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On hailing Western culture as superiority

Laissez Fair: The Invisible Backhand

“In America, they say, ‘Eighth floor, please,’ and everyone gets on the elevator one by one,” the professor explained. “In Hong Kong, everybody tries to push the button themselves and all get in each other’s way.”

I couldn’t help but snicker at my professor’s attempt to illustrate the benefits of collective action — it was the first time I’ve heard such glowing reviews of American culture. Usually, it was the opposite. His cultural caricature was certainly an interesting start to my law and economics class at The University Hong Kong.

The stereotypes of Americans I have heard abroad are typically harmless and in good humor. There was, however, an instance that I found troubling. It happened in my marketing class when we were learning about customer service.

My professor told his story about a horrible hotel experience when he woke up in the middle of the night smelling smoke. There was a no-smoking policy, but apparently a very wealthy Chinese businessman in a nearby room did not care. My professor luckily got an apology and a nice gift package for his next stay from the hotel manager, who said that this businessman frequently stayed at the hotel and he was always loud and rude.

Yet the man was always welcomed back because he had money. I thought we were learning about marketing, but there was another moral to the story.

“Even though I am from mainland, I know that there are people like this who do not yet know how to behave themselves properly,” my professor said. “Some places won't do this, they won't care if you have money.”

After two months in Hong Kong, I have heard more discussion on civilized behavior than I have in my entire life — and that is saying a lot for someone who only recently graduated from the chaotic stampedes of high school and the subsequent barking of hall monitors. Why was it that, when fishing for a paragon of politeness, my professor skipped over several continents and reached immediately for America? Why was it that a Chinese businessman’s rudeness made him that much more Chinese?

To me, it is because China and Hong Kong have an identity crisis. Centuries of colonization and wars have cultivated a reverence for the West and, as industrialization is now bringing some Asian countries (and one in particular) the same wealth that had always been offered to other cultures, they now have the resources to design a lifestyle. There is a common stereotype that the “new money” of the rising Chinese middle class is making it hungry for those luxuries that were always the privilege of others.

The only question is, where do you start when everything you have ever associated with wealth has been Nike and Coach, when everything you’ve associated with status has been black tailored suits and expensive wine? Even more importantly, how do you decide who you want to be when you have grown up in a world where the ideal ethnicity is something you will never have?

If you think I’m exaggerating, you are right. It’s not that people bow down to the West (I have also heard all the usual negative stereotypes here) but that no matter how much Western governments are hated throughout the world for their bloody histories, they have also left an indelible mark of power and superiority.

Even when my professors were making casual points, they were at once apologetically critical of their own culture while distancing themselves from it. China is like your nerdy friend whom you try to not be seen with in public. And Regina George, the popular kid who puts everyone down and whom everyone hates but secretly also wants to be — that is the West.

The envy has to stop and the honesty has to begin. For China, Hong Kong or any other group struggling to make sense of a marred past, we first have to admit that the damage was done and that it was wrong. That is not easy when most people have forgotten or never learned the history of Asian countries, but that makes it even more important to try. It is the only way to separate who we are from what other people have told us to be. As for the rest of it — wearing a suit, eating with the right fork, pushing elevator buttons for people — those are just arbitrary habits that never really mattered anyways. 

Lin Lan is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in Economics. Her column “Laissez Fair: The Invisible Backhand,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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