I guess one of the biggest “culture shock” on the first day for foreigners visiting Shanghai are two things: 1) Traffic Rules, 2) Spitting. At least this is what I heard from time to time from my friends, and this 10 Things You Love/Hate About Shanghai post comments. BTW, is there any others?
For this issue, I always take it easy and want to say:
1. It is embarrassing that the situation is still as it is, but there is a historical and reality reason behind it. It has nothing to do with culture, or morality.
2. I am more confident than anybody else that the situation will change. It takes time, but not as long as two generations.
Before I tell you more about what I thought, let me quote one interesting story I heard.
Beer Can by the Highway
Today, I had a nice conversation with Richard from Cornel University. When we talked about spitting in Shanghai, he mentioned a book called The beer can by the highway: essays on what’s “American” about America. The book basically researches on what makes American “American”. He studied the trends of ever-changing culture and behavior change, and found out a shocking reality: The coolest thing American think they can do is to have a can of beer on the highway, and throw the used can out of the window to the side of the highway. The book was published in 1961 by John Kuowenhoven, not far away from today.
The book talks about the two terrible behavior from today’s point of view: Drink and drive, and litter (not to mention about waste and environment protection).
Richard also told me another impressive story. When he was in Taiwan with his father, they rent a car without seat belt. His was very upset, and his father told him that “don’t worry. People don’t wear seat belt before 1960s.”. This also echos the fact that front seat belt was only introduced as standard configuration in 1964, and 1968 for back seats. The first legalization of mandatory seat belt only happens after 1970 in one state (src).
The point was, it was not that far away in the ages when people jay walk, spit, don’t wear seat belt, drink and drive, and litter in US. It takes time for the country to progress. Although it seems very slow from the perspective of a person (it takes a generation), but it is much quicker if you put it in the history perspective (just 20 to 30 years!)
China is the same.
Jay walking? It happens so often that my foreign friends joked “It is illegal to use pedestrian in Shanghai“. I also think when people learn to drive, they may obey traffic rules better – majority of people in China don’t drive.
Spitting? It is a normal process of urbanization. When more and more move into city, they cannot afford people spit around, but it is OK in villages, especially in most of villages where fresh water is not as easily accessible as in city. Imagine the situation where I was trapped into: A Jungle without a Toilet
Seat Belt? People just get used to cars, and it takes time to learn to use it right (unfortunately it takes time, and it is inevitable). Seat-Belt? Oh. No. Thanks!. This was people’s current reaction.
It is Not Culture Shock
After writing to this point, I realized that I shouldn’t have put all these bad behaviors too easily into culture difference bucket. It is not culture shock. It is just different stage shock – US has the same thing before, and China will be OK in the future. If someone was dropped to 30 years ago, either in US or in China, he/she will be shocked by his/her own country’s “culture”.
P.S. Jeremy told me that this favorite entry on this blog is My Boat Sunk in Dishui Lake. I didn’t realize that my little sotry can make him laugh for the day. :-) I am happy that the story makes people happy, although at the cost of a small lovely boat. I still didn’t buy another one yet. I really should.