was easier)

    • Jahar

      Why would the difficulties going abroad have any effect on the behavior of the people once they travel?

      Also, you are wrong. the restrictions from other countries are usually more strict for Chinese people than the rules at home. The visa application is the most difficult part. The countries don’t want to risk the visitor immigrating illegally.

      • Visitor

        Lian Pan raised the point early in his essay that visas were difficult to procur from the foreign nations, but omitted the first step is getting a passport or exit visa at home, and that the visa difficulty is generally reciprocal in nature, so it works both ways. These points don’t have anything to do with peoples’ rudeness, but become part of the cost they must pay upfront.

        • Jahar

          if it’s not about the rudness, then it’s off topic and irrelevant, is it not? and it’s not reciprocal. I’ve been teaching in China for years, I see the crap they have to do to go abroad, and we don’t have to do half of what they do.

          • john roberts53

            die painfully thx

          • Jahar

            clever. Oh, so clever. Also, what about my comment offends you so much?

  • Eddie spaghetti

    It is not that some Chinese are uncivilised , it is that these things are acceptable in China, until China itself becomes more ‘civilised’ the tourists from there will not .. they are just following cultural norms

    • Potomacker

      I’ll go one step further and suggest that the Chinese believe themselves, the Han Chinese for precision’s sake, and especially the nouveaux riches whom we are primarily discussing to be the most civilized of all peoples. They have 5000 years of history as they are wont to remind us barbarians. They simply do not understand how their behavior which is perfectly acceptable on the mainland could ever cause so much negative attention abroad. When they interact with other nationals while they are travelling, whom they often refer to as ‘the foreigners’, with uncivil and crass manners, they reveal how they generally treat each other.

      • Exile

        Fully agree. One thing though. Honestly, I am really tired of those “5000 years of history”. Especially when it is used as a reason why everything is good the way it is. What I see here is the impression of a history of maybe 50 years, and these were not exactly the best 50 years in Chinese history.

  • billybobasia

    this is complex issue on many levels and not just about basic civility and manners – though they would go a long way to improve China’s image abroad. One of the main issues is that most Chinese haven’t really defined or understood the concept of leisure and relaxation. Where you once had Thai beach resorts full of docile Europeans lying in the sun, book in hand, beer by their side, enjoying the tropical serenity. You now have 3 generations of a Chinese family shuffling around looking for something to do, not quite sure on how to behave or relax – the primary reason for going on a holiday was simply that they could, therefore they should.

    These cultural differences should diminish over time – perhaps as people realize that they don’t actually enjoy beach holidays and stop going, or learn to enjoy their free time more. However, for now, it does create tensions between different groups and there is particular hostility from service staff – try asking any thai or Filippino hotel worker how they feel about the Chinese. You wont get a pretty answer…

  • This discussion is so shallow

    why has no one come out and just say it? Chinese people are, on average, fairly “rude” (by western standards or Chinese standards of good manners). before you jump down my throat, i am Chinese (grew up partly in the west) and i currently live in china.

    manners are most fundamentally a regard for established norms of behavior. given china’s recent history it is not at all surprising that people have little regard for these norms, since the cultural revolution smashed most traditional behavior norms, with nothing put in its place. it also totally disrupted families and social order such that parents were unable to transmit their values well down the line in the last couple of generations. on top chinese society is going through light speed change and norms of behavior is rapidly evolving.

    however, manners are even more fundamentally a regard for other people. given the complete breakdown of morality and trust in chinese society now, why is it surprising that no one cares about not spitting or crappying where ever one wants? no internal moral compass guides them and no external force is watching (social values of face, etc. while out on a tour). people don’t even care about KILLING other people will poisonous food to make a profit. in a personal morality dominated solely by my own wants and interests i will do whatever i damn please.

    finally, lets not forget that every “rich” (i use this term loosely) in china is literally a nouveau riche. it will be generations before the new rich establishes their own code of behavior as a way to signify refinement and sophistication beyond the masses, for now LV bags and fancy cars still work as a proxy for status display. let’s not forget that this is the sort of much of the western manners (complex dinner utensil rules are a good example). how do you expect people without a sense of their own manners to respect other nations’ manners? especially when as said above they don’t care about the well-being and comfort of others (which is, i’d like to mention, one of the classic confucian values which have been discarded)

    • Tricksy Raistlin

      I think that you have raised a fundamental point. You can try to teach someone how to do something, but can you teach them to care about it? If they–deep in the core of their being–simply don’t care, then trying to instruct is just a lost cause.

      How can people actually be made to care again?

  • DaBoss

    Live in Shanghai, traveled over the heavenly kingdom. Yes, the Chinese are bloody awful. Had to reprimand one on HK when she started yelling over my shoulder to get the attention of the sales assistant. Made my day.

  • CrankyFranky

    my partner of 20 years is mandarin-speaking Taiwanese and also worked as a Chinese tour guide for 10 years so I have some experience of this – my observation is that rudeness began in Sydney Oz after Tiananmen Square massacre and our government let in many ‘refugees’ from China – people started wondering why people bumping into them on crowded footpaths failed to apologise – they would be Chinese – continuing on their way without bothering to look back

    yes we can blame an impoverished society – but I think the dog-eat-dog selfishness of 4000 years of totalitarian rule has created it – compared to Japan where they were also poor, but are extremely polite (I know – so the samurai don’t chop off their head) – just a lovely pleasant place to be and delightful people

    we’ve been to China once many years ago (with mandarin-speakers so we heard the way people really talked) – the scars on my soul are so ugly from the way people behaved are just so ugly – frankly we never want to go back

    • randomsurfer

      Except that, historically, the Japanese learnt how to be civilised from the Chinese first. One trip to China “many years ago” and having a Taiwanese spouse doesn’t make you an authority on this topic, really. :)

      • CrankyFranky

        sure randomguy – feel free to quote your authority over my 22 years of close observation – e.g. considering current articles about Chinese tourists’ rude behaviour – I recall the first bus loads of Japanese tourists to my country maybe 30 years ago – don’t recall any complaints about their rudeness tho’ …

  • Chris Hermenitt

    I’ve lived in Shanghai for two years and my wife is a Chinese national who lived in the U.S. for five years. An absolute ignorance of the property, space, and rights of others makes doing things like taking public transportation or waiting in line (anywhere) an atrocious activity. The Biblical Golden Rule (do to others what you would like them to do to you) has never been taught here, but the modern Golden Rule (he who has the gold makes the rules) reigns supreme. There is too much focus on getting good scores in school and making money and practically no focus on civilized behavior.

    • http://www.miaogisteas.co.nz William La Mont

      I agree, but not every citizen is like that. It’s just that the ones that do act in this manner are far more visible than the masses around them. Also, must point out that your biblical golden rule predates the bible and the people who wrote it by a not insignificant amount of time…

  • Tourist

    The difficulties that you describe are those faced by most travellers, no matter their country of origin. While citizens of developed Western nations may indeed have an easier time gaining visas ect., it is still an expensive and special experience to visit another continent. For many Westerners, a major trip abroad costs several months wages as well, saved up over years. All Westerners do not speak the same language either, and face language barriers and the need for guides and interpreters as well. The same goes for being unfamiliar with local customs, a tourist from America accustomed to tipping in restaurants may discover with shock it is rude to leave a tip in Italy. What it might boil down to is having the courtesy and foresight to learn about the behavioural expectations of your destination country, not some set of circumstances that Chinese tourists experience that other tourists do not.

    • tb

      Agreed. One set of rules for everyone – that’s what it should boil down to. We all need understanding of each other, sure, but the same behaviour standards and expectations should apply to each of us. To suggest otherwise is to be culturally patronising and racist.

  • P

    Not sure how much you can misinterpret urinating in public as a cultural difference…

  • 人不如够

    I am going to get flack for this, but I am not placated by what feels like an apology piece. In this article is sites that the middle class are traveling abroad. Saying that some save four months worth of pay. I feel the need BS on that for sheer reason there isn’t a middle class in China, 真的没有阶层. it’s either ridiculously rich or various levels of impoverishments. Surely, no one thinks a factory worker in Shenzhen or a subway conductor in Beijing as ever having the capital to travel outside of China?!

    Finally the article mentions cultural differences and standards in China. I have never seen a Beijinger defecate in the street. Some public urination maybe. This could be from my lack of experience in witnessing people defecating in the streets, but something tells me that most have the common decency to either find a restroom or nor get caught. Having used a bathroom in the countryside I could understand why some people might be confused, but again most people that travel have seen and used a toilet.

    The utensils thing, I get that, but I learned to use chopstick when I was in single digits, I read the directions, I asked for help and I, to this day, help others, it’s not that hard and it’s not that difficult, but in understandable. The spitting thing not so much.

    Now that I’ve established I am reasonable onto the rant I was saving myself for.

    入乡随俗 or when in Rome, do as the Romans do. This isn’t even a modern day Chengyu. As a public service announcement to every one, and because some of us are not getting it, when traveling abroad it’s a good idea to take a look around and see what others are doing. To not do so comes across as either a great oversight or points to a mentality of infallibility. With recent events in mind I side with the latter. It is what I experienced during my time abroad and is definitely what the Communist party has been pushing since it’s appearance on the world stage. If the good people of China knew how badly they were getting screwed, based on standards of the rest of the world, I think there would be even more civil unrest. It’s just an educated guess.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Protests_in_China
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protest_and_dissent_in_the_People's_Republic_of_China

    To me, I see the incident at the art museum as being indicative of a greater problem. If fact the recently created term “Princeling” comes to mind; coined to describe the politician’s son who died in a car crash. He was driving under the influence with two women hanging out the car. He ran over people and signs before crashing into a wall and dying. This wasn’t his first offense and he was never tried or stopped during prior indiscretions and therefore never saw a reason to stop. With this in mind, I think we will be hearing about more cases of individuals writing their names of priceless and irreplaceable pieces of history.

    With the neologism princeling in mind I question why the mentality of the wealthy individuals traveling abroad isn’t brought into question more often. Especially, their children. Case in point, the 15th year old that thought it would be ok to write ‘mine’ on an ancient artifact, albeit figuratively. I am not even egyptian and I am irate at the audacity of that little kid. I know the one child policy is hard on families that feel culturally obligated to have large families and therefore take care of their one and only child to great extremes, a sons especially. But, after making his parents lose that much face, not to mention his country, I feel cheated.

    I think the worst, part is that the parents were not even watching their son and didn’t even know of the incident until they returned home and saw the news article. Maybe the parents of China – government figures and biological – are the ones to blame for being asleep while their children run around.

    • Eddie spaghetti

      There are quite a few examples of Beijingers defecating on subway trains on Tudou, YouTube….

  • Peter Pottinger

    If any chinese girls want to leave china let me know lol, I get you a visa and everything.

  • Ell Tee

    The whole “Chinese people are rude” thing is a bit of ethnocentricism. Yes, they have a different set of manners and rules in China.

    That’s not an apology for them however because if a person wants to travel abroad they should at least learn the rules of where they are going. Queueing up and waiting your turn, for instance. Chinese people need to learn this, and they need to learn the whole raft of other things.

    You can bet, and I’ve seen it, that when a foreigner in China breaks one of the Chinese rules the locals respond with as much outrage as we do. It’s the same as if a non-Thai broke one of the rules of etiquette in Thailand or a non-Arab the rules in Dubai.

    Keeping that in mind, someone in China needs to start running a seminar about cultural sensitivity. If a tour group is going to be a requirement of travelling abroad then the tour company should be doing it. (Lesson #1: no one gives a shit about how much money you have).

    • fdsaasdf

      It’s not ethnocentrism. I have been in HK and hong kongers yelled at mainlanders for things like cutting queue, spitting, smoking inside bathrooms, etc. These are just bad behaviours, and mainlanders seem to assume, as a previous poster said, “infallibility”. Couple that with calling local people “foreigner” when traveling abroad, and I have little sympathy or cultural understanding. It’s arrogance that only the nouveau riche can have.

      These aren’t villagers traveling abroad, but wealthy urbanites. I actually like Chinese villagers; the urban folks, however, I have found distasteful in a big way.

  • Lalaland

    Teenagers from western countries are jut as bad. Not every single westerners are well behaved. We have good mannered Chinese too!

  • Would Like To Be a Contributor

    I feel as if I run into a very bi-polar Chinese population both in China and abroad.

    Most Chinese who sit near me in Chinese airports are usually particularly nice. With the exception of when I was stuck in the Kunming airport in January 2013. I was traveling alone at the time. A lot of strong men who had lived in the airport for a full day or two (I could tell this from the smell and from what I heard in the news) pushed me very hard against the hard counter as we all tried to get the attention from the airline ticket counter. I did wish they had not pushed so hard and yelled so loudly into my ears. I also have a narrower body frame than most those who pushed me. It did cross my mind that perhaps men would be a bit more gentle with me had I been in a Western airport. But after 1 or 2 hours of that ordeal, I ran into only nice people, with just one exception. There was a middle-aged man who sat next to me who kept wanting to know everything about my finances. While I understand that financial curiosity is common among many Chinese, this male seemed uncomfortably materialistic compared to my friends. But the rest of the folks would happily help me watch my belongings while I was away for over an hour to wait for my turn to use the restroom. The airport delays had been going on for about 2 days by then.

    There were a couple of things that I needed to get used to while I visited China. I tend to walk wherever I go in this world, whenever that is possible. I am not used to having to dodge so many motorcycles on sidewalks of Chinese cities. The motorcyclists do seem rather aggressive, or at least very impatient. I get a lot more nervous about having to cross the streets in China. My blood pressure rose, just because it was out of the ordinary for me. Chinese motorcycles are a lot quieter. I often couldn’t hear them with the noisy streets around me. When I finally hear a motorcycle, it is usually already next to my elbow.

    While visiting one of the Shanghainese temples, I did see a number of older ladies repeatedly wiping her hands over and over on various parts of the temple and the interior statues contained within. I am not sure if the temples’ management team is perfectly fine with it. But human hands are known to contain oil, which might or will damage wooden and other statues and structures over time. It looks like an inconsiderate behavior to me. But I didn’t see anyone particularly rude. Just some inconsiderate ones.

    My ethnic Chinese friend who has been living outside of China has seen a local child defecating near Tian An Men square in Beijing during her visit. That experience was enough to deter her from future visits.

    I hope that Chinese will be civilized visitors wherever they go. Whether in China or abroad. I personally think that we all have to share this world. Let us not ruin or mess up things for others while we visit places.

    p.s. When visiting China, the biggest headache to me was trying not to get overcharged when I need to take a cab or taxi. Often, when I’m visiting a famous site out of the city, I could not find a cab who would use the meter to take me back to the city. For that reason, sometimes I ended up not seeing some famous out-of-the-city sights, just to avoid the complications of having to speak with over-eager drivers.

    p.p.s. I have lived both in Asia and in the West and I have always had
    international friends. Chinese and non-Chinese. Most Chinese I know
    are college-educated and are at least bilingual. A good number of them
    are technical professionals. I have never lived in China, but I have
    visited China 3-4 times (excluding 3-4 visits to Hong Kong and visits to
    Taiwan) for 2 months.

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