Beer Can by the Highway vs Spitting

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).

Seat Belt?

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.

13 thoughts on “Beer Can by the Highway vs Spitting

  1. I don’t like to commment so much about this as I am also a Chinese. But from Malaysia. When I visited Hang Zhou and Shanghai on my own, I always remind myself not to sit at any stairways when ever I am tired. The reason is because the mainland chinese spit anywhere they wish. They started with a loud coughing sound, than spit off right infront of everybody. I am surprise no body seems to care or take a turn to look at it as it is so common in China as if it’s their tradition.

    Secondly, they throw rubbish as and where they are. Mostly food or tissue papers, even though there are bins around and near.

    Thirdly, they always speak very loud as if they are quarelling even though they are close to each other.

    Final comment, they smoke in public places and around children. And hopefully, the trader restraint from putting high and rediculous prices on their products.

    So far, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Suzhou and Nanjing is a very nice and clean city, and good infrastructure. Only certain people need to make improvement about it.

  2. JS, I agree with your comment that China is only ‘slightly’ behind in social norm when compared to the world.

    If the ruling party in China still using the passive and operant conditioning method to educate their citizens about the contemporary norm, then China will be lagging behind almost forever. If a team of social police is deployed mix with massive propaganda to penalise and educate those ‘bugs’, I am sure China will become much ‘civilised’. This is the classical conditioning which can be painful during process but often used during ‘Culture Revolution’.

    In the ’70, Hong Kong conducted several campaigns against ‘litter bugs’. Almost in a instant, Hong Kong is a cleaner city and the spittoons disappear for the restaurants and theatres.

    No pain, no gain!

  3. I am a Journalism student who is studying at University of Nevada, Reno. One of my classmates and I are creating a bilingual environmental blog, welcome to go to our website to check our stories out, and it would be great if you can leave your comment there. Thanks.

  4. Pushing should be added to the list. People like to push when getting to public transport such as subway and bus. This is dangerous.

  5. This situation is really common. I lived in Canada one year. I will buckle the seat belt self-consciously when I got on my friend’s car. The reason is my friend will be fined if I don’t buckle the belt. Of course it will only happen when we are checked by polices. And when your friends give you a ride, they will remind you to buckle the seat belt. But it won’t happen in China. The drivers won’t remind you. Sometimes even the drivers don’t buckle the seat belt. Though the policy of traffic safety has been deployed for years, which requires the drivers have to fasten the seat belt, but obviously it isn’t conformed by people.

  6. Yes, pushing is another thing that we should avoid. Maybe it is because of the limited transportation resources of 10 years ago – yes. at that time, your only choice is to push, or to give up the idea to take bus. Situation has changed a lot, but it is hard, if not impossible, to change people’s habit. Habit always change slower than reality.

    For the enforcement of policy, like seat belt by policemen, you have to get society consensus first. If any policy results in 99% of people fined, it is hard to move on. If there is a way to enforce such a policy, the policy or the enforcer is written in history book as dictator.

  7. JS, your comment is not only passive but evasive!

    Look at Singapore, you can call the ruling party the dictator, but it represent an effective government.

  8. As I always insist, to compare China and Singapore is always the easiest mistake to make. Singapore’s total population (4.6 million as of July 2008) is just like a district of a city like Shanghai. A pretty small city is bigger than Singapore. If there were only 4.6 million people in a city, and there is a immigration system to choose who can come into the city, that is much easier job to do. (Imagine twice as many migrate workers rushing into Singapore in one day)

    China is a very diverse country. You can see the span of very uncivilized behavior mixed with very nice people – that is all about the different stages. The more people you are, the more diverse they are, the more time people need to move forward.

    Having said that, I am not saying that everything is exactly right, or the government shouldn’t play a better role to speed up the civilization process. Yes. I do believe one of the root cause of some of the bad behavior comes from the bad government, not working education system, and many other things. However, I am optimistic about positive changes in the future. To understand that everything needs time to change, instead of cannot change is a big step. When I do some study about what China looks like before 1940’s, and talk with some very old people who were educated before 1940’s, I was shocked to see how good their behavior are. The current behavior of people were made by poverty, wars, culture revolution, broken communist dream, and the dramatic society change after opening up again… There is a history behind everything. You can never talk about something without looking at its history, especially when you are talking about 1/4 of the earth’s population.

  9. JS, thank you for your explicit comment!

    I cannot envisage the present social norm is the result of the past history of China.

    The City of Shanghai deployed an army of traffic assistances to guard the major intersections to prevent jay-walking and the result is encouraging.

    I don’t see people smoking in a confined space when a ‘no-smoking’ sign is posted.

    So don’t think the installation of contemporary norm and moral standard in China is a daunting task.

  10. Yes. I do think the army of traffic assistance helped a lot, but considering the quick change of people in the city (there are more people coming to this city than any previous year ever), the task is a long-lasting task. Shanghai is not isolated. This is all I want to say. You cannot just improve the level of people’s behavior within just one city. With the massive urbanization in China, the generation of Chinese people need to face the challenge of living in a city, which is never been faced before. Living in a city not only means the density of people is high, the requirement for public service is higher, it also means people need to get used to live with strangers (city is all about strangers, especially larger cities). So new norms need to be setup v.s the lives in villages. US has spent the last century changing the norms, so this is what you see what it looks like today. China need to do the transform, but it is a much bigger topic than deploying traffic assistant. The change is deep, and it takes time. China has already been forced to complete part of the change in 30 years, instead of several centuries. The quick change obviously resulted in some chaos, in the economy orders, and more obviously, in the disorder of social norms. Spitting, pushing, yelling in public, and traffic rules are just some of the more obvious sample of the disorder. The root cause and symptoms are far beyond that. Read the BBS post in major portals, can you can get some idea.

    Again, having said that, I am still more optimistic about China’s future than anybody else. By understand how the current situation came into being, we understand that time will cure this. “Installation of contemporary norm and moral standard in China is a daunting task.” I completely agree, but I won’t be surprised or disappointed, if this process lasts for more than two generations. If that happens within the next generations, it is already be faster than I expected.

  11. Xie Xie Jian shuo, for your great blogging. I am in an agreement with you totally.Me an old ghost growing up in the best time of Hong Kong ( 1975-1995 ) before emigrated to Canada. My generation in Hong Kong took from elementary school tutorials, teachers and family about moral of ancient Chinese. those cartoon books didnt’ say ” no spitting no littering.. ” then we grow up and never seen and thought we should spit or sit with legs spread in the public area or talk loud as if everyone around was deaf.

    the problem of our country is we don’t have geniune love, we don’t give moral education for all kidos when they are little. We showed the kidos all the lux and expensive toys, clothings We are too busy to face book and show the world how many euro , us , tokyo travels we make this year,, what LV, chanel we got ..sad.

    ** but.. I love China and Chinese , everytime I see those chineses women flirting the white guys, guys pushing me in the metro, jumping in the lines or spitting.. I said prayer to God : to change them like how you changed me.

    p.s. will be traveling to shanghai city, anyone here fill me some good survivial tips and or scams warnings ? many many thanks ,

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