Fast-moving China is making me behave badly

By James Fallows, Atlantic Monthly
Published January 14, 2007

Yes, presence in any foreign environment inevitably "improves" people. They learn about the new country, and their home country, and themselves, in ways they couldn't otherwise. They're jogged out of routines. They are exposed to different languages and approaches to life. And blah blah blah. Every day's exposure to China no doubt improves me in all those ways.

But I realize that this China stint I've recently begun is making me worse as a human being. The most obvious transformation: public manners.

The virtues of modern China are most apparent at the individual and family level. People are smart, and funny, and adaptable, and energetic. Most of them are difficult not to like.

China's least appealing face involves people's manners in public. If you're not in my immediate family, then out of my way! Getting in and out of subway cars is a Hobbesian struggle. It is replicated in countless forms, for example anything involving a "line." The one that makes me want to scream is when the first person onto an elevator starts rapidly pushing the Close button, to get moving before too many others pile on.

You can work up all sorts of historical or anthropological explanations behind every-man-for-himself behavior. It's a survival imperative when there are too many people for too few resources. It's an effect of big, anonymous city life - what happens when a city is three times larger than New York - or a legacy of the mistrustfulness of the Cultural Revolution years. Who knows?

What I do know is that if you exist in this culture, you are shaped by it. I've only been exposed to it for a few months, and I'm already responding. After a previous stint in Japan, I realized that I had started bowing while talking on the phone, like the locals, and beginning the typical utterance with sumimasen ga, or "Excuse me, but." And now ... You think you can shove past me in the line at the airport or at the bank? Think again, buster. Since junior high school football I've never used my elbows intentionally, as weapons, as I use them now. A friend has told me how he loves watching American visitors come into - and later go out from - the Shanghai or Beijing airports. On the way in, when finding they make no progress toward the immigration desk or in the taxi queue because of Chinese people cutting in front of them, they smile in appreciation of raw Chinese energy. On the way out, when someone tries to cut them off, they grab the interloper by the shoulder and fling him back.

That's the person I am now. When I start hammering at the "Close" button, I'll know that my transformation is complete.

James Fallows, an Atlantic national correspondent, is based in China.

Fast Facts:


Pets as food and other lessons from China

James Fallows, a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, and his wife recently moved to Shanghai for an indefinite stay. The piece in today's Perspective comes from theatlantic.com Web site, which follows on a longer article he wrote shortly after his move there. Entitled "Postcards From Tomorrow Square," those musings, which appeared in the December Atlantic, also can be read at theatlantic.com but are restricted to those who have an Atlantic subscription. Here are a few of Fallows' observations from that piece:

- Don't forget that for most of recorded history, China was the strongest and richest country, not simply in Asia but in the world.

- The signs of China's rise are apparent everywhere.

- The breadth of hostility toward Japan surprised him, and it was worst among the young.

- On the whole, Chinese people get along with Americans, and vice versa.

- The smartest thing America can do is let Chinese students come here for college and postgraduate education. They go home with a kindly attitude toward America and Americans.

- In adaptability, Chinese society as a whole puts the rest of the world to shame. Flower vendors and restaurateurs discovered that celebrating a Western-style Valentine's Day increased their sales. Now the local florists promote one on the 14th of every month. One alley near the Fallowses' apartment is lined with shops offering turtles, fish, puppies and kittens, and birds as pets. On the next street over, most of the same creatures are offered as food. Whatever sells.