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The Chinese Mentality

An Occasional Piece

22 July 2008

Every so often something happens to make me realise that, however much I understand China on a superficial level, I am far from accepting and living by its cultural values.

This was brought home to me by a recent incident at Beijing Capital Airport. I had came in on a flight from Mongolia, arriving at Terminal 2 with a colleague who was accompanying two important visitors. Two cars had been despatched to pick us up. My colleague went ahead with the guests to a waiting Mercedes Benz while I stayed back to collect my luggage.

While I was waiting, I called the driver of the second car to inform him that I would be out soon. He said he was at entrance number 10 (十号入口 shí-hào rùkǒu). Coming out, I walked some distance looking for the "10" sign but was unable to find it. There was a 9 and an 11, but no 10. I rang the driver again and realised after a bit of questioning what the problem was. He was at entrance no. 4, or sì-hào rùkǒu (四号入口). In his northeastern accent, where 'sh' is often substituted for 's', he had actually said shì-hào rùkǒu. I’d missed that tiny vital clue, the tone on shi, marking it unmistakably as ‘four’ (shì) not ‘ten’ (shí).

Well, I traipsed all the way back looking for exit no. 4 but was again unable to find it. There was a 3 and a 5, but no 4. It was only then that I realised with a twinge of impatience that number 4 must be at the departures level upstairs, and the driver was probably waiting for me there. So I found the escalator and made my way upstairs. And sure enough, there he was at entrance no. 4. I'd missed the second important clue. The driver had said rùkǒu (入口 'entrance'), not chūkǒu (出口 'exit'). Silly me.

I rather acidly complained to the driver that if he was going to pick me up he could at least have had the decency to come to the arrivals level, which is where I would be coming out. He replied that he’d merely followed the first car, the Mercedes, into the airport. The Mercedes had gone direct to the departures level and he'd followed suit.

Upon reflection, I realised that I was the one being obtuse. There was a simple rationale for all this.

At Terminal 2 of Beijing Capital Airport, cars are allowed to stop and drop passengers right outside of the departures level. But no such provision exists for arriving passengers. Cars meeting passengers off arriving flights must park in the car park, forcing passengers to make the short walk across the road and into the car park. If the driver has found a spot near the entrance, all is well. If not, passengers must either follow the driver to the car, or wait while the driver goes and gets it.

The courtesies that the Chinese try to extend to important guests are too well known to be repeated here. Suffice it to say that to expect an important visitor to walk across the road into the car park and wait for the driver to bring the car around would be sorely lacking in basic etiquette. So what is any self-respecting host to do? The obvious solution is to have the car pull up outside the departures level. A quick trip up the escalator, and voilà, the all-important visitor can be escorted directly to the waiting vehicle! This gives the visitor the smooth and satisfying service that is expected and allows the host to keep face.

As a Westerner, of course, I have an inbuilt resistance to all of this. First, there is the annoyance of knowing that the well-thought out system of arrivals and departures is being disrupted by people trying to gain unfair privileges. A system will only work if everyone adheres to it. If every Chinese wanted their car at the kerb to greet them, the departures level would be choked with drivers jockeying to send off and pick up passengers. This would soon force the authorities to take measures to deal with the abuse of the system. Besides which, there is something undignified about queue-jumping and all the other little tricks that Chinese will often use to gain extra advantage for themselves. While the perpetrator may feel proud of himself for his acumen, there is something slightly cheap and nasty about the whole thing.

The second source of annoyance is my personal dislike of the escalators at Terminal 2 – they always seem to be hidden away or set at strange intervals so that you have to walk half a block to get to them. I also dislike going up and down them as they are pokey and inconvenient. You have to wait for people to get on and off, and you have to manoeuvre your luggage past poles cunningly set at the bottom and top of the escalators in such a way as to cause maximum inconvenience. Much better the quick walk across the road to the car park!

Notwithstanding my personal objections to this way of doing things (and the fact that it resulted in me getting away from the airport about a quarter of an hour later than I should have), the logic of the drivers' actions is impeccable. Why worry about being orderly or adhering to silly rules when it doesn't allow you to achieve the all-important objective -- providing VIPs with a car waiting at the kerb?

As I said, this little episode only served to highlight another of the many ways in which this little Westerner is right out of tune with the way of doing things in China.

It's not as though I wasn't aware of this aspect of Chinese thinking. I've seen Chinese hosts go to extraordinary lengths to provide special service to their guests. In small places (like Hainan), this means building connections with airport security staff so that you can be allowed inside the airport to greet guests virtually as they step off the plane. Foreign guests are often surprised and delighted by this demonstration of high connections and special privilege. As a dyed in the wool contrarian, I usually find myself quite unimpressed and actually annoyed that someone would go to such lengths to impress me. I know, of course, that for the big man at the top it just takes a brief word to have all these privileges put in motion. It's the little guys lower down the chain of command who have to spend all the time and effort to extend this great service to the honoured guest.

So in my stubborn and futile way I continue to resist the rational thought patterns of the Celestial Empire and insist on projecting the inefficiencies of the orderly and unimaginative Western way of life onto a culture that has much better ways of doing things. Somehow I get the feeling that I will have to change before China ever does.

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