Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Lan Kwai Fong - Hong Kong's Nightlife

Though I've come back to Taipei more than one month ago, there are still some places in Hong Kong I'd like to write about. One of them is Lan Kwai Fong, which is one of the most glamorous, vibrant bar and night club areas of Hong Kong, and perhaps of the world.

Lan Kwai Fong is a T-shaped lane in the so-called Mid-Levels, in the centre of Hong Kong (see map below).

The first time I went to Lan Kwai Fong (or LKF, as locals call it) was in 2012. I and two friends of mine were trying to find a restaurant, but they could not find the one they were looking for, so we ended up walking around for quite a while. I soon forgot the main purpose why we had gone there and simply enjoyed exploring that part of the city.
What I saw there surprised me quite a lot. It was as if I had suddenly travelled back to Europe - Lan Kwai Fong resembled districts in London or Berlin rather than an Asian city. Not only did the many colonial buildings give the area a European flair, but there were so many Westerners that I almost did not feel like a foreigner any more. My Asian friends were clearly in the minority.

The last time I returned to LKF was at the beginning of May. My last Saturday in Hong Kong would have been pretty lame if my flatmate had not saved me. I went back home at around 11 pm, changed clothes and was about to take a shower, when my flatmate opened the doors - most flats in Hong Kong have a sliding metal gate and a normal Western-style door behind it. I heard the noise of the gate and went to say hello to her. When she saw me, she said:
"R** (name of a friend) asked me if you want to go to Lan Kwai Fong?"
"Sure! When?"
"Now? But it's almost midnight!"
"Yeah! If we hurry up we can still catch the MTR."
So I changed my clothes again and we went to Lan Kwai Fong.

The streets were full of people, and all bars and restaurants were crowded. It is hard to describe the glamour of that place. One should bear in mind that LKF is close to the business district, and that many bankers, business people etc. go there to party, have dinner or just have a drink. 

A European can hardly imagine how it feels to walk around in May wearing a simple shirt; Hong Kong was so hot that it felt like Berlin in the hottest summer days. We sat down in a nice bar and had a few beers. Below are some of the pictures I took that night.

While we were climbing up the hill we ended up in this square, where there seems to be nothing special, except that for some reason this huge crowd had gathered there


Old colonial buildings and skyscrapers towering on the horizon

Lan Kwai Fong: A Hong Kong Icon

Lan Kwai Fong (literally "Orchid and Osmanthus Square") is a symbol of Hong Kong, which reflects its vocation as a city of money, glamour and cosmopolitanism. "[F]ine cuisine and dining elegance, expensive suits and ties, arrogant gwailou and chuppies, alcohol and drunkards, wild and screaming youngsters, and casual sex and homosexuals" are some of the images that Hong Kongers may associate with Lan Kwai Fong (see Gordon Mathews, Dale Lü, Tai-Lok Lui: Consuming Hong Kong 2001, p. 237).

Lan Kwai Fong has much in common with Soho in London. They are both symbols of a way of life, of the rhythm and identity of these two world cities that were connected with each other through the British Empire and the globalisation that this Empire ushered in. Like Soho, Lan Kwai Fong is a universe of bohemian lifestyle, feverish consumption, of art and pleasure, fashion and leisure, where businesses construct a particular identity " 'shaped by the world of goods': food, drink, art, music, hairstyles, clothes and furniture" (ibid., p. 238).

Before the 1970s LKF wasn't a particularly fashionable area. There were street hawkers selling flowers, a garbage dump and many warehouses. But in 1978 a Hong Kong-born Eurasian, Gordon Huthart, chose Lan Kwai Fong to open a discotheque which would become legend: Disco Disco. Huthart wanted to create an alternative to the exclusiveness of The Scene, which was the first discotheque in Hong Kong (1968) and whose clients were the rich and famous of the city. The location of The Scene, close to The Peninsula Hotel, emphasised its role as a meeting point of the elites.

Disco Disco was the first real Western-style discotheque in Hong Kong, with deafening music and neon flashes that cut through the darkness. Those were the years of films such as Saturday Night Fever and Grease, which popularised the night life of young Western generations on the screen. Huthart recreated in Hong Kong the atmosphere of discos in San Francisco and other Western cities. Disco Disco soon became the place to be, frequented by Chinese and Westerners, by stars and common people alike. 

Huthart was openly homosexual - at a time when homosexuality in Hong Kong was illegal - and Disco Disco became a centre of gay lifestyle. The spirit of those years reflected the economic rise of Hong Kong, the new wealth that created a desire to consume and enjoy, the enthusiasm of the boom era and the mixing of Western and Chinese lifestyles.

Huthart is often called the "Father of Lan Kwai Fong"; however, he shares this title with another man, Allan Zeman, who changed LKF perhaps more than anyone else. In 1988 he bought the California Entertainment Building and in 1992 the California Tower. In these buildings he opened several bars and clubs, such as Indochine 1929, C Bar and di LUX, which set the standards for the years to come (note).

Another important figure in the development of LKF was the Austrian Christian Rhomberg, founder of Kee Club's impresario and of the cafe' 1997, which was opened in 1982. From the outset, 1997 was a huge success, mostly thanks to the hype its name caused: 1997 was the symbolic date of Hong Kong's retrocession to China. It was a number that evoked uncertainty and fear, but also showed the strength and optimism of a city that wanted to live and thrive in the 21st century, as it had done in the 20th.

After drinking a couple of beers, I and my friends went to a Turkish restaurant across the street, which apparently is opened 24-hours a day. This beef with salad, French fries and yoghurt dressing was so delicious that even now, while writing this post, I wish I could go there and get one. I don't know why food eaten in the middle of the night sometimes tastes so good; maybe it was also because I knew I would soon leave Hong Kong, and even the simplest things seemed to me special and unique. 

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Are Taiwanese Too Nice To Foreigners? - A Few Thoughts About Misunderstandings and Xenophobia in Asia and Europe (Part I)

Yesterday I had a conversation that prompted me to write this post. I had already been planning for quite some time to talk about this topic, but I never had the chance to do it before. 

I mentioned in the previous article that sometimes I heard Taiwanese and Chinese say that they are 'too nice to foreigners' ('foreigners' meaning in this context 'Westerners'). I can feel a certain anger in such words, an anger which is neither too direct nor violent, but which nevertheless reveals frictions and misunderstandings. What is behind these tensions?

Nice Asians vs Rude Westerners? A Different Approach

When I was in Europe, some Taiwanese told me that they are nice, even too nice to foreigners who come to their country. Why do they have this perception? And do Westerners actually share this view?

The main reasons for dissatisfaction with Westerners that I have heard in Taiwan are: 1) Westerners are too arrogant; 2) they get higher salaries than local people; 3) they disregard local rules and have no interest in local culture; 4) they think Asian girls are easy; 5) Westerners are self-centred and pleasure-seeking.

Now, this harsh judgement on Westerners is by no means shared by the entire population. Cultures, countries and peoples are not homogeneous entities, but rather an amalgam of different tendencies, opinions and phenomena. So, it is not contradictory to say that Taiwanese both love, hate or are indifferent to Westerners, because these tendencies and attitudes can be found in different individuals, and sometimes even in the same individuals. In this post I am mainly referring to those people that  have a more or less strong feeling of resentment towards Westerners. I cannot quantify the number of these people, but I personally could observe this phenomenon.

First of all, I think that these stereotypes have some truth in them (I shall talk more extensively about that in the second part). I have myself met some foreigners who fit in this description. There is a group of Westerners who perhaps come to Taiwan because they want to make some money, enjoy girls and just have fun in an exotic place. However, I think this group is not representative of the entire expatriate community in Taiwan, let alone of Western culture and society as a whole. But I will come to this later.

A key point is, I believe, that Westerners and Taiwanese often have different standards by which they judge politeness and moral values in general. I shall argue that one of the major problems is a lack of mutual understanding regarding these principles and standards. For example, it is wrong to assume that when Westerners and Asians talk about ideas like love, politeness, honour, dignity, equality, respect etc, they necessarily mean the same thing. But because they don't know by what standards the other judges words and actions, they end up misunderstanding each other.

Let us talk, for example, about politeness. I will write another post about this in the future, but now I just want to explain that in my personal experience different people mean different things when they use the word 'politeness'. As a matter of fact, I do not believe that all Westerners think that Asian people are polite. But the opposite is also true - some Asians who go to the West get the impression that Westerners are not polite.

Polite Appearance, Polite Sincerity and Hypocrisy

The Chinese word for politeness is limao (trad.: 禮貌, simpl.: 礼貌, pinyin: lǐmào). It is a compound of the characters li (禮: 'ceremony', 'rite', 'etiquette') and mao (貌, appearance) (see Watts 2004, p. 16). This understanding of the word was already codified in the Book of Rites (trad.禮記, simpl. 礼记, pinyin: lǐjì). The Book of Rites is one of the classics of Confucianism, attributed to Dai Sheng (around 200-100 B.C). It mainly deals with the description of hierarchic relationships and duties in Chinese society, and with how they should be expressed and observed through ritualistic behaviour. Li was "equated with demonstration of self-denigration and respect to the other person, especially in vertical relationships" (see D'Hondt / Oestman / Verschueren 2009, pp. 157-158). 

The evaluations of the Book of Rites differ greatly. Some people interpret it as a text that empowers the elites and creates social oppression, others as a text that propagates egalitarian, harmonious virtues (see Nylan 2001, p. 186), and in between there are many more opinions. But since I am trying to explain why Westerners may not think that Taiwanese or Asians in general are polite, I will focus on the aspects of Asian politeness that are truly different from those in the West: hierarchy and ritualism. 

So what is Asian politeness? I shall argue that it is a set of rules of proper behaviour that reflect the social role and the hierarchical position of the individual. I have already explained that traditional Confucian societies were based on hierarchy and social roles. Of course, these characteristics also exist in the West, but the stress on ritualism and on family hierarchy seem to me to distinguish East and West quite clearly. Let me give you two examples to show this point.

The first one comes from the Book of Rites itself. Many passages of the book describe the 'proper' hierarchical order and structure of the Chinese family, in which the old were superior to the young, men were superior to women, husbands to wives etc. All members of the family were supposed to adhere to numerous social customs that reflected this order. Proper behaviour was based on the performance of rituals, the outer display of affection through formal gestures, and obedience:

16 內則:


Nei Ze:  

Sons and sons' wives, who are filial and reverential, when they receive an order from their parents should not refuse, nor be dilatory, to execute it. When (their parents) give them anything to eat or drink, which they do not like, they will notwithstanding taste it and wait (for their further orders); when they give them clothes, which are not to their mind, they will put them on, and wait (in the same way). If (their parents) give them anything to do, and then employ another to take their place, although they do not like the arrangement, they will in the meantime give it into his hands and let him do it, doing it again, if it be not done well. [my emphasis] 

17 內則:  


Nei Ze: 

When the sons and their wives are engaged with laborious tasks, although (their parents) very much love them, yet they should let them go on with them for the time;--it is better that they take other occasions frequently to give them ease. When sons and their wives have not been filial and reverential, (the parents) should not be angry and resentful with them, but endeavour to instruct them. If they will not receive instruction, they should then be angry with them. If that anger do no good, they can then drive out the son, and send the wife away, yet not publicly showing why they have so treated them (source link; see also Nylan 2001, p. 186) .

The second example is taken from Travels in China by John Barrow. Barrow was an attache' of the so-called Macartney Embassy, the first British diplomatic mission to the Chinese Empire that lasted from 1792 to 1794. That mission is remembered nowadays as perhaps one of the biggest and most catastrophic cases of cultural misunderstandings in history, with the issue of the kowtow as one of the major causes of frictions between the European delegation and the Chinese court. But there were many other occasions for cultural clashes between the two sides. John Barrow remarks:

Under the generous idea of being the Emperor's guests, we were not allowed to purchase any thing. He alone was to supply our wants, but his officers took the liberty of judging what these wants should consist in (Barrow, chapter VII).

It is quite interesting to notice that more than two hundred years after Travels in China was written, Westerners and Asians still have the same misunderstanding. It might have happened to other Westerners to be given gifts one doesn't want or need, or to be asked to do something one didn't want to do, as gestures of politeness.

I myself had such problems several times. Once I went to a Mid-Autumn Festival party organized by a delegation of Communist cadres in Berlin. They were drinking 白酒 (báijiǔ, a spirit usually distilled from sorghum or maize), and they asked me to drink with them. Actually, I did not want to drink, but they insisted so much that in order to avoid offending them I gave in. They could clearly see that I was reluctant, but that didn't seem to bother them. They even thought they were doing me a great honour. One of them said to me, smiling: "In China it's young people who are expected to ask older people to join them drinking. We are older than you, but we ask you to drink, so you can't refuse."
A Chinese friend of mine said to me in a low voice that I should not reject, but if I didn't want to drink much I could just sip slowly so that a glass would last the whole evening.

There are plenty of such examples. Once a Taiwanese middle-aged man who worked for an IT company told me with veiled resentment that when his Western business partners came to Taipei, his Taiwanese company would always pick them up at the airport and then organize a dinner. But he complained that the Western side would not do the same when the Taiwanese went on a business trip to the West. 

Here we see again the same issue: the Taiwanese did not ask the Westerners if they wanted to be picked up or if they wanted to go to dinner together. Maybe some of the Westerners wanted to sleep, or go to dinner alone, or go clubbing, or whatever. The Taiwanese thought they were being polite by deciding for their guests what they should do. I imagine that Westerners - especially in the past - were not accustomed to the Chinese habit of mixing private and professional life, so they didn't see why they should organize activities for their Asian business partners. Both sides may think they are right, and in their own way indeed they are. However, they seem unable to bridge this cultural difference.

The real problem that Westerners may have with Chinese politeness is that it is not - or not necessarily - based on mutual understanding and sincere feelings. For example, I would first ask my guests what they want and need, and then try to do my best to satisfy their wish. But perhaps I would also be just neutral and not do much for them, depending on my inner feelings towards them. Chinese politeness is, in this respect, way more ritualised, and at the same time it might be viewed by some Westerners as too cold, or too intrusive.

As we could see in the example from the Book of Rites, not being honest about one's own feelings is part of the system of Asian politeness. When children  are warned not to refuse the food or clothes their parents offer them, even if they dislike them, it is assumed that not showing one's true feelings is a filial duty. It is a filial duty to lie in order not to make one's parents unhappy. At the same time, this system creates a tendency for not caring about true feelings, but about the form in which social relationships are expressed. In fact, parents may simply not wish to know what their children really want or need, but demand from them compliance, and compliance is what makes parents happy and satisfied with heir children. In the same way, the Emperor or the Taiwanese company do not bother to understand what their guests really want, so they offer them something the guests view as superfluous. At the same time, guests are not permitted to do what they really want and have no choice at all but to comply, because if they refused they would be considered rude. So, polite behaviour in these examples is a ritualised act, detached from true feelings (though not necessarily).  

Let me give you another example. Politeness can be used in order to advance one's own interests. For instance, there is nothing easier in Taiwan than rejecting a person. You need to find an excuse, and as long as the way you do it is formally polite, the other person has to accept it. Once an older Taiwanese man asked me if I wanted to meet the daughter of one of his friends (this is the custom of match-making). I said that I preferred not to, because we might not get along and in this case it would be embarrassing. But he smiled and said: "Don't think too much. If you don't like her and she asks you to go out again, you can just say you're busy."

In fact, it is as simple as this. There are dozens of methods to have your own way within the system of politeness. Because in Asia, politeness often means emotional distance, it means that one abides by certain norms dictated by social roles, but one can find ways to bend these norms to one's own advantage. While I, according to my character, would feel guilty to reject a person - most especially if it's a friend of a friend - in such an open way, here it is customary and one needs not feel guilty about it as long as the formal rules of politeness are respected. If I had met that girl, her behaviour would have been polite, but not truthful. She would have known that she might not see me again, and she wouldn't have said much about her true feelings or important things about her life. There would have been an enormous emotional distance between the two of us, wrapped in a veil of politeness. We might have found each other boring, disagreeable, annoying or whatever, but we would have endured the situation by being polite, and then we wouldn't have met each other again. And if we had met again and got closer, only then would she have slowly shown her true self. This is often perceived by foreigners as a sort of deception, because you won't get to know a person the first time / times you meet. Furthermore, the difference between true self and polite self can be huge, depending on the individual.

In view of the social and hierarchical nature of politeness, you will find that the same person might act in completely different ways when interacting with different people. I have myself witnessed a number of people who were extremely nice to me because we weren't close, but they were mean or aggressive to other people. Once I met an old couple and their two daughters. The wife was very friendly to me. But as I got to know them better, I was shocked by the fact that she would tease her husband in front of others, and that she would complain openly that her elder daughter was still unmarried. This is because parents are hierarchically higher than children. Children are expected to accept parents' criticism silently. It is assumed that children are parents' 'own thing', and they can criticize freely because they are trying to 'make their children better' (i.e., transforming them according to their own wishes). 

For example, see how a girl from Shanghai describes parental pressure:

Parents want to get involved in your relationship as much as they can. When you date they want to know, where did you go and what did you do? They want details about how the relationship is going and they try to offer you advice. Girls especially value what their parents think of their boyfriends, and if they do not approve the girl may not be happy. I don't have a boyfriend now and my parents are going crazy, so they're telling me everyday, 'You're almost 24, you should be going out to find a boyfriend. Your career is secondary to your marriage.' They think I should prioritize my goals in life and make finding a boyfriend my first priority. It's annoying for me to hear them talk like that because I want to get a degree. Their intentions are good, but they're based on their own judgement and experience and they are trying to force their ideas on me and prove my own ideas are wrong. I try not to discuss this issue with them. Still, it's much different than in the countryside, where the marriage is usually arranged and the girl only meets the boy once or twice before they get married (Burger 2012, pp. 35-36).

What might puzzle and distress Westerners is, I believe, the co-existence of rudeness and politeness in the same person. Because politeness depends on social role, politeness is not expected in every situation. For instance, Chinese/Taiwanese customers can be extremely demanding, or rude. Parents  may put pressure on their children, criticise them so fiercely that some Westerners couldn't even imagine it. "You're too ugly," "You should find a boyfriend," "You should study hard" etc. etc. Or try to tell your Chinese/Taiwanese boss you don't want to work overtime and the law protects you - then you will see what happens with politeness!
I will explain in the second part of this post why these phenomena are aspects of a deep difference in traditional moral values between West and East, differences that at times cause numerous misunderstandings and grievances. 

Let us now talk briefly about the Western understanding of politeness.

The English word 'polite' is almost two thousand years younger than its Chinese counterpart. It appeared in the 15th century and described a person 'of refined and courteous' manners. Politeness was understood as the manners that existed in the upper classes (D'Hondt / Oestman / Verschueren 2009, p. 158). 

However, there is no clear definition of what politeness means in Western culture, most especially because politeness never had a unanimously accepted status or validity. One explanation of this is that Western societies were never based on the same kind of hierarchy and social roles as China, and East Asia in general. 

This doesn't mean that there was no hierarchy or no collectivism in the West, on the contrary. Religions or political ideologies such as nationalism were per definition collectivist; European medieval societies were extremely hierarchical, perhaps even more than China ever was; political regimes like fascism or Communism, too, were hierarchical. The real difference is that the West never had a hierarchy and social roles based on clans and social ritualism. Western families were way more fluid than their Chinese counterparts, they changed rapidly through the centuries, and they never had such a strong codified submission of parents to children, filial duties or family rituals as was the case in the Confucian tradition. 

Therefore, in Western societies politeness and social rules usually did not go beyond the function of showing well-breeding and refinement. The purpose of politeness in the West was to distinguish individuals, to show their refinement, well-breeding and moral principles. Chinese politeness creates a code of behaviour that unifies society in the observance of rituals; Western politeness is a standard by which an individual can distinguish him- or herself from others by showing through manners the goodness of his or her character. However, politeness was never unanimously accepted exactly because of its vagueness. "How can one express his or her true self through a set of standardised rules?" - from a Western point of view, this has always been a major concern regarding politeness because such set of rules often risks to lead to insincerity.

In recent times the importance of politeness further diminished. I would argue that in contemporary Western societies, politeness is not considered a key value, mostly because it is associated with negative characteristics such as 'hypocrisy' or 'fakeness'. Therefore, politeness does not enjoy a unanimously accepted status as a core social value:

Some people feel that polite behaviour is equivalent to socially 'correct' or appropriate behaviour; others consider it to be the hallmark of the cultivated man or woman. Some might characterise a polite person as always been considerate towards other people; others might suggest that a polite person is self-effacing. There are even people who classify polite behaviour negatively, characterising it with such terms as 'standoffish', 'haughty', 'insincere' etc. (see Watts 2003).

I shall argue that the main difference between Western and Asian politeness lies exactly in the concept of 'sincerity' and of 'empathy'. Asking someone to do something the other doesn't want to do, and expecting compliance out of politeness is not seen as 'polite' in the West. A 19th century American manual of politeness and good manners may shed some light on this aspect:

Remember [...] “once a gentleman always a gentleman,” and be sure that you can so carry out the rule, that in your most careless, joyous moments, when freest from the restraints of etiquette, you can still be recognizable as a gentleman by every act, word, or look. Avoid too great a restraint of manner. Stiffness is not politeness, and, while you observe every rule, you may appear to heed none. To make your politeness part of yourself, inseparable from every action, is the height of gentlemanly elegance and finish of manner (Cecil B. Hartley. The Gentlemen's Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, Introduction). 
Real politeness is the outward expression of the most generous impulses of the heart. It enforces unselfishness, benevolence, kindness, and the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would others should do unto you.” Thus its first principle is love for the neighbor, loving him as yourself. When in society it would often be exceedingly difficult to decide how to treat those who are personally disagreeable to us, if it were not for the rules of politeness, and the little formalities and points of etiquette which these rules enforce. These evidences of polite breeding do not prove hypocrisy, as you may treat your most bitter enemy with perfect courtesy, and yet make no protestations of friendship. 
If politeness is but a mask, as many philosophers tell us, it is a mask which will win love and admiration, and is better worn than cast aside. If you wear it with the sincere desire to give pleasure to others, and make all the little meetings of life pass off smoothly and agreeably, it will soon cease to be a mask, but you will find that the manner which you at first put on to give pleasure, has become natural to you, and wherever you have assumed a virtue to please others, you will find the virtue becoming habitual and finally natural, and part of yourself. Do not look upon the rules of etiquette as deceptions. They are just as often vehicles for the expression of sincere feeling, as they are the mask to conceal a want of it [...]. 
While a favor may be doubled in value, by a frankly courteous manner of granting it, a refusal will lose half its bitterness if your manner shows polite regret at your inability to oblige him who asks the favor at your hand. Politeness may be extended to the lowest and meanest, and you will never by thus extending it detract from your own dignity. A gentleman may and will treat his washerwoman with respect and courtesy, and his boot-black with pleasant affability, yet preserve perfectly his own position. To really merit the name of a polite, finished gentleman, you must be polite at all times and under all circumstances (ibid. Chapter II; my emphasis).

These aspects of politeness explained by the author are, as I have already mentioned, not universally accepted by Westerners. However, I believe that they are at least unconsciously understood, and that a person behaving according to these rules would at least be respected in the West. 

We can see that the purpose of politeness was not to be fake, or to comply with social roles, but to show one's true heart through a refined and courteous attitude that would inspire respect. One can even show to an enemy one's dislike and be polite at the same time. Accordingly, the author stresses the need that politeness should become an integral part of an individual, and not just a formal act. Furthermore, the author makes clear that a polite person must always be polite, and that a polite person should not act impolitely even with people hierarchically inferior. The lack of a hierarchical understanding of politeness and the emphasis on a connection between true feelings and polite manners seem to me to be a major difference between Western and Eastern thought. 

As a consequence, it is true that Asian people may be polite in certain situations. It is also true that one can hardly find anyone in Asia who will be rude to strangers. On the other hand, politeness in Asia can hardly be seen as  a reflection of a person's inner feelings, of a person's true heart. On the contrary, there might be, on average, more impolite people in the West. However, in the West politeness or impoliteness are a result of a person's character. Consequently, a polite Westerner will probably tend to be like that in all situations of life. As far as I am concerned, when I was in Europe it was easier for me to distinguish the people who I thought I could truly get along with or not, because their behaviour at least hinted at who they really were.
In Asia many if not all people are polite in certain situations, above all when they are not close to someone, but politeness does not necessarily show their true self. This makes it hard to see through them and understand what character they really have.

Certainly, Chinese politeness also aims at sincerity, but in my view, to a far lesser extent. Chinese politeness seems to me rather role-specific. A customer can be extremely coarse to a shop assistant, yet be very polite to a stranger; a mother can be rude and aggressive to her children, but submissive with her parents-in-law; a girl may be sweet and friendly with her employer, but mean to her boyfriend etc. I'm not saying that everybody is like this. What I am saying is that Western politeness is supposed to reveal the true heart of a person; Asian politeness is not supposed to reveal true feelings, but the wisdom of someone who understands social roles properly and acts according to them.

Because of this difference, the sensibilities of Westerners and Asians differ, as well, and they might involuntarily hurt each other because they do not deeply understand each other's standards and values.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Cool Foreigners, Crazy Foreigners - The Perception of Westerners in China /Taiwan and the Limits of Integration

This morning I stumbled upon an interesting article on lostlaowai. The website reported on something that happened in Chengdu: a Westerner (in Chinese often called 老外, pinyin: lǎowài) shouted furiously at a bus driver who apparently had not stopped to let him get in. The foreigner had to run after the bus and in the process he got his trousers dirty. When the driver opened the door, the guy stepped in and began to heap on him a flow of angry words in a mix of Chinese, English and another language.

Had he expected that, in the era of smartphones, the fit of anger of a Westerner in China would not to go viral within a few hours? If he did expect such a thing, he was wrong. In fact, a passenger shot a video of the screaming laowai and posted it online. The mad laowai became yet another internet sensation, yet another example of a 'crazy foreigner'.

The expatriate community criticized him, though not unanimously, for damaging with his behaviour the reputation of Westerners in China. I think that this incident, which is one of similar episodes that have been reported online in recent years, reveals the extent of the love-hatred relationship between Westerners and Chinese.

The Laowai and the Local Environment

Let me say that although I think that the reaction of the Western guy in the video was way too extreme, a part of me does understand him. I explained in previous posts that Chinese people tend to have an attitude towards strangers that I would sum up in the sentence: "This is none of my business". People drive like crazy? "None of my business". Your neighbour who lives on the top floor built an illegal house on the rooftop that is supposed to be common space? "None of my business". Someone talks so loud in a cafe' that you can barely hear your own voice? "None of my business." A shop owner puts tables, chairs and a food stand in the middle of the pavement and people can barely walk? Again, "none of my business."

I have written a post about cyclists' misconduct in Taipei. They ride their bikes on the pavement among pedestrians, regardless of the great danger. Bikes come so close to you that accidents are a matter of a few centimeters. Another example are people standing right in front of the door of underground trains while there is a lot of space left. This happens quite a lot of times. I can imagine what would happen in Germany: people would simply criticize the cyclists, they would stop them and tell them to be careful. And if someone blocked a door, people would tell him or her.

If I were in Berlin, and I took the underground, and I happened to stand in front of the exit door, barring the way to the passengers who want to get off, they would show to me that I am not considerate. Once the following scene happened to me. I was wearing a backpack and I was blocking part of the exit door. An old woman looked at me and said: "Young man, do you really have to stand in front of the door with this backpack? Take it off!" "Sorry," I said smiling, but my smile immediately froze into a grimace when I saw the hard, uncompromising look in her eyes. "Yeah, sorry," she said with a sneer. Then I got angry myself and turned away.

Well, this doesn't happen every day, of course, and not everyone is like that woman. But in Germany, in Italy and - I dare say - in the whole of Europe, it is not uncommon for strangers to criticize each other. Another example (the last I shall give, because I think I've already made myself clear) is what happened to me in Italy last January.

Because of a strike (yet another one, yes!) many trains of Rome's underground were delayed. I waited for a train for about twenty minutes, and while I was standing on the platform, a huge crowd gathered, and all of us were pissed off because we had to wait twenty minutes instead of the usual five or six. When the train finally arrived, it was already full. Everyone tried to get into a carriage, squeezing themselves between the other passengers. You could feel that we were all totally annoyed by this situation, and angry at the public transport, the strikers, the politicians, the economy and I don't know how many other things that go wrong. 

I was one of the first in the line, so I managed to sneak inside and move to the centre of the carriage. Then suddenly the general anger got out of control. A woman who had pushed herself inside had bumped into another woman, who turned towards her and said: "Don't you see that I am standing here? Do you think I am made of thin air and if you touch me I'll disappear? There is just no place for you in the carriage!"
A battle of words ensued, which none of them won, I believe. They just wanted to vent their anger, and I guess they did it in such a way.

I am not suggesting that all Europeans quarrel with each other all the time. My point is that this sort of things do happen. Many people apparently think that being rude to strangers is acceptable.

Now, the Chinese attitude is to avoid confrontation with strangers at all costs, unless it is absolutely necessary. They want to avoid trouble, but they also tend to keep a huge distance from strangers. That is way people seldom talk or smile to each other, help each other open a door etc. Don't get me wrong, people do help one another in certain situations; what they will absolutely avoid is confrontational interaction with strangers. Unless it is a serious situation, they will just mind their own business and look away if something happens.

For instance, one day I went to the Zoo in Taipei, I and my friends lined up, and behind us there was a middle-aged man who kept on touching us inadvertently with his foot or his bag or his arm, because he apparently was very impatient and wanted to go as far as possible in the line. If I had been alone, or if I had been in Europe and the man had been European, I would have just said something because I think he shouldn't behave like that. But my Taiwanese friends, though they found it annoying, too, did not tell him anything: first of all, because he was a stranger, and second, because he was older. 

In general, people here don't want to get into trouble by starting a fight with someone they don't know, so they'll let it be. This has its good sides;  for example, most people will leave you alone. However, there is a difference between different parts of the Chinese-speaking world. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, this attitude also means that you will be very safe and no one will harm you. In certain parts of mainland China, probably because of the poverty, that might not be the case. 

Although Chinese people tend to be cautious when dealing with strangers, they can also be direct, aggressive and even rude in other situations, most especially towards the people they know and towards people hierarchically inferior to them. Parents can be very harsh to their children; girlfriends to boyfriends and vice versa; friends to friends; bosses to employees etc. In Europe, I mostly had fight with strangers, but in Taiwan I had trouble with the people I was close to. For them, it is incomprehensible that someone might get angry at a stranger, but if it happens in other circumstances it is acceptable; for us, if a friend shouts at us because we have come late, or if they blame us because we have no girlfriend or boyfriend, we might found that very tasteless (bear in mind I'm oversimplifying).

As a consequence of this, many foreigners like me are sometimes frustrated because we see things that we don't like and we wish to vent our anger. For example, one day I was on a bus. The driver suddenly braked and a woman almost fell down. I think that it would have been justifiable to remind the driver that the safety of the passengers comes first; but no one said anything.  Another, pettier example is what happened to me last week in the MRT. A middle-aged woman was sitting right beside me. She kept on swaying her foot back and forth. Many Taiwanese do such things as a sort of exercise to improve blood circulation (at least that's what I've heard). I looked at her several times to show her that she was too close to me and her foot might hit me. But she didn't get it. And at last, her foot struck my leg. She smiled and said sorry. But I thought: "You could have been careful and avoided it; it was obvious that this might happen." Honestly, I have adapted myself to the local habit of letting things go. But there are moments when I get very impatient, for example when people talk on the phone in the library (or even listen to music and sing... sigh!), when cyclists come too close to me etc.

I wonder why that foreigner in Chengdu got so angry; was it because he is a crazy guy, or had he accumulated a lot of frustration, or did he just want to show his anger to the bus driver so that he might think twice the next time before ignoring a passenger waiting at a bus stop?

Love and Hatred

I have heard a lot of things about foreigners here in Taiwan, and I have come to realize how deep misunderstandings between the two cultures are, and how much fascination and repulsion, curiosity and indifference, goodwill and rejection co-exist and shape the imagination of both sides. At the beginning, people said to me that foreigners were welcomed in Taiwan, which is certainly true to a great extent. But somehow, there is also a lot of diffidence and resentment. 

The first time I became aware of this phenomenon was in Germany. I met a Chinese student who one day complained that his university in China had built a cafeteria that provided Western food for the foreign students. He thought that his country was too nice to foreigners, and that they took advantage of it. After all, why can't foreigners eat Chinese food and live like locals?

In Taiwan, too, I heard a few times Taiwanese saying: "We are too nice to foreigners". I believe that here lie a lot of misunderstandings. First of all, what Chinese perceive as nice may not be perceived as nice by foreigners. For instance, it is true that foreigners at some Chinese universities have some privileges; but it is also true that the fees for foreigners are higher. On the other hand, German universities are not always nice to foreign students, but they treat them like German students. I studied in Berlin, and all of us, no matter if German, European or non-European, paid no fees at all. So, would the German university be nicer if it gave foreigners special food and the staff smiled at them and treated them well, but made them pay fees? I guess it depends on the perspective. Perhaps Westerners would willingly accept to live like locals, if they were also allowed to pay like locals.

Similarly, some Taiwanese I met when I came here were nice to me. But mostly, they were very nice at the beginning, especially the first time, and they said they would help me if I needed something etc. But actually, very few of them ever helped me or had any time. Which is okay, I don't mind. But I found the difference between how they present themselves as helpful and nice, and the actual fact they neither have the time nor the patience to actually help, quite striking. I'm not implying that Europeans are nicer. But hopefully Europeans don't say they are too nice to foreigners, because that would be one of the biggest lies in history.

Basically, Taiwanese often times see Westerners as too arrogant, unreliable, pleasure-seeking and rude. At the same time, Westerners enjoy a positive image: cool, interesting, open-minded and a bunch of other things. These different perceptions circulate in the society simultaneously, can be interchangeable, can even be expressed by the same person. 

The image of the arrogant foreign teacher that comes to Taiwan to enjoy girls and easy money and who doesn't care about the local culture, or the image of the arrogant foreign worker who disregards even the basic rules of decency, exist in the collective perception though they are by no means shared by a majority (I believe).

In mainland China, the situation is often more complex than in Taiwan due to the political frictions and the memory of Western colonialism. In 2012, for example, the internet company Baidu and the forum "jointly launched a campaign with Sina Weibo [...] calling on Internet users to expose bad behavior by foreigners in China" (note). This campaign was a consequence of an episode that had happened in May, when a British national allegedly molested a Chinese woman and was detained. 

The same year, the Chinese government tightened control on foreigners who entered China illegally or overstayed their visa. Chen Tianben, associate professor with the Chinese People's Public Security University, stated that: "Apart from the clash of different cultures, some foreigners behave badly or even engage in criminal activities. Those who violate Chinese laws will also be punished as no one has privilege in front of the law."

That is certainly true and I am not saying that foreigners who break the law should be left unpunished. I am simply stating that this is another proof of the love-hatred relationship, and of a certain degree of over-generalization, between Westerners and Chinese. 

I myself keep on receiving offensive blog comments from Taiwanese, such as the following one: "white trashes stop writing blog and bring more white motherfucker to my country, i will kill some of you to bring up the motherfucking racistism over here, white cunt on". Of course, I don't publish this sort of comments, and I am absolutely certain that people like this one are perhaps 0,01% of the Taiwanese population. Nevertheless, a certain kind of resentment, diffidence and misunderstanding does exist, and being called 'white trash' or 'white scum' when I open my comment section, does not make me particularly happy.

How Much Integration is too Much Integration?

The real question is now: should foreigners feel that they have to prove that prejudices and stereotypes towards them are wrong? Do we have to adjust ourselves to local habits, customs and thinking? How can we cope with all those cultural differences that we may not like? Should we give ourselves up and become as similar as possible to the locals?

I will write a separate post about this topic (it's already 1:54 am here and I can barely keep my eyes open). For now, I will just say that there are foreigners who try to accept local rules and behaviours in their entirety. Others seem to be rather indifferent. While others, like me, want to find a compromise; I don't want to harm anyone or do anything that might hurt others, but I have my own standards and want to stay true to myself, no matter where I am. Besides, that is also the position that I maintain regarding foreigners in Europe. But, as I said, I'd better go to sleep now. 

If you want, take a look at the the video of the Chengdu incident: