Out for a Walk

Giddy with the clean air we have found in our new home in Michigan, my Chinese wife and I go for a walk every day. It is often a time for her to ask questions or for me to distill my observations regarding the differences between China and the US.

As is often the case throughout the US, but a certainty in the Midwest, whenever we come face to face with a vehicle entering or exiting a parking lot, or even turning at a neighborhood street corner, the driver always waves us through. It doesn’t matter if there is a zebra stripe or not.

It took my wife a while to get comfortable with this and that created some confusion with the drivers at first, not knowing if we were going to go or balk. The hesitation, of course, came from the fact that the whole concept of voluntarily yielding to pedestrians is totally foreign to her. Even though Chinese traffic laws require vehicles to yield to pedestrians under all circumstances, no one does, and no Chinese pedestrian or cyclist would ever assume they would.

She’s learned to accept that the gesture is sincere, but she runs across just to be safe. I inevitably chuckle to myself, having had the shoe on the other foot of foreignness while living in China for nine years.

For me, the most striking difference in perspective that has surfaced during these walks, however, is that she insists on walking directly behind me. Not far behind, mind you. It’s more like she’s drafting me in the way NASCAR drivers do. And, in fact, she claims that’s why she does it. She doesn’t have to watch where she’s going. She just watches me.

I’ll admit it makes me very self-conscious. My prior wife was constantly complaining that I walked in front of her intentionally, out of disrespect. I, probably like most husbands accused of this violation, felt like I was getting setup. I noted that even when I cut my walking speed by a significant amount the gap between us would remain constant. Mathematically speaking, therefore, she was causing me to walk in front. (Of course I never got anywhere with that argument.)

I’ve explained to Lisa on many occasions that this style of walking is embarrassing to me as Americans view it as degrading to women. It suggests that I, the male, am proclaiming my dominance. I can just hear every woman driving by saying to herself, “Look at that old white scumbag with his pretty little Chinese wife tagging along obediently behind him. What a pig.”

Well, Lisa just doesn’t get it. And like wives everywhere, she continues to do what she wants to do. And I’ve given up.

On a recent walk, however, she said to me, “I see people walking their dogs and the dog is always walking in front. If I got a leash to put around your neck would Americans think it’s alright for you to walk in front?”

Of course I laughed out loud. Being with someone unfamiliar with your culture is sometimes akin to being with your small child. But don’t take that as offensive; the Chinese got plenty of laughs out of me, too.

“Well, you do raise a point. I suppose a leash would change the dynamics of the situation. It would definitely change what the women driving by are thinking. I’m not sure I wouldn’t prefer they think of me as an arrogant chauvinist, however.”

I guess the moral of the story is that you have to be careful in your judgment where two different cultures are involved. It’s easy to read too much into things. We tend to see the issues only through our own lens and not a multi-cultural lens.

I was reminded of that again today when I read a piece online about a big international flap about a piece that ran in the inflight magazine of Air China, the flagship state-owned carrier of China. The piece was about visiting London and overall it was meant to present a glowing picture, encouraging their Chinese passengers to visit, and buy a ticket from them, of course.

Always the pragmatists, however, the author added one line about safety. That’s always the number one concern of Chinese traveling abroad, both because they are relatively new to foreign travel, and because there are plenty of places in the world where the Chinese are openly discriminated against.

So the article added one short note suggesting that London was generally a very safe city but you should be wary when visiting ‘these’ ethnic neighborhoods, and women should not go out alone at night. I won’t tell you what the ethnic neighborhoods were because it doesn’t matter.

The comment, of course, brought howls of indignation about the racist nature of the article and demands for an immediate apology from Air China, if not the Chinese government itself, and the immediate removal of the offending magazine from all aircraft.

The howls, of course, then lit up Chinese social media with protests of “There go the foreigners again, telling us what to do.” For the most part, however, the reaction was one of confusion. They just didn’t get all the fuss.

The Chinese are very pragmatic about ethnicity, as they are about most things. Being pragmatic, however, is different than being racist if the latter, as it almost always does, implies an assumption of relative inferiority.

And as proof of the pragmatic explanation, it cuts both ways. The Chinese police and security forces openly profile. But not in the way people in the US would assume that would work.

I frequently traveled on the Beijing subway and there was often a group of security police who roamed the subways and randomly picked people out of the crowd to check their identification by scanning it into a hand held device connected to some central database. I probably passed by one hundred of these makeshift checkpoints, if not more. And never once was I pulled out of line. Never once, in fact, did I see a single foreigner stopped. And never once did I see a woman stopped. They knew exactly the group of people they were looking for.

Never once, by the way, did I see a single person being checked complain. And if you think that’s because China is a Big Brother state and everyone is petrified of the police you’ve never been there. I’ve seen many Chinese arguing with police in the harshest of tones.

I would bet that if you surveyed the Chinese population you would find that an overwhelming majority support police profiling. To them, it just makes sense.

And in fact, statistically speaking, it does. It’s abhorrent only when it is accompanied by prejudice, as it often is in the West.

So I don’t condone the Air China article. I honestly don’t know if the author was prejudicial or not. And I do reject all forms of prejudice.

But I do accept that not every culture looks at things the same way. If we truly want to embrace diversity we must accept alternative worldviews and not jump to judgment every time someone seems to violate our own.

And in the vein of pragmatism I thought the best post I saw on Chinese social media was the writer who suggested that Air China simply stop offering English translations of its articles in the magazine.

Or put a leash on your man when you go walking in case you want to fall in behind and not be judged for it.

Contact: You may contact the author at understandingchina@yahoo.com