Reinforcing and breaking stereotypes, our first impressions of China

Sanne van Oosten

Everyone has an opinion about China. Some say China is dirty, with dirty streets and people spitting on the ground left and right. Some also say China is crowded everywhere, with so many people how could it not be? What is also a common stereotype is that Chinese people like to use their elbows when it comes to lines and drive like crazy when it comes to traffic. Others say Chinese people don’t speak English and show absolutely no interest in any foreigners. But when we first entered China and made our way to the mega city Guangzhou we saw how these stereotypes can be reinforced, but also how they can be broken.

We took the bus from the border by Macau to Guangzhou. The trip really defied all of our expectations. Broad, clean streets that are so well paved that we could actually read in the bus. Also, the bus driver was such a calm driver that we had a smoother ride than we could have every expected. So far, a few stereotypes are broken.

But then, the bus driver rolled down the window, scraped his throat and spit out a huge hoagie. Stereotype confirmed. However, in all honesty, spitting could be a stereotype of the past. Even after a week in China we’ve seen hardly any people spitting on the ground. It does happen, but if I hadn’t been primed by the pervasive stereotype I probably wouldn’t have even noticed. However, what I have noticed very often is that they are constantly making disgusting throat-scraping sounds, albeit not leading to the launching of a even more disgusting hoagie. It could be that this Chinese trait is dying out, although we have yet to see Chinese life beyond the mega cities of coastal China.

Right when we got out of the bus we needed to use the bathroom. We had no idea where the bathroom could be so we knew we had to ask around. We were very aware that it is said that Chinese people don’t know English, so we had taken some precautions. We had asked a Chinese friend to make some flashcards with us. We wrote a common question on the back, and she wrote the mandarin translation on the front. When needing to ask someone something, all we’d have to do is show the card and they could point. The flashcards had questions like Where is the toilet? Could you tell me where the post office is? How much does it cost? And of course Where is the subway? Equipped with our Where is the toilet? card we stepped to the first person we could find and showed the card. The man looked at the mandarin briefly and said in perfect English: Oh, the toilet, just walk through this street and take a left, you’ll see the public toilet on your right hand side. Stereotype number two has been broken.

But then the next person we tried to ask where the subway is dodged aside and quickly walked away. We later learned that many Chinese people are embarrassed that they don’t speak proper English and are afraid of admitting it, so they just dodge questions from foreigners, even if they have awesome flashcards. This makes me giggle, as I couldn’t imagine anyone in the West be even the least bit embarrassed for not speaking Mandarin. Anyway, more often than not, the stereotype of Chinese people showing no interest in foreigners is confirmed, whatever the reason may be.

When finally finding the subway station, the first thing we saw was a poster from the city of Guangzhou educating people to wait in a proper line and boarding the subway in a careful manner. Stereotype broken… you’d think? No, of course not, when trying to get out of the subway you are met with a host of pushy Chinese people trying to get in even if you haven’t even gotten out. Some stereotypes are broken, some are reinforced, but the stereotype of Chinese people cutting in line is reinforced again and again. But who knows, with all the effort the government is putting into changing it, this too soon might be a stereotype of the past.

2 responses to “Reinforcing and breaking stereotypes, our first impressions of China”

  1. poetryplusuk says :

    hehe. very true. It is very clever of you to bring cards on your trip. I am amazed.

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