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Smiles in Beijing

Bangkok, Thailand (written last week)

I just got back to Thailand after nine days in Beijing and I’m again amazed at how often people in Thailand smile and laugh with each other in public. In Beijing the streets feel absolutely cold. It’s the basic body language and tones: In Beijing people bump into each other without apology, talk loudly in a way that sounds aggressive, and often either don’t make eye contact when talking or stare.

I don’t think I can accept the idea that this is all cultural and that I’m just an uninformed cultural tourist. There are many signs of communication that go below spoken language. The tones people use to talk to each other, if they look at each other, and their body language around each other is much harsher in China than in any other country I’ve visited.

Am I just an uninformed cultural tourist? Think about training a dog: the dog doesn’t know anything about language but he can understand laughing, smiling, tone, and body language. If I smile and talk lightly to the dog he knows I’m happy and if I stare at him and use a sharp tone he knows I’m upset. These basic cues are good enough to teach a dog right from wrong.

I have very limited Mandarin skills so I focus on the cross cultural body cues. I’m operating at the level of a dog. In Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam people smile at me when I walk into their store. In China they tend to stare at me and say nothing. In Japan, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam if I smile at someone on the street they smile back. In China I get an empty stare that says “you don’t exist.”

Beijing is an uncomfortable place as a western tourist. I was hoping that after a spending a few weeks there I’d start to like it, but it’s just so cold and unfriendly and expensive that I’m less willing to tolerate the other discomforts. Thailand is cheaper than China, cleaner than China, and the people are much more friendly and welcoming.

I’ll probably periodically drop into China again to visit friends and see sights, and especially try to visit southern China, but my experiences in Beijing, Shanghai, and Qingdao are very bothersome and make unlikely to go back.