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October 17, 2014

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Stereotyping Chinese as spitters is easy

SPITTING, screaming and littering in public seem to be so patently characteristic of Chinese that many people may recall “absence of public spirit” — a phrase American missionary Arthur Henderson Smith (1845-1932) used to describe Chinese as he knew them in 1890.

In his thought-provoking book “Chinese Characteristics” (published in 1890), he mainly talked about lack of attention to or care about maintenance of roads on the part of either the government or the public in China at that time. He also talked about street vendors’ occupation of public space and about rank-and-files’ disinterest in politics.

‘Profound indifference’

Instead of acknowledging those problems as temporary, the renowned missionary claimed “there is the best reason to think that, whatever the dynasty might happen to be, the feeling of the mass of the nation would be the same as it is now — a feeling of profound indifference.”

If he lived today, he would have no problem attributing spitting, screaming and littering in public to “a feeling of profound indifference” that he believed to be patently Chinese, although lack of attention to or care about road maintenance has proven a page turned over.

It’s easy to label one people or one nation as such and such, just because some members of the people or the nation have behaved as such and such. Labeling is dangerous for two reasons: It mistakes a tree for a forest, and it doesn’t focus on problem solving.

Take spitting, screaming and littering in public, for example. Indeed, some (one may say many) Chinese often do these, but do all Chinese act this way? Have we tried patiently to solve these problems except for pointing a finger at the wrongdoers? Too often I have heard my fellow countrymen and foreigners accusing these wrongdoers as hopelessly shameful. But, accusation always errs on the side of bias and accusation alone — as many onlookers are fond of — doesn’t help solve a problem.

On September 29, I received a phone call from a Taiwanese reader who now lives in the United States, who complained for about one hour how deplorable and despicable Chinese on the mainland are for their “absence of public spirit.” He complained about Chinese mainlanders screaming and spitting in public, about their refusal to give a seat to the elderly, about environmental pollution.

For about one hour, I listened patiently, chipping in now and then with soft words of condolence. In the end, the gentleman nicely said to me: “Thank you for not having hung up my phone.” I would have hung up the gentleman’s phone if I lacked empathy or sympathy toward a reader.

I explained to him, in soft tone, that the problems he discovered were temporary and thus would solve themselves over time. For instance, I said, rapid urbanization on a large scale has brought myriad peasants into the city, who would take time to change their habit of speaking loudly in public. You seldom see educated Shanghainese screaming in public. As for giving a seat to the elderly, I assured the reader that on my way to and from work, I see young people giving seats to elderly passengers on subways and buses everyday. On pollution, I said this is indeed a sad situation but China is tackling it.

‘Can-do’ spirit

In answering his call, I actually found a “can-do” spirit in myself. China is imperfect: smog, spitting, screaming, you name it. But can we do something about it? Yes we can.

Last week, I saw two cars parking on the road in my residential compound. I immediately called our community security guards and wished they could do something about it. In 10 minutes, the head of the security service found the car owners and escorted them with smile until they moved their cars to designated underground parking lots.

On September 29, on my way home, I noticed a loudspeaker blasting out inaudible statements amid the hustle and bustle of crowds of subway passengers. I advanced to the young lady, a subway clerk, and suggested with a smile that they improve the broadcasting quality so that passengers could hear clearly.

Seeing me smiling, she burst into laughter as well: “To be frank, I can’t hear it clearly either!” Then she took away the loudspeaker. The next day, I came again. It was another lady, another loudspeaker. Every word from the loudspeaker came out slowly and clearly: “During rush hour, please exit from Gate 8 instead of Gate 9.”

On September 19, on my way to work, a young passenger fainted and fell on our subway, his head hitting the floor with a big bang. I asked passengers to give him a seat, and so someone did.

Then a 30-ish lady called 110 and 120 for police and hospital help. A young disabled man and I helped the fainting victim walk out of the subway carriage and rest in a chair on the station platform. Police came shortly, so I dismissed myself. The young lady and the disabled man were still with police, waiting to be summoned for further help.

These cases, however trivial and sporadic, seldom find their way to daily media reports, which are often biased toward things negative. In these trivial and sporadic moments, I see character and conduct as holy as that of a saint.

Stop pointing a finger as an onlooker and self-imposed moral judge.

If you see a saint in everyone on the street, then everyone on the street will see you as a saint. Unfortunately, many people are accustomed to pointing a finger at others, rather than giving his five to others in need of help.


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