Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Golden Rule

I’m finding in China that it’s sometimes hard to teach your kids to do the right thing. In the U.S., one of the things we try to stress is the golden rule – one should treat others as one would like to be treated by them. But as Doug pointed out earlier, that’s not the way things work here. I’ve heard there’s no real equivalent of the golden rule in Chinese philosophy; I don’t think that’s actually true, but by the way people act around here, I could certainly believe it. Almost no one would want to be treated the way the Chinese treat each other; they can be outrageously discourteous to strangers in certain situations. And that’s what makes it difficult for us in teaching the boys – how do we get them to still be respectful, but at the same time, not get trampled by what goes on here?

Take today for example. This morning I went grocery shopping, and the produce section of the Carrefour can only be described as a war zone. Carts ramming into other carts, people blocking access to aisles of fruit and veg while doing their thing, and even some elbows getting thrown around. I finally make my way through all this and get in line to get my produce weighed and priced (this must be done before one goes to checkout). I use the word “line” loosely here, as it’s mostly just people elbowing towards the women ringing things up. I set my produce on the counter next to the scale (which is standard etiquette here), and some woman walks up and plops her produce down on the scale, clearly violating protocol. She kind of shrugs and motions that she “only has one item.” Fine – whatever. But as my produce gets weighed and priced, an old man rams his cart into me as he tries to elbow his way to the front, and another woman tries to put her stuff on the scale – in the middle of getting my order processed. Sigh.

And so it went for the rest of the day. As the metro pulled in, a woman just saunters up in front of us (almost falling off the edge of the platform) and elbows her way past me (and the exiting passengers) to get in the car first – so she can stand like the rest of us. At the Science and Technology Museum, a family manages to secure a double turn at ping pong for their daughter by holding back their approximately 1 year old to have her “turn” next (so her sister could play along with her and thus go twice) – even though the little one could barely hold a racquet. 
Things came to a head when I waited for Berkley to have a turn at a simulated soccer penalty shot game. Now, those of you who know me are well aware of my infamous line impatience, but really – what I try to teach the kids is the golden rule of lines: everyone waits their turn and then we all get our fair turn in due time. So, when a woman takes her daughter (who was probably about Berkley's age, so clearly old enough to be taught to wait her turn), pushes her through the entire line and then has her take the second part of the turn of the girl in front of Berkley (and in fact, this is what the mom says when I make some noise – finish the turn, just one shot), I was like okay – she’s just going to finish the turn of the little girl who clearly can’t do this game, and no one is put out. But then Berkley’s turn starts up, and the girls and the dad won’t budge. Berkley, at this point, has been waiting SO patiently and is dying to go, so he walks over to get the ball. The girl refuses to give it to him, so he bursts into tears. I then try to gently recover the ball from the girl (I should note here than neither of the girls actually tried to play the game which started before we stepped out because the little one was just running around holding the ball).  At this point, the little girls starts crying, and the dad starts yelling at me. Telling me WE need to wait our turn, and WHERE does it say that you have to wait in line to take a turn, and THEY come here all the time (uh – if you’re here all the time, then you must do this a lot, so do you really need to cut the line to sneak in a turn?). After a full day of getting treated like this, I lost it. They were yelling at me because I thought they shouldn’t cut? Let’s just say – the State Department would not have been proud at me at that moment.

But the thing is – that’s China for you. We even saw a woman in line today cut in front of people because they didn’t notice the line had moved forward - give ‘em an inch, and they’ll take a your place in line. If you can get your veg weighed first, scoot on the train before everyone else, or score an extra turn for your child while screwing everyone else, why wouldn’t you? Doug and I have remarked that we used to tell our American students that American culture was individualistic, but Chinese culture was communitarian. We’ve now realized that nothing could be further from the truth. The Chinese are highly individualistic – when they see an opening, they take it. Hell – they take it even when there’s not an opening.

As a result, for now, we’re in the thick of it – throwing elbows with the best of them. When that old man rammed me with his cart in the grocery store, I butted him right back with my backpack – take that mister! (Yes - I did just admit to retaliating against an approximately 70-80 year old man, but he really rammed me with his cart!) And the boys are picking this sort of behavior up gleefully. We can’t admonish them for this though, or we’d never get on the metro or get our turn at anything, so we have to let them do it. But my concern is that trying to teach them that this sort of behavior is ONLY acceptable in China is going to be hard. It’s even going to be hard for Doug and me to decondition ourselves when we get back; how can we expect a 7 and 9 year old to figure this out? 
So, if you live in Dartmouth and sometime this August, you feel someone ramming your cart in Stop and Shop or some crazy child cuts in front of yours at the Crapo concession stand, let me apologize in advance – China made us do it.


  1. Sensing your frustration and retaliation, and rightfully so. There is just so much that one can take especially when trying to be patient and courteous. But then it was almost humorous. I can just visualize the irritation and then the payback that one is not used to. Its the old adage? Do unto others as they have done to you??? or, before they do it to you?? And this too shall pass. Stay strong - Love Mom

  2. I can just see this happening, the frustration building and the relief to strike back! hang in there.



  3. As you know, I am a firm believer in "this too shall pass" . We'd just like it to pass quicker! Now Dad's behavior as the line police doesn't look so bad, does it? Sounds like it's kind of hard to keep good karma going. Stay safe. Love to all, Judy

  4. I've heard people say Shanghai is worst, a more than usually my-clan-only focused culture. I yelled at taxi line-cutters last night, a whole family, when it was a late return from a week-end trip and I had a sick kid with a fever who needed to be in bed. So I sympathize. But my husband reminded me not to sink to their level. And so I won't.

  5. Well, there's the other version of the golden rule: Treat others as they would like to be treated. That version might go over a little better over there. As for you, take advantage of the opportunity to throw a few elbows, at least where it's acceptable to do so!