Two Chinas (not really)

The Chinese are not unaware of the bad reputation they have. But there is a lot of denial about it. In a class about manners students are always quick to say that it is unacceptable to spit in the streets. It often comes up with my prompting it. And of course, when I ask them if people do it in China they say no, and do so with a look of guilt in their eyes.

People spit in China. People cut in line. People text while riding their mopads, motorcycles, cars, or even simple crossing the road on foot. The behavior here is just generally bad. I am not here to judge anyone for it, but just to state it as fact. As I mentioned above there is a fair amount of denial about this behavior, but when it is acknowledged a scapegoat is brought out.


Being a huge and recently developed country, China has a seeming unending supply of migrants from the country’s poor interior. These people have little to no education and come to the cities to muck everything up, because they are uncivilized. Or so, that’s what your students will tell you when you catch someone peeing in the streets in broad daylight in front of a public elementary school in the city center.

I should say that this is not entirely a red herring. I once got to the horrible shopping center where I work and found a family waiting by the elevators. Problem was, they hadn’t pressed any buttons. They were merely waiting for the elevator as if the thing was meant to open for them as if by magic. I pressed the button, and when the doors opened they scrambled on and didn’t push any buttons again. With just a few inches before the doors closed they noticed a family member left on the other side, and they tried pry it open before being intimidated by the chrome veneer. They got off with me on the fourth floor, only to look around, realize this is not where they would like to be, and got back on the elevator. God love their souls, I believe they are still on that elevator.

It bears repeating; the migrants exist. But they are not the only ones guilty of supposedly uncivilized behavior.

One of the worst things that could happen is a reflection in the very infrastructure in China of places that would emphasize this notion of two kinds of Chinese people; uncivilized migrants and everyone else. Well, I found one example of this. If you take the metro to Hangzhou’s train station the exit will leave you in the station’s basements near the arrival gates. A number of ticket offices can be found there. They are massive places, and there are easily one or two hundred people in each room. Many of them are poor migrants, which you can recognize by the poor clothes they wear, the giant bags and packages filled with heaven knows what, their gap-toothed smiles or the huge, thickly knuckled hands that show a lifetime of working the land. And the place is a hot mess; bare-assed children run around, people march obliviously to the front of the line, many people are smoking, spiting, or screaming into their phone. Closer to the front of the line you will notice that a person has a stack of ID cards, and is buying train tickets for every person in his extended family and his elementary school badminton team. You’ll be in that line an hour easily.

Now this morning I was speaking to my flatmate who convinced me to forgo the busses and simply take a cab to the train station. I agreed, because frankly I found the notion of the busses to be unpleasant. The cab will take you right to a top floor foyer of the train station, where the departures are. Without asking he dropped me off right at the ticket office on this top floor, which I had no idea existed. I walked in and immediately noticed that it was significantly smaller than the ones I had seen several floors down. I then noticed that everyone there was much better dressed. There were no people carrying massive sacks of goods, nor sun-bronzed skin and gap-toothed smiles. Clearly, this upstairs ticket office was meant for middle class China, and the downstairs one was meant for the lower classes.

Ok, this is a wild ass accusation. I recognize this. But I think it is certainly worth considering. But there is a larger point, and that is that there was no damn change in behavior between the two. IN the upper, middle class ticket office, people still spat on the floor, people still cut in line, people still bought tickets for everyone in their high school badminton team, and it was just a shit experience, in general. It was merely a little nicer of a facility than the downstairs one.

You’ll hear it pulled out a lot, that China is the mess it is because of the poor migrants from the still undeveloped parts. Not a word of it is true.

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