How China Is Making Me Into a Worse Person

You think you can shove past me in the line at the airport or at the bank? Think again, buster.

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, in addition to pulverizing me in a physical sense, this China stint is making me worse as a human being. I’ll kick off the series with the most obvious transformation; I already have three or four others in mind and fear there will be many more installments to come.

1) 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. They, or 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 goddamned way! I mentioned in the Atlantic the Hobbesian struggle to get in and out of subway cars. 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.

Also see:

Postcards From Tomorrow Square (December 2006)
James Fallows samples budget beer, survives subway scrimmages, and lives the contradictions of China's breakneck modernization.
James Fallows's Web site, with regularly updated dispatches, and information about his writings and appearances.

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.