Strolling along the streets and taking taxis are always enlightening activities for someone who wants to understand how the people in a country think. That was how I recently happened to hear two Chinese expressions that I found most interesting.
The first instructive experience took place while I was crossing the street. In the Dongdaqiao area, the traffic volunteers are very conscientious and often shout at pedestrians who wish to walk on the side road originally intended for bicycles. One Chinese pedestrian was taking no notice of the traffic volunteer's injunctions, heading straight for the nearby bus stop, some 10 meters ahead. The volunteer started shouting at him, and far from politely. One of the things I heard was: "You are no Chinese!" It was obviously an insult, meaning that if you don't obey traffic rules as interpreted by traffic wardens and instead choose to walk in the bicycle lanes, you don't deserve to be Chinese.
At first I took this as simple racism, implying that foreigners don't obey rules, crossing the streets anywhere and anytime without regard for the common good. I had to laugh at that thought. Chinese traffic is without doubt the most chaotic I have ever encountered and often the topic of jokes among foreigners. So hearing the traffic warden, I was amused. A biblical phrase came to mind: "seeing the mote in one's neighbor's eye, but not the beam in one's own". The raging traffic warden continued in this vein①for some time, denouncing the pedestrian repeatedly as "no Chinese" and qualifying him as merely "a pig, or a dog". This was an enlightening performance. I at last understood that in Chinese arithmetic, zero Chinese = zero human being, and hence that one foreigner = one pig or one dog.
A bit later I was the beneficiary of further enlightenment. After five years of life in China shared with my Chinese husband, I now speak good Mandarin; taxi drivers often gosintosecstasies over it and offer congratulations. Wishing to be polite and friendly, one Beijing taxi-driver recently told me, "You are a bit more than half a Chinese." After some rapid mental arithmetic, I reached the conclusion that this meant I could constitute at most 60 percent of an honest-to-goodness Chinese, hence that I should receive a grade of 60/100 for my Mandarin. Flattered that my years of struggle with the Chinese language had raised me to such a high share of human dignity, I wondered if, by pursuing my efforts, I could approach Chineseness even more closely. I felt elevated but also started to regret my French origins. If only...②I marveled at the taxi driver's honesty and sincerity: according to the Chinese grading system, I would just be able to pass the exam for humanity.
How can the gap between Chinese and foreigners remain so large?
I sighed and took another tack. Rather than regretting my foreign origin, I began to reflect on the outdated Chinese way of looking at foreigners. After 25 years of increasing openness to the outside world, Beijingers still consider Chineseness as the standard of human conduct, and are somehow unable to view foreigners symmetrically with Chinese. After five years of voluntary adaptation to China and even more numerous years of Chinese language study, I am somewhere between "a pig or a dog" (when insulted) and "60% of a Chinese" (when complimented).
From the Editor :
Readers, you may share my view that the author has misunderstood the Chinese language here and jumped to the wrong conclusions. Certainly I believe that Chinese people respect foreigners, and the traffic volunteer mentioned in the article never meant to imply that foreigners are less than human. But imagine if you were in New York and you heard a policeman shouting at someone: "You're not an American - you're a dog, a pig!" (By the way, no one in New York would talk this way, since it's simply not an American-style insult.) How would you feel? Don't you think you might well draw the same sort of inference as Patricia H?rau?
Politeness is essential in serving the public. We should strive to respect the reasonable sensitivities of our fellow Chinese - and of all the rest of our fellow human beings.