Home / Lifestyle / X-Ray

The tangled web of cultural niceties

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2014-04-19 13:55

But I was only half right. Sure, the girls were about 16 or 17, and they were serving a man aged about 40. If we reversed the gender and put a 17-year-old male and a 40-year-old woman in the same situation, the youngster would be the one doing the ad hoc waiter's job.

But most crucial in this equation, as I recalled it, was the man's social position. He was the leader of our group, the highest-ranking official. So, it didn't matter whether it was a he or she. Other people would take care of his or her plate as a courtesy.

What if the person helping him with the food was his senior in age but not in position? That would be an interesting situation. If we transform the teenage girl into a 50-year-old woman, would it be culturally appropriate for him to sit there and be served? Maybe, I guess. But if she was over 60, I would say he would have squirmed in his seat.

Adults help children because the latter are small and weak. Youngsters yield to those senior in generation because the latter have earned it and the practice has evolved into a custom here in China and other Asian countries under strong Confucian influence. In China it is being subverted - in actuality if not in name - by the single children who act as "little emperors" and tend to lord it over their parents and grandparents.

I guess it's the same process for women's status in the West. They were traditionally considered weak and the object of protection and chivalry strengthened it into an expectation. Here in China, men do not hold doors for women and the level of equality on a Chinese bus or subway train is nothing short of staggering. What do Western feminists make of that? Is it progress as women are obviously no longer perceived as weaker than men, or is it a gross manifestation of rudeness toward the fair sex?

A recent report of a squabble on a bus may help illustrate the complexity of real life over ordained principles. A young woman had a seat and in came an elderly man who planted himself in front of her.

Good manners by Chinese custom dictate she offer her seat to him.

She did not budge. And she had a good reason, which others could not easily detect. She was two months pregnant. By Chinese etiquette, pregnant women enjoy the right to a seat just as the elderly or those carrying babies. The elderly gentleman, without that piece of information, demanded she give up the seat, and she, probably unwisely, did not reveal her pregnancy until a scuffle had broken out.

Who should have been given priority in this situation, the two-month pregnant woman or the frail gentleman? (I assume he was frail.) There is no rule about which of these two demographics should get more "respect".

The right thing, as I would have figured, was that she told the truth as soon as he asked for the seat and the person sitting next to her should have graciously offered his or her seat to the elderly man.

Culture, unlike science, should have rules but should accommodate exceptions as well.

Previous 1 2 3 Next