They want to help. They really want to help. And whether you want it or not, they are going to help. It’s one of the best things about being in China, and one of the worst. There are always people around willing to lend a hand. And not just willing. They are determined.

When we went to the Longmen Grottoes last Friday, we did our usual thing of strolling out of the station and looking a bit lost. In the past this has meant being instantly accosted by touts shouting random words at us. (I don’t mind the shouting. There’s one creepy guy who sidles up to you at Gongyi station, looking shady. He whispers “taxi” like he’s trying to sell crack.) We just tend to keep walking until the scrum dissipates and we can work out what to do. This time though, it was just one young woman. She was very polite and patiently explained that she was a volunteer, organising free buses for tourists. Bit suspicious, right?

We took a bit of convincing, of course, but everything seemed cool. There were Chinese tourists already in the minivan, seemingly none the worse for the freebie, and we assumed that our money/passports/kidneys would still be with us by the end of the day. She rushed off to find a few more people and came across an Australian family. Maybe we were just too trusting, or they were too cynical, but they were having none of it. They immediately decided it was a con. She became adamant and told them it was easier than getting the bus. They became more suspicious and asked why she was trying to convince them. She claimed to really want to help and it was her determination that ended up driving them away.

When a friend and I went to stay with a student’s family for a few days we were subjected to the full force of Chinese hospitality. From the moment we were woken up in the morning (woken up to ensure we had enough time to get ready before being carted off somewhere), we were bombarded with questions. Is there enough hot water? What do you want for breakfast? Have you eaten enough? Are you tired? Do you want to sit down? Do you need the toilet? What do you want for lunch? Do you want me to carry your bag? Eating at restaurants was when it got really difficult. They would hand us the menu and insist that we order, even after we’d explained, time and again, that we couldn’t read Chinese.

And it doesn’t end there. I’ve had cigarettes forced on me. I’ve felt obliged to knock back any number of drinks (I’m not complaining too much about that one…). I’ve been so stuffed full of food that I couldn’t move (or that…). I’ve been bustled from seat to seat to seat on a packed bus for a better view. I’ve had amateur tour guides follow me around all day, struggling to explain things in broken English. Parents have made their kids stand before insisting I take a seat. Friends have haggled for me, taking ages to get a few RMB off. I made the mistake of mentioning that I’d like a map for my wall once, and got taken all over town in search of one. Never mind that I wasn’t that interested.

I’m told it’s a face thing. I’ve only been in the Middle Kingdom since August and still haven’t got to grips with it. I’m wondering if I ever will. Sometimes it just seems to be a heightened sense of embarrassment so I try not to laugh too much when people trip over. As far as hospitality goes, I’ve heard that it’s important for people to be seen as good hosts. I’m a guest in China, wherever I go, but when I just want to be left alone for a bit, how can I refuse someone’s help without offending them?


  1. Pingback: Lost Laowai « Tom Bradman

  2. I thought that sort of hospitality and good host-manship had ceased at some point during the 90’s, or certainly after people became more consumerist. Anyway, there’s a lot to be said for the tactic of ‘keep walking’ or looking nonchalant and definitely not looking lost! I pulled it off at Xian station at rush hour (well, 8am …) and with no Mandarin to speak of, found myself in a taxi asking to be taken to Emperor Jingdi’s tomb. Awful butterflies in tummy wondering if I’d get there or back. Just goes to show the effectiveness of fingerpointing and a guidebook with place names in Chinese! Very nice young male taxi driver. Shame we couldn’t converse more.

    • The “China Contradiction”. I think they both are 🙂

      I think this line in her article sums it up:

      In all seriousness though, I realise that the experiences I had there were partly my fault.

      I stayed only in tourist areas and I went at a time where I was completely exhausted and just wanted to sit and do nothing for weeks.

      I didn’t have the energy or the patience to deal with China.

      All of the small, irritating things that normally wouldn’t bother me ended up infuriating me and driving me absolutely insane. I just couldn’t cope with it.

      China, more than anything else, requires a crap load of patience. Tom’s post above (great post by the way Tom, and welcome to Lost Laowai!) is also a fantastic example of this. Tom seems to have been able to take it all in stride, but it wouldn’t be hard to switch any one of the above around, add in a bit of lost-patience and put them in the “bad China day” column. That Aussie couple is probably telling their friends the story of how they narrowly escaped some scam that very nearly ruined their trip 🙂

    • Yep, apart from being scammed in Shanghai, everything she mentioned has happened to me at least once. I’ve only just recovered from a bout of ‘digestive cramps’ in fact, which is a much nicer way to describe it than the terms I’ve been using. I’m sure at some point I’ll get round to writing my China rant, and it’s bound to include the toddler who peed on the table in KFC while his grandmother watched. Not a good day to be hungover.

      If all of my bad experiences here had been condensed into a fortnight, then I think I might have lost it as well. Luckily, I’m living on a quiet campus, with a nice, big apartment I can hide in when everything gets too much. Travelling around China isn’t something I’d describe as a relaxing experience, not on the whole anyway. For me, it’s about 10% relaxing, 40% fascinating (I’m a glutton for history), 10% tasty, 10% charming, 15% hassle, and 15% absolute, bloody nightmare.

  3. Totally agree with all said. After living here nearly 4 years I have to say to Tom that I have found what he is experiencing dies down somewhat. I love the patience and growth I’ve gained living here, but I hate the cynicism which I feel. Ahh it can only all make you stronger…right??

  4. One thing I learned that patience is a virtue almost neglected to be mentioned. I have had many people do go out of the way to be kind and considerated especially if you are a foreign stranger.

    I at first felt I was this pompous ass that felt I was taking advantage of their kindness but I have come to learn that it is natural for Chinese to be gracious hosts. However I still get those guilty feelings sometimes when I seem to coddled while another Chinese citizen gets ignored or worse, shafted.

    This reminds me when me and my wife went to the city of Dazu to look at the famous stone carvings there. When we arrived there as a tour group, I was whisked with a Spaniard couple and German gentleman (who can read, write, and speak very good Mandarin) by our tour guide for our own special tour. We were told by the German man that the tour guide had arranged a special tour for us when the tour guide found out we were foreingers. This tour would be presented with a good English speaking guide, we would go to the carvings at our pace and not be hurried like the Chinese had to deal with. Plus we would be on our little group and take as many pictures and video recording without people gettig in the way and ruining the shot. At first I did not want to participate because I did not want to give the impression to the other chinese, that we rode with in the tour bus,that we were being the typical foreigners “demanding” special privilages. My wife told me not to worry since is normal for chinese to try to impress foreigners with hospitality and not be harangued with being in a crowd. Anyway I enjoyed the seperate but unequal tour because our groups consisted of just six people instead of fifty in a crowded 10’x10′ settings. The other thing I noticed was our earpieces that were loaned to us were brand new, worked great compared to what the rest of the chinese tourist has to use. The female guide for the rock carvings was a lot more pleasant and friendly than the ones that had to work with the chinese tourists.

    I must say that being hospitable is great but since I grew up in the US, with the saying “there are no free lunches”, I still in my back of the mind get suspicious from this kindness like everybody else. I must say when I go back to the US, I will definately miss the kindness and looking after I received in China and I might have to program myself back to living as an American with its own set of headaches.

  5. RE: your map fiasco

    I also have had to learn to curb my curiosity. Anytime I ask about anything in particular one of my Chinese friends/hosts are bound to interpret it as me asking for that thing. Especially bad in restaraunts when there’s already too much food on the table and you are just making conversation about things that never get eaten back home!

Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Return to Top ▲Return to Top ▲