Queuing in China
Cultural differences between Westerners and Chinese often cause a great deal of misunderstanding, both in business and in social situations. Take, for example, queuing, or standing in line. Westerners are used to orderly lines. That’s just the way it is, first-come, first-served. It works well in our society and we generally take it for granted. For anyone who has traveled to China, however, queuing takes on a whole new meaning.
I can recall standing in a line for a train ticket at the station in Jinan and seeing people, without a second thought or moment of hesitation, come straight to the front of the ticket line and attempt to purchase their ticket ahead of the rest of us in the queue. To a Westerner, this behavior is viewed as rude and is oftentimes infuriating. Similarly, I’ve stood in line to board a flight at a small local airport outside Mohe, China, only to be nearly trampled, in a scene reminiscent of the last flight out of Viet Nam, when the attendant announces that boarding will now commence. With that announcement a good many Chinese converged on the gate attendant from every direction, attempting to hand her their boarding pass and board the plane ahead of everyone else. To Westerners the practice of queue jumping, or the lack of an orderly admission process, seems almost incomprehensible. But, in fact, this is the way it’s been done in China for quite some time. Let me explain why.
First off, in a country of 1.3 billion people, being at the back of the line is not a good thing. The sheer number of people in China makes even basic everyday tasks competitive. If you’re at the back of this line, or you hesitate and don’t act, you might not get what you want. In addition, there’s a long history of shortages in China. That doesn’t mean there’s a current shortage of goods or services, but in the past many goods and services were in short supply. Therefore, part of this “survival” instinct comes from decades of living in a society where past shortages occurred and where goods and services may not currently be available exactly when you want them. Too few buses, too few clerks processing documents, too few people taking orders at a fast food restaurant, too few ticket booths at train stations and airports, etc. In China, there are always lines because there are always a great many people and, sometimes, you can never have enough processors, as I’ll call them, to alleviate that. In addition, there may be a temporary shortage of goods and services. It’s urban survival in the most populous country in the world.
Given that present-day China doesn’t experience the shortages that have occurred in the past, queue jumping today comes down to impatience and not wanting to wait. You don’t want to wait for a bus ticket, to board your flight, or to order your food. You don’t want to wait for the next bus or train if you miss this one. You don’t want to come back the next day or the next week if they run out of an item at the local market or food stall. Today it’s more about time.
It’s also about anonymity. The people around you don’t know you, and you likely don’t know them. Jumping the queue is an anonymous act where the players don’t know each other and face isn’t lost. Therefore, thrusting your way ahead of the person about to hand their purchase to the clerk at the check-out counter, or subtly hip-checking or shoulder-checking your opponent out of position, is an anonymous act where the person you cut in front of frequently won’t argue or object too loudly. If they do, it’s often ignored. You don’t know each other and likely won’t see each other again.
However, things change when you throw a foreigner into the mix. Foreigners normally do react to queue jumping. Would you ever queue jump in New York or Los Angeles? Not likely! Foreigners get angry and usually tell the aggressor to get to the back of the line. As it turns out, that’s a good thing. Everyone in China knows that queue jumping is taking advantage of the person you cut in front of in order for you to get what you want, but few are willing to create an incident over it beyond speaking harsh words to the offending party. Moreover, they sometimes react to queue jumpers in a culturally unique manner. For example, with the approaching Chinese New Year, the lines for purchasing train tickets can be extremely long and it can take hours to purchase a train ticket. It’s not uncommon in this situation to see those standing in line to lock arms with one another thereby making it nearly impossible for someone to cut in front of them.
Westerners are different. We’re unpredictable, when compared to most Chinese, as we’re often times ready to physically throw offending the person out of line. When most Chinese cut in front of a Westerner they’re counting on the fact that a Westerner will not want to be impolite in a foreign country and will, instead, just go with the flow. However, for anyone who’s been in China for a while, that’s not going to work. Whenever someone performs their queue jumping routine on me now I point them to the back of the line in a tone that requires no interpretation. This normally works as the infringing party tends to lose face, always a bad thing in China. However, this doesn’t always work as sometimes an older person will intentionally queue jump or a parent will send a child to perform the deed. That’s usually the royal flush and straight flush, respectively, of queue jumping techniques, as who wants to be accused of throwing an old person or child out of line?
However, things are slowly starting to change. The Chinese are becoming more affluent, better traveled, and more exposed to Western influence. They know that queuing is standard in most countries outside of China and they’re becoming increasingly intolerant of queue jumping. Chinese now have less personal time than they’ve had in the past and are themselves impatient to get through the queue. In addition the Chinese government, in an effort to prevent queuing conflicts with foreigners, has instituted mandatory queuing at many venues where foreigners are likely to be in attendance. For example, if you witnessed the massive lines at the 2010 Shanghai Expo, many Chinese had no choice but to queue in order to enter the exhibits. When someone did try and break the queue, officials at the venue refused to let them in and instead directed the interloper to the rear of the line.
Queue jumping is still common in China and is likely to remain that way for some time to come, as change tends to come slowly in The Middle Kingdom. In the meantime, directly confronting your transgressor and pointing them to the rear of the line in a stern tone seems to work remarkably well in most, but not all, situations. For those situations you just have to remember TIC – This is China – and go with the flow!
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