Britain is seen as a country of gentlemen and gentle ladies. But we Chinese can be gentle too! When my parents came to Britain for my graduation ceremony, my father suddenly transformed into a gentleman! He was holding the door for people behind him! I was so amazed as I hadn’t told him that British people have these manners to be polite but in China we don’t really do this. Still he had noticed the difference, and he did it all by himself. I was soooo proud of him! But he did it so much that after about 1 minute, he was still standing there in our busy hotel holding the door for people. Lots and lots of people came in, and he couldn’t really stop. And at the same time, he was smiling to everyone! My mum and I were just standing there, watching his new gentlemanly behavior, laughing and laughing…Then I walked up to him and said “you can leave now, you can do it for the one immediately after you!” But he barely heard me talking. Because he was too busy smiling and nodding to everyone, and everybody was smiling to him as well, thinking “um, this hotel is international, never seen such a handsome Chinese guard!” Oh God! I couldn’t believe this, so my mum and I found a place to sit down, waiting for him to finish his “job”, then after another 1 minute, he finally came back covered in gentlemanly glory, but by then my mum and I had already laughed ourselves to death. And the story hasn’t finished, the next day, when we walked through the same door in the same hotel, he didn’t bother to hold the door for his wife and daughter! Can you believe that!!!
Well, in terms of politeness, I think there are a few more things that we Chinese should learn from the British. For example, drivers would always stop to let the people walk across the road first. People always queue at any public places, shops, banks, female toilets, buses, undergrounds... just like what my mum said about the London Underground, “If it was this crowded in China, God knows how many accidents could happen!” Actually, the word “queue” came from China, but seems we have forgotten how to do it. Also, British people always make appointments, like going to the doctor, lawyer, supervisor, or even just meet a friend. And if they can’t go for the appointment, they would call or write to them to cancel the appointment. And they are generally very punctual.
Actually when I am in Britain, I am continuously shocked by the difference in terms of politeness between the two societies. For example, British people say “thank you”, “sorry”, “excuse me” all the time, even it’s just a very small favor or between very close relationships. Like somebody had a sneeze in the library, they would say “excuse me” although nobody knew them or noticed them; parents and children would say “thank you” to each other even it’s just about passing a thing or holding the door; strangers would say “sorry” to each other even if they were just about to bump into each other, but actually didn’t… However in China, we rarely say those words, ESPECIALLY to those we are close to. The first meal I had back to China, my mom put some food in my plate, so “thank you” just very naturally came out from my mouth. Then we all laughed, feeling weird, because we have never said “thank you” for such small things (not even big things sometimes). But also at that moment, I felt a bit ashamed because actually I was used to taking my parents’ love for granted. In China if you are very polite to your friends, they might think you want to keep a distance from them, as between close friends, we don't have to pay attention to those small courtesies. So much is different, it is very impolite in China to blow your nose loudly and make a huge noise, especially in classes, meetings or banquets. But here in Britain, they don’t mind blowing nose at all, they just do it whenever they want. But one thing they would never do in Britain is spit out food directly into a plate which we do in China all the time. In Britain, they would take a fork and very politely and discreetly put food from their mouths into it and then onto the side of their plate.
But there are big differences in culture here as well as just what we choose to think of as being polite. The British for example are crazy about animals, pigs, sheep, hedgehogs, rabbits, geese, dogs, cats are all the stars of children’s stories and films at TV shows. All animals can potentially be humanized, be given a personality and identified with—even insects. The Chinese also like some animals and keep pets, small cute dogs for example. But for the Chinese, the animal world is more likely to be thought of as food and the main standards applied are if it’s good to eat and fresh.
So imagine the scene when two friends of mine, who are British professors visiting China, were taken to a restaurant which is serving live lobster. This really happened, and the two British professors were welcomed by their Chinese hosts and seated at a huge table that spins round and round so all the dishes can be sampled. The professors have seen a huge lobster just a few minutes before, swimming round in a tank, then suddenly it is served at the table, in a long basket that looks like a boat, the head at the front and the body in the middle. It’s still raw, the head is cut off but still alive, with its long pointy fingers going up and down. The Chinese are pleased because it shows how fresh the food is. The British are panicked because they are being chased by a live lobster going round the table, getting nearer and nearer. “No! No!!” they shouted “it will get us!” “But it shows it’s fresh” their hosts call back. “No, no, please take it and get it cooked, it’s chasing us!!” And really, one of the professors told me that for a month after, he had nightmares about running round and round his bed being chased by a lobster.
But the differences in politeness show other things as well. Such as in how people think about each other. It is not just about what we see as polite, a culture of manners and politeness can show a general concern for others. I wonder if this is something we are missing in China. In school we are taught that we should be kind to others, we should help people without thinking of ourselves. But as soon as we go outside into the world, we are in a culture where people in cars blare their horns to get us out the way; bus stops are full of people fighting to get in, the old and the weak are pushed aside; we protect our immediate families or those in a relationship with us, but no one else. So why is there not a culture of public generosity and care for others? What has happened in China to make us so mean and indifferent? In the UK, people often give their time for nothing, they work in charity shops, raising money for hospitals or to help old or disable people. They help each other without expecting a reword, not everyone of course, there are mean politicians and bankers like everywhere else. But there is also a culture of generosity which runs alongside the politeness. This is changing a bit in China. Recently the law was changed to allow NGOs to be more independent, and charities are growing for example, to help blind people or give out free meals. But China has a deficit here and the question is, why?