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21
Feb
2013
Why don't Chinese stand in line? E-mail
City Life - Blogs & Columns
Written by Cloudy
When I was a student, my Chinese teacher used to tell our class sad stories about having to wait in line for hours at a time with a voucher coupon to obtain the same drab clothing that everyone else was wearing during the Cultural Revolution. After the time I've spent here in a China , I wonder: 

How on earth could my teacher and his peers do it? By "do it," I don't mean to tolerate being forced to wear the same clothing as everyone else, I mean to stand in line for hours. In case you didn't know, the people in this last great bastion of Communism are very, very bad at forming lines. I was reminded of that today when making what I hoped to be a brief trip to a supermarket.  This is a busy time of year for China thanks to the spring festival, and for the last decade the government has increased holiday commercial traffic by giving people a week off to spend, spend, and spend some more. So needless to say the supermarkets and shopping malls were positively overflowing with people when I went out.

Before shopping I decided to grab some fast food for lunch.  While there weren't many people in the restaurant I went to, a medium-sized Chinese family (that is, a family and some younger children who are probably the cousins/nephews of the family members) had arrived and decided to spread out and occupy the entire counter while looking over the menu, thus blocking register access for anyone who actually knew what they wanted. 

This was actually rather mild behavior.  In really busy restaurants, people will cut ahead and even shove each other to get to the register and put in an order, and they're deadly serious about it, almost as if placing an order behind someone else would amount to a loss of face.  Even when buying food from street vendors a person must be ready to contend with aggressive customers who will force their way in front of you.  No matter where you eat, in China, there's no such thing as people patiently and politely waiting in line to order their food.

On to the supermarket.  Chinese supermarkets, which include foreign chains like Wal-Mart and Carrefour as well as home-grown chains, are extremely modern in their layouts and varieties of goods, and a Westerner can easily find himself or herself at home while shopping there.  

Yet whenever a special is announced in the store, or whenever people seek out services such as the weighing and pricing of produce, a veritable mob descends upon the location, with people pushing past each other to get their hands on a featured product or to put their bags of vegetables on a nearby electronic scale.  If that means running over someone's foot with a shopping cart, so be it.  In the worst moments, actual fights will break out between unruly customers.

Coming from America I've heard my fair share of holiday horror stories -- people getting stampeded during a special sale, mothers assaulting other mothers to get their hands on a coveted Christmas toy, etc. -- so I can say that crazy shopping is not unique to one culture.  Yet while the Chinese dislike for forming lines is more glaring during the holiday shopping season, in truth it's a year-'round phenomenon.  I've learned to deal with it since coming here, but for new visitors it can contribute to culture shock.

Why don't Chinese regularly form lines the way Westerners do?  In part I think it reflects the attitude towards personal space.  Westerners typically want to move through public without being touched.  We prefer to form loose lines because it corresponds to our ideal of personal space; if someone gets too close to us in line or walks to our side, it makes us uncomfortable. 

The Chinese ideal of personal space is different.  In a crowded market (or crowded supermarket, for that matter) it's considered perfectly normal to walk shoulder to shoulder, bumping into people, and rather than form lines to get something, you form a small circle and approach a vendor on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Besides personal space, another cultural trait among Chinese people that runs counter to forming lines is the habit of crowding.  When there's a dispute, something interesting to be bought, or something unusual to be seen, Chinese will crowd around in large numbers.  (An economist could have fun trying to discover what amounts to a "tipping point" that leads to the formation of a crowd here in China.).

The sound of a screaming boy getting his tooth pulled at a village dentist might bring a swarm of curious onlookers, while a bad traffic accident will -- and I mean will -- attract a small mob to gawk at and sometimes quarrel about the accident.  When a crowd forms, everyone is eager to get the best vantage point on what there is to be seen, and jostling for position is accepted as natural behavior.



Taken together, the short distance of personal space in China and the habit of crowding help to explain why Chinese don't form lines very well, but that doesn't answer the question, why did Chinese readily stand in lines forty-odd years ago? 

The key difference between now and then is that the Stalinist, scarcity-prone economic model that China followed under Mao meant that the only way you could get clothing (or transportation, or food) was to get into a queue.  By opening up the marketplace, China has given people the freedom to step out of line -- just so long as they don't do so politically.

Our valuable Editor Cloudy has been with us since Thursday, 21 February 2013.
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