20 October 2009

Night Train Philosophies - Shenzhen to Guilin

After hanging around at Mc Donalds for half of the afternoon, we boarded our night train in the early evening in Shenzhen, a Chinese city close to Hong Kong. We shared our compartment with a Chinese man who fell asleep very early, so we didn't make much noise, did a bit of reading and then also decided to have an early night. I had just about managed to fall asleep and was in the kind of bizarre dream that one has on trains, when I was woken by a ringing mobile phone. It was our neighbour's. It was just before midnight. When he finally replied he talked very loudly on the phone, making no effort whatsoever not to wake us up. This went on for some time, he did regular phone calls without bothering to leave the compartment. Around half past one in the night, the train stopped and our neighbour got off, leaving his reading lamp on. Miguel finally turned it off, and the rest of the night was quiet. As I'm usually unable to sleep in any moving object, like planes, buses and trains, I spent the rest of the night lying on my back and thinking about what had just happened. The guy looked nice enough, probably a businessman. He surely didn't have any bad intentions when waking us up with his phone calls and when leaving on the light. He probably just didn't think about it. And that's just the point. This is something so typical in China. Call it cultural difference or whatever you want. The result: People smoking in front of a non smoking sign and blowing the smoke in other people's face, talking loudly on the phone in every possible situation, leaving their cigarette butts in the washbasin for somebody else to clean, pushing and shoving to get into a train where they have reserved seats anyway, letting an empty water bottle drop on the floor the instant they've finished drinking it. Nobody ever complains about anything, although you can sometimes see in people's expressions that they are annoyed by, say, the cigarette smoke. We westerners get an impression of a serious lack of consideration of others, a "not-giving-a-sh**-about-others", and no sense of community. If I dirty the public toilet or throw my garbage on the floor, somebody will clean it (but this somebody probably hasn't chosen his or her job and we could do just a little effort to make his or her job less disgusting). I've been trying to find an explanation to this, and I've got a theory that might explain at least part of it. Our western world is heavily influenced by Christan thought, whether we believe in God or not. The basis of Christianity is taking care of others, not do to others what you wouldn't have done to yourself, not take revenge. Of course, I'm not talking about the less than glorious doings of the Christian church all around the world, but rather the basis of Christian thinking, that is again reflected in western philosophies like Humanism. In practice, this means that we have all more or less been brought up to be considerate to others, don''t hit your little friend and be generally nice to others, even if you don't know them, so we try to keep our trains clean, stop to let people cross the road and offer our bus seat to the granny or the mother-to-be. Christian sects and other communities have a huge success in many parts of the world (including Asia) because they often promote the community aspect - singing together, dancing together, praying together. China's religion and philosophy have been heavily influenced by Confucius. In Confucianism, there are precise rules concerning the relationship between people: the son pays respect to his father, the wife to her husband, the employee to his employer. Relationships between people who don't know each other (the "community") don't play any role. Even Buddhism is more like an "individualist" religion: to attain "enlightenment" you have to do the work all by yourself, by mediating and leading a "pure life". For me, there's not much room for a community spirit in there. And that's how I explain (at least part of) this behaviour of what I call egocentrism and individualism. I do what is just right for me, without thinking any further. (As I am writing this, the guy next to me at the internet place has just lighted a cigarette, about half a metre from my face, with ash blowing on my computer mouse. I'm delighted.) You might tell me now that this is just the way they are and that I can't change the world and just have to accept different cultures. Well, I'm having a lot of trouble accepting behaviour like not stopping your car to let cross a mother carrying a small child on her arms, or other examples that are everyday scenes in China. Maybe it sort of scares me, a nation so individualistic and egocentric. It's so far away from my own convictions. It also means that we can do all we want to protect the environment, but if China continues polluting without any consideration, we will be close to a natural catastrophe in a couple of decades.

By the way, we discussed this topic with our Australian host last night. She has been living in China for 10 years but still hasn't found a good explanation for all this.

We got off our train in Guilin at 7 in the morning. After shaking off the taxi drivers and map-sellers, we walked towards the city center, loudly spitting men everywhere, smelling again the constant stink that is part of Chinese cities, and then along the modern and slick pedestrian street that was just waking up. There, we saw a couple with a child maybe 2 or 3 years old, who was just doing his business (big one) right on the pavement in the pedestrian street, his father hurrying around with a roll of toilet paper. I don't know for sure but I can imagine they didn't pick up the "business". Welcome back to China.

I need to leave this country, I can't take it any longer.

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