The Conundrum of Social Norms Abroad

Before arriving in China, I had been warned that the crowds might bother me, that certain social norms would likely strike me as rude, that some of the rules and requirements would seem arbitrary and archaic, and that most definitely I would be struck down by food poisoning. I heard all of this and considered it, but was secretly hopeful that spending time in China would help me understand some of these differences in order to be more tolerant of them… An ever-present and lofty goal of foreign travel.

Let me tell you: at the airport in Xi’an last week, I definitely failed to rise to the occasion.

We get to the airport a respectable two and a half hours before our international flight. For those that know me well, you’ll understand that this was a major accomplishment, one of which my paternal grandfather would be proud. We basically walk up to the counter (the line was refreshingly short) and are told that you cannot check in more than two hours before your flight. Never mind that there are no other people in line at this point. The rule stands.

After wandering aimlessly for a while, two hours before our flight rolls around. We can’t match your passport number to the number of your reservation. Go stand in that other line so they can change the number for you. We couldn’t possibly be bothered to do it ourselves. We finally check in and proceed to the security line. A woman immediately pushes her way past us and parks herself directly in front of us in line.

Off to a great start today, aren’t we?

On the plane as we are filling out immigration forms, a stranger sitting next to me with whom I haven’t exchanged a single word physically moves my hand off of my own form, in order to copy down the flight number. Seriously!?

After the long flight as we’re getting off the plane, our personal space bubbles cease to exist, as 120 bodies push and strain toward the forward door even before it has been opened. Evidently, those few precious seconds you might save by pushing are infinitely more valuable than any act of courtesy that might make disembarking easier for everyone.

At the baggage claim as I stand and wait for the conveyor belt to start moving, a man shoves me sideways to get a spot at the rail. No bags are coming out yet, so it’s impossible that he has seen his. He just needs to be in front really badly and evidently in this country my body is no more important than an inanimate object.

I consider several courses of action:

  1. Start throwing elbows to clear a reasonable bubble of personal space
  2. Channel my inner NBA star and box out with my big booty
  3. Calmly explain my Western ideals about courtesy to this rude man
  4. Be a true Seattleite, roll my eyes and feel annoyed, but do nothing

Wanna guess which one I chose?

Admittedly, none of these infractions are major as isolated incidents. But after two weeks in China, I am tired of being pushed, cut in front of, and otherwise treated as invisible. It’s exhausting to feel constantly on the defensive, trying to stake my claim to my spot in the bathroom line or even just to the spot of ground I happen to be standing on. I’ve reached the point where it takes every last iota of my patience not to scream out, “I AM HERE. I EXIST. I AM SOMEBODY!” Right, Navin R. Johnson?

Reflecting on these experiences from this calm quiet balcony in Bali, I am struck by a couple of realizations.

First of all, the words of Reinhold Niebuhr come to mind:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

I cannot change a whole country’s perspective on what constitutes basic courtesy. Any attempt to do so will be futile and will just make me an unhappy visitor. Not to mention, I shouldn’t want to! The whole point of foreign travel is to observe cultural differences, to learn about them, to reflect on them. But not to judge them.

Second important realization: Oh. My. Gosh. I am such a hypocrite. Yes, I think that not pushing, waiting your turn, and respecting other people’s personal space are basic acts of courtesy. However, there are countless examples of ways that I fail to be courteous. For illustration purposes, I have been known to commit the following social infractions (in some cases frequently):

  • Being late.

I am constantly running behind schedule. I have a complete inability to realistically determine how much I can accomplish in a given amount of time. A couple of months ago, I arrived at a friend’s house half an hour late to a movie night. He kindly but firmly told me that when people are late to appointments with him, he feels like they are saying that their time is more important than his time. Talk about feeling rude. And ashamed.

Another time recently, I showed up an hour late to a dinner party. Wanna know the worst part of this story? The dinner party was a going-away party… for me. I walked in the door and was greeted by a dozen faces of loved ones who had been waiting to bid me farewell. And instead of expressing their annoyance or scolding me, they enthusiastically welcomed me, asked questions about my upcoming trip, and poured me a glass of wine. I felt extremely loved but also so guilty. Dad, I am really really sorry I was so late. Thank you for throwing me a wonderful party with my amazing family. 

  • Burping really loudly.

Okay, I know many people consider burping not only very rude but also disgusting. But my dad didn’t have any sons, you know? He had to teach someone his tricks. To my mother’s dismay, she now has three daughters who are quite capable of an impressive belch. What’s the problem with that!? It’s a natural bodily function! And also super rude.

  • Monopolizing the conversation.

I have incredibly patient family members and friends who are attentive listeners. But sometimes they must just want to tell me to shut up so they can get a word in edgewise! On one occasion, my mom and I drove 3 hours east to Moses Lake and I don’t think she spoke more than ten words the whole way. Thanks for listening, Mama.

Similarly, when I am talking to one of my best friends, I often realize that I have been talking and talking nonstop and will say to her, “Oh no! I’ve been rambling at you again!”. And every time, without fail, she responds, “It’s okay, I like listening to you ramble”. My heart SWELLS just thinking about these amazing humans who put up with my flaws!

The list goes on and on:

  • Being bossy.
  • Using my sister’s stuff without asking.
  • Complimenting myself.
  • Wanting to have the last word.

Ask my family, they’ll have dozens more examples. Wait. Actually, don’t ask them. I don’t want too many of my hideous secrets getting out!

The point I’m trying to make with all of this is since WHEN are any of us perfect enough to feel so self-righteous in someone else’s country? I most certainly am not.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still going to feel frustrated when I feel like people are being rude to me abroad (or anywhere!). It’s one of those gut reactions that’s nearly impossible to avoid. But taking a few deep breaths, reminding myself that nobody is perfect, and reflecting on the fact that I even have the privilege to spend time exploring a foreign country in the first place… All definitely noble pursuits, even if I do fall very short from time to time.

Oh, and also: this. So I totally have the last word.


Happy and smiling at Heavenly Lake, Urumqi.


Esta entrada fue publicada en Uncategorized. Guarda el enlace permanente.


Introduce tus datos o haz clic en un icono para iniciar sesión:

Logo de

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Cerrar sesión /  Cambiar )

Google+ photo

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Google+. Cerrar sesión /  Cambiar )

Imagen de Twitter

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Twitter. Cerrar sesión /  Cambiar )

Foto de Facebook

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Facebook. Cerrar sesión /  Cambiar )


Conectando a %s