Chinese people must rein in the louts in their midst

Kelly Yang says a greater exposure to social etiquette makes it a duty of citizens to enforce social rules - but with a dose of human decency

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 12:21pm

During a recent visit to Ocean Park, my son and I stood behind a group of mainland tourists. Leading their pack was a fierce-looking guide. "Keep to yourselves, people. No pushing. No spitting. Don't save spots in lines. If you can't find where something is, look on your map. Don't bother the nice people of Hong Kong with your questions," he barked in Putonghua to his 20-something disciples, who hung their heads like kids berated by their teacher.

"Mommy, why does that guy keep yelling at those people not to spit?" my three-year-old asked me. I tried to push the scenes of Chinese tourists misbehaving out of my mind but I had to answer honestly: "Well … because sometimes they do spit." My son's eyes widened and he asked, "Why?"

Good question. When I was 12, I knew why - then, it was the lack of etiquette education; the average Chinese person knew little about the West. Yet, every time I went back to China for a holiday, I saw beyond the spitting and shouting. I saw people's kindness, warmth and generosity. I saw a people thirsty for knowledge, people who may be a little rough around the edges but, inside, had hearts of gold.

No other person stood up to the smoker, not even the driver, because they were afraid

Seventeen years later, these hearts of gold are getting hard to see. Chinese people now dominate the list of incoming foreigners to the US at university level. Chinese children now know more than I do about Western culture through watching TV. Yet, still the spitting and littering continue.

Five tonnes of trash were left by the 110,000 spectators who went to Tiananmen Square to celebrate National Day. China's Silver Beach in Beihai , Guangxi , once known as "China's No 1 beach", is now littered with plastic bottles, condom wrappers and more.

What is it going to take to correct this lack of consideration? It's going to take courage from every citizen. Recently, my father was on a bus while on holiday in his hometown of Tianjin , when he noticed a man smoking. He pointed out the "No Smoking" signs and told the man to put out the cigarette. The man shrugged and kept on smoking. Even after my father pointed to the pregnant woman sitting beside him and the elderly man struggling to breathe amid the fumes, the man kept smoking.

No other person stood up to the smoker, not even the driver, largely because they were afraid the man might cause trouble for them if they complained.

Chinese people need to overcome this fear if they want to protect what remains beautiful in their lovely country. If they need instruction on how to stand up to inappropriate behaviour, they need look no further than Hong Kong. If anything, Hongkongers sometimes go overboard in the fight to preserve the rule of the queue.

A few months ago, when I was heavily pregnant, not a single person let me go in front of them in the taxi line. "What? Am I supposed to let every single huge pregnant lady get my taxi?" asked one annoyed businessman in Central.

Yes, perhaps you should. It may be jumping the queue. But it's the right thing to do, because sometimes human decency trumps rules. For the other 99 per cent of the time, we need rules and we need every man, woman and child to help enforce all these societal standards.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.