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LAST WORD: The Fallacy of the English Gentleman
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alt The typical English gentleman is one of merit; well versed, poised, and cordial; he comes from a distinguished pedigree and conducts himself thusly in every situation.   For centuries, The Gentlemen has washed upon the shores of China and graced this crude, developing country with his social aptitudes and dignified manner.  This is all hogwash of course, but it seems to be a belief held (falsely) by many Chinese and (arrogantly) by many Westerners.  
 
When I say, “English Gentlemen” it’s a blanket term for all wai guo ren, not exclusively the British.  Needless to say, there is a misguided and often exceedingly unwarranted belief that Westerners have a superior upbringing and therefore are more courteous and polite than the Chinese.  This notion is particularly astonishing if you observe the strong social order in China compared with what some consider a rapidly deteriorating value system in the West.  If you peel back the more superficial layers and look past the seemingly genteel appearance of some Westerners and likewise past some of the more inelegant habits of the Chinese, you may come to a surprisingly different conclusion.
 
My epiphany came during a brief stay at Tianjin General Hospital last summer. I was dealt the misfortune of acquiring an intestinal infection which led to me losing 25 pounds in six weeks.  I was teeming with anxiety when told that I would undergo surgery and be hospitalised for four weeks. A frightening enough proposition if I was on my home soil, but the horror stories about Chinese hospitals only added to my angst.  
 
Fortuitously, my stay lasted only four nights. I was in a shared room with nine beds occupied by older gentlemen in much worse condition than myself.  I was not pleased with the prospect of sharing a confined space with nine men with vastly different living habits than myself, and admittedly I was quickly vexed with my roommates. Their smoking, guttural sound effects, spitting, and incessant loud talking at off hours, all combined into a volatile mixture of air and noise pollution. What happened next was straight out of a bad Hollywood movie. Over the course of the next few days, I was so completely overwhelmed by the show of kindness from everyone that entered the room, my opinion was permanently altered.
 
The prominent theme was the endless stream of visitors coming to see me and my aforementioned roommates.  My fiancée or a member of her family was at my bedside nearly every waking moment, and often through the night.  In fact, my fiancée’s unwavering dedication caused her to catch a fever herself. She checked in for an IV treatment and was back at my side within several hours.  During the few moments when someone was not able to stay with me, the folks visiting their respective loved ones’ were as equally concerned with my well-being as my own family would have been if they were present.  An endless stream of food, clean clothes, books, and other daily use articles flooded into our ward.  This behaviour is common in any hospital of course, but the scale of it in this instance was dizzying.
 
For those that have lived in China for any considerable length of time, it quickly becomes apparent that the Chinese have distinctly different methods of interacting with people that are inside their circle of family members and close friends versus how they engage with strangers.  A commonly cited example would be their proclivity for jumping a queue (if there is a queue at all, that is).  They tend to show little to no concern for people they have fleeting interactions with in daily life. Conversely however, they are among the most charitable and benevolent people I have encountered when dealing with loved ones.   It has been asserted that historically scarce resources due to poverty and overpopulation are the culprits for the former method of behaviour, but what is the reasoning for the latter?  Also, if this is true, then why was I the beneficiary of such altruism during my hospital stay?  I’ll revisit that question in just a moment.   
 
altFor centuries, the fabric of Chinese social code was firmly held together by Confucian belief. However, the many purges of Confucianism throughout the years leads me to wonder if these values have managed to trickle into modern Chinese society or if there is something else at work.  Perhaps parenting style is an influence. While nurturing seems to be intrinsic to Chinese women I have seen many Western women look inept when handling an infant.  A single disgruntled sound coming from a Chinese infant will send every mama, gugu, and laolao in the general vicinity leaping into action, instantly surrounding the child in an unbridled shower of attention.  This carries on, although to a somewhat lesser extent, through a child’s years as a toddler and through their school age years.  No doubt these early experiences lay the groundwork for creating a society full of likewise caring individuals and tightly knit families.   Upon reflection, my feeling about my experience at the hospital is that I was seen as some kind of giant, foreign baby.  In spite of the fact that I was not part of the “inner circle”, I believe any sign of discomfort would have garnered a similar response as a helpless infant.  
 
What is seen by many as diminishing Western values, particularly in regards to the decaying family structure, has been pointed to as a contributing factor to the decline in traditional beliefs and social conduct.  I may get roasted by my fellow compatriots for implying that the Chinese are more polite and nurturing than Westerners, but I’m probably not alone in this line of thought.  In a recent article on NPR.org, “Please Read This Story, Thank You”, the author, Linton Weeks, laments America’s shift towards casual and hollow interactions, and cites research by Rasmussen Reports which reveals 76 percent of people surveyed believe Americans are becoming ruder and less civil.  
 
More than a few foreigners living in China delight in complaining about the country and the Chinese themselves. However, I suggest they take pause to consider who might be keen to help them in a time of need while their close friends and family are thousands of miles away.  The same person that jumped them in the queue may later be the one to offer a helping hand.
 

By Christopher Ribeiro
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