by Toffler



Responsible Tourism in Reverse: Educating the Chinese

In my job as a tour leader in China, I have developed a secondary purpose for myself.  Beside fulfilling my role and duties as a tour leader, I’ve also started educating Chinese people as to Western standards of politeness, appropriateness, and generally just good behavior.  Undoubtedly this sentence reads as very arrogant and culturally insensitive.  However, much of what I try to ‘teach’ the occasional Chinese is already being strongly suggested by the govt in Beijing.  Furthermore, if China wants to be an appealing and attractive country to foreign tourists, investors, etc, it’s people need to minimize those habits which Westerners consider repulsive.  By giving a few examples, I hope I shall seem less ethnocentric.  (My apologies for the generalizations but all of these scenarios I’ve seen across the country, from big cities, to small middle-of-the-country towns.)

Chinese people (both males and females, though males to a greater extent than females) spit everywhere, regardless of indoor, outdoor, clean floor, dirty street, other people nearby, at the dinner table, in train stations, in train cars, everywhere, literally.  The actual act of spitting is preceeded by the most repulsive, sickening clearing of the throat hack imaginable (apparently quite common in India, as well).  This is a sound which makes Westerners cringe and unfortunately can be heard at all hours of the day and night, including late at night in crowded train cars.  On occasion when I’ve been nearby someone who has just made the most menancing clearing of the throat sound, followed by a large spat I give them a disgusted look and say in Chinese, “that’s disgusting, I hate that, it’s horrible to hear.”  Certainly, my 1 comment won’t stop that person from spitting but I just hope it makes him more aware of how we perceive it and in turn makes him consider the time, place, and company before letting out another one.

Chinese people, particularly those with a little money but not much education, have a strong sense of entitlement and superiority.  Because they have some money, they see themselves as superior to other poorer Chinese people, particularly those whose responsibility it is to clean the streets and otherwise take care of the trash.  As such, they feel it is their privledge, their right, to throw litter or trash onto the ground, again both indoor and outdoor.  They do this with the, mostly correct, expectation someone else will clean it up.  In one particular instance, I was enjoying a drink with my group on Bar Street in Xi’an and one of the waitstaff of the bar across the road had found a deck of cards that was incomplete.  He proceeded to start 1-by-1 flinging the cards through the air and letting them drop into the middle of the road.  He showed no intention of picking them up.  At that point, I walked up to him and in Chinese said, “What are you doing?  You’re making the street dirty.  Why are you making the street dirty?  Do you believe China is a beautiful country?  Then why are you making it dirty?  You need to pick them up.”  Then I started picking up the cards and handing them back to him and again told him to pick them up.  He stared at me stunned, then his friend came over and did the rest of the job picking up the cards.  In another example, last evening, while on a Yangtze river boat, a boy of about 8 threw trash over the edge of the boat into the (granted, already filthy) water.  I yelled at him, “that’s bad, don’t do that” multiple times.  And the parents, in a distinct mocking tone repeated my words, while the older girl of about 10 with them apologized in a rather ironic manner.  On more than one occasion, my passengers who are on vacation in China have picked up trash dropped by Chinese people.

The Chinese are notorious at failing to line up, queue, and have patience.  Frequently, while standing in line to pay for something at a store or to use a public bathroom, Chinese people have pushed past me in order to get in front of me in line.  This action almost always receives from me the following indignant reply, “Line up.  Line up.  We are in line.  Please wait.”  Most of the time, this puts the cutter, perhaps a bit irked, back in their place, with great pleasure to me.

I have seen Chinese adults cut all their nails (either hands or feet) in the most ridiculous of places, places almost as ridiculous as those I’ve seen children pee in China.  For example, I’ve seen a mainland Chinese woman cut her nails in the somewhat crowded lobby of a 5-star hotel in Hong Kong.  Recently, when a man was cutting his nails, not 5 feet from me on an overnight train, I was compelled out of disgust and fear for my eyes to tell him to stop and to express how unpolite that was.  He was kind enough to stop.

The noise level in China is absurd.  Whether its loud voices, cranked up loud speakers, unimaginably loud cell phones, full volume TV sets, or crazily loud car horns, a high level of noise is gauranteed in China.  Of all of China’s, or Chinese people’s, unrefined quirks this one I’ve perhaps come to terms with most.  Nonetheless, there are definitely times when the noise seems truly ridiculous and something must be said along the lines of “That’s too loud.  You voice is too loud.  Please turn it down a little.  Please turn that off.”

By contrast, perhaps the most disgusting and bothersome is the smoking.  China is the largest cigarette market in the world.  The govt makes 14% (?) of is tax revenue from cigarette sales.  I could go on with the statistics. Chinese people seem to pay little heed to No Smoking signs either indoor or out, nor to people with sensitivities to smoke such as children, nor to nearby diners.  While in the museum at the Terracotta Warriors, a Unesco World Heritage site, 3 men were sitting on the floor, smoking.  As the smoke blew in to my passengers faces, I said the them “There is no smoking.  You’re not allowed to smoke here.  You can smoke outdoors.”  With this, they scrambled to put out their cigarettes and rush out the door (leaving the butts on the granite floor.)  Most people are generally responsive to requests to move the smoking away from us, however, frequently this involves switching the cigarette to the other hand as if then, the smoke will blow a different direction.  I’ve encountered very insolent people who continue to smoke in the middle of a sleeper train, even after being asked repeatedly to go elsewhere.

Part of my job description is to promote ‘responsible travel.’  This term is normally meant to apply to the foreigners coming into visit a country so that they should act and dress appropriately, promote the wellness of the country they are visiting, and not leave the area worse than they found it, but perhaps better.  The last part is exactly what I’m trying to do also while adopting a more liberal interpretation of the term, ‘responsible tourism.’  I hope that by reacting to certain Chinese behaviors, as mentioned above, I can make China a better place and make it more appealing to foreigners and more sensitive to their sensibilities.  In doing so, I wish that through tourism China can continue to showcase its beauty and history to the world and that future travelers to China can find it a bit more pleasant than past and current travelers.


  1. mjbphx |

    I’m not sure that it’s appropriate to regulate someone’s behavior if it’s not hurting you, i.e. you may not like someone cutting their nails in public, but what gives you the moral superiority to say that it is wrong? As to the things that do directly impact everyone’s health, that’s a different issue. But we need a collective consensus to change, and it will be most accepted if it comes from within. Being an obnoxious foreigner advocating for change because you don’t like the Chinese culture is going to make you be regarded as an “Ugly American” — not a good ambassor representative.

So, what do you think ?