Travelers to the Chinese mainland inevitably raise this question, generally after having been cut in line for the sixth or seventh time at the the train station or while waiting for the subway. And it’s a difficult one to answer. After all, ethnic Chinese in other parts of the world seem to have no issues with forming lines. And there are plenty of Chinese people on the mainland who seem to have a firm grasp of the concept, too. But there’s always someone — often several someones — who feel the need to push to the front, even in situations like waiting to board an airplane, where everyone’s seats are preassigned and there is virtually no advantage to boarding early.
It’s not just a question for foreigners, either. On Baidu’s “Baidu Knows” question forum, there are lots of forms of a pretty simple: “Why don’t we Chinese people line up when we’re waiting for something?”
There are many responses. What follows are all translations of various responses from Baidu Knows.
There’s the indignant denial: “Foreigners aren’t qualified to judge China because their current civilization is built on the foundation of evil colonial exploitation of Asia and Africa. […] and even if most Chinese people don’t line up, more and more are learning that it is a civilized behavior and in the future more Chinese will line up properly.”
There’s the condemnation: “Chinese people just don’t have that mentality, there’s no concept of [individuals] protecting public order. On this issue, we’re really quite bad, there’s no way to defend it.”
There’s the personal aspect. Many commenters call it “an issue of personal quality” and blame parents and the education system for failing to teach people why they should line up.
There’s the legal aspect. “The law is not strict,” one netizen wrote, suggesting that that encourages people to violate the social contract.
For what it’s worth, almost everyone feels that this is improving, and that China is slowly developing a more line-friendly society.
Conspiciously absent from all the answers I read was the typical foreign explanation for the phenomenon, which is goes something like this: there are so many Chinese people, and history has taught them that resources are limited and those who don’t get a hold of those resources are left behind, so in many situations even when resources aren’t actually limited, people respond as though they were.
Of course, some resources are limited. Subway cars and buses during rush hour, really will leave you behind if you aren’t assertive enough. Why don’t people line up for these things? I really don’t know. What do you think?
Image courtesy of Kate Nev on flickr.com