Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Is It Culturally Significant...or Just Rude?

I live in a culturally rich city and use public transportation every day. Most people are polite and wait their turn to get on and off crowded buses and trains.

At every stop, however, I see people of one particular ethnic group pushing people out of the way to get on the vehicle. The other day, two such men pushed a woman from her seat!

It is not uncommon to see members of this group prevent people from leaving the train while they crowd on.

The other day, an elderly woman with two canes struggled with difficulty to get off the train, while a woman of this group, rushing to board, nearly knocked her down.

Of course, not every member of this group behaves this way, but so many do, and in so much higher proportion than any other ethnic group (including teenagers, if I may include them here), that I wonder if it is a cultural issue.

Perhaps in their native land, it is acceptable for people to behave that way, or a matter of survival.

I want to understand other cultures and not let ignorance foster prejudice.

The ethnic group is Chinese. I know they come from a country that is outrageously overpopulated. Can you help me understand their behavior, which seems excessively rude?

Dear Anonymous,

I applaud you for your use of public transportation, and even more for your desire to understand a culture that is different from your own. I hope those around you see your desire to learn and understand and that it rubs off on those who need to broaden their horizons.

I am not an anthropologist, nor a sociologist for that matter. However, I am a student of human behavior. My guess is the same as yours--that this pushy, [apparently] aggressive behavior is a cultural issue, and may very well have been learned as a matter of survival. While I have not experienced first hand what you are describing here, once when I was at Disneyland, I had several encounters with Asians who cut so close in front of me that I thought I was going to run over them. Their awareness of and need for personal space was very different from mine, so I realized that I needed to watch out for them the same way drivers need to keep an eye out for motorcycles. First look, no one is there. Second look, the motorcycle is in your lane. This, of course, is based on my assumption and my guesses and not on first hand knowledge, since I have never been to China or anywhere in Asia.

The first thing I would do if I were you, would be to educate myself about some of the cultural issues. Since you live in a city of diversity, you might look into Chinese-American cultural liaisons. I suppose even talking to someone at the consulate could be enlightening. (We are not very culturally diverse in my city, so I am not up on these things. I tried Googling the issue, but didn't find any relevant information. Sorry I can't help you more than that.)

Once I found a resource, I would ask this question: "I have noticed when using public transportation that many people of the Chinese culture forge ahead when getting on and off public transportation. At times, it seems they have no regard for other people who are in their path. In my culture, this is unusual and might be considered rude; however, I want to understand how this is perceived in their culture and not jump to conclusions. Can you help me understand?" Very much the same question that you asked me.

However, if I found myself in the situation you describe with getting on and off the bus, here's what I would do:

First, being who I am, I would be protective of the people who are getting jostled...especially the elderly and infirm. I would step in front of someone who was trying to get on the bus while the lady with two canes was trying to get off and act something like a school crossing guard. Certainly, I would try to be of good cheer while doing this, but sometimes, it is important to step in. If the men who pushed the lady out of her seat spoke English, I might intervene and say, "Excuse me, but this lady was sitting there. Would you please give her her seat back?" And wait expectantly for them to get up and give her the seat. Being as polite as possible, I would speak the expectation and wait. It might work. It might not.

If that didn't work, I might contact the transit authority and talk to them about the issue. Perhaps the drivers are supposed to intervene and "direct traffic flow" on and off the buses and trains. It might be that some training and education is needed at that level and by bringing it to the attention of the central authority, some needed training might be brought to bear.

Second, I would work on creating good boundaries for myself. A number of techniques can be useful to do that. One of the easiest is to visualize a field of energy around me and make it dense enough that it keeps others at a comfortable distance from me, even when their personal space needs are less than mine. (I might do this in conjunction with acting like a school crossing guard.)

Third, I might send good wishes to the people in this situation--or pray for them--or somehow bring a sense of calm to the situation. Catching people's eye and smiling at them can effect a tremendous change in behavior. Once you make eye contact, you are a person to them and not just another body in their way. It's worth a try.

Most of all, I appreciate your being aware of this culturally sensitive issue and wanting to educate yourself. If you find something out about this issue and what it means in the Chinese culture, I would very much like to hear what you learn.

I also welcome posts from others who are reading who might have more insight or cultural experience than I do.

I hope this helps.


Email your question to: or post a comment (by clicking on "comments") below.

No comments: