Tuesday, November 15, 2011

When survival is your life

I was waiting for my brother-in-law the other day.  He was at a money exchange counter, converting Hong Kong dollars into Chinese yuan. 

A young, hip Chinese couple came down the escalator of the mall we were at, their hands full of shopping bags, and the guy wanted to ask the money exchange clerk a question.  Without batting an eye he walked up to the counter and butted my brother-in-law aside, who was still in the middle of his transaction.  Not seeming to notice someone else was there, the guy started leaning into the counter and speaking with the clerk.  My brother-in-law, a Canadian-born Chinese, in true ice hockey style, glided back into his spot assertively and blocked the man completely from accessing the clerk. 

All of a sudden the man noticed my brother-in-law.  “Oh, sorry,” he said, and backed away to wait his turn.

Eventually my brother-in-law rejoined me and started complaining about “how rude that mandarin-speaker was.  Can you believe it?” he exclaimed.

I laughed. 

But I must admit there was a time I would have reacted exactly the same way he did.  It can be a bit shocking and off-putting to encounter behavior like that.

The thing is, the guy was oblivious to the fact that he had butted in line.  That’s because lining up for things is not customary in China.  If you’ve ever tried to catch a bus in the Mainland you’ll know what I’m talking about.  It is not a calm, orderly experience.  Rather you find yourself in a chaotic swarm of humanity and hope you can just squeeze yourself on to the jam-packed vehicle before it leaves.  It is also not uncommon to see parents urging their children to run and snatch up any empty seats on a subway when the doors open at a station platform to let new passengers on to the train.  Remember—this is the place where the government instituted a regular “Waiting in line day” in Beijing to teach their citizens queuing manners ahead of the 2008 Olympics.

For the most part people in China have been taught to run and grab what they can since they were toddlers.  Is it any wonder the guy was unaware that he had intruded on my brother-in-law?  He was merely behaving the way he’d been told to all his life. 

It’s a survivor’s mentality, and many in China have just that.  For literally thousands of years, from dynastic times to present day, famines, floods, wars and other disasters have taken their toll on the populace, and at times it was and is all they can do to even stay alive.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.  People take what they can and are just satisfied to live to see another day. 

When David was fleeing from Saul there were times he too took what he could.  On one occasion he even lied to a priest to secure bread and a sword for himself.  Likewise, the believers in China can find themselves confronting similar difficult dilemmas.  Their decisions are not always so easy to make.  They’re often made under a pressure that you and I can only imagine or see in movies.  They didn’t always have the luxury of making choices about colors, flavors, brands, sizes or models—and most of them still don’t.  Their choices can come down to survival, even between life and death.

Does it excuse rude behavior?  No, but believe it or not, there are more important things in life than etiquette.  So the next time you’re tempted to criticize the Chinese for their pushiness, bad manners or aggressiveness, remember the base from which they started.  They weren’t born into a liberal, democratic or free market.  Give them a break.  Let them have time to accustom themselves to their still-evolving new world. 

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