Culture Shock: Defining Manners in Shanghai

I’ll never forget the first time I walked from my homestay
to my school’s campus in Shanghai’s center. It was a busy Tuesday morning, and the streets
were bustling with frantic women, whining children and one motorcycle packed
with too many people en route to work.

Smog hung heavy in the air, and clouds of dust swirled, and I had an involuntary reflex to cover my mouth and nose. Very
little conversation happened around me—just loud trucks and honking

Born and raised in the friendly Midwest, I’m at home with manners and
pleasantries. I utter “thank you,” “sorry” and “please” almost to a fault,
and parents and teachers constantly emphasized the importance of never forgetting
the “magic word.” This all changed when I got to China. Much to my original dismay,
politeness seems to be an afterthought in Shanghai. 

In the few short weeks that I’ve been here, I can’t even begin to
count the number of people whom I’ve seen unapologetically spit on the streets, pee
on the sidewalks, shove the elderly or stare at anyone and everyone who doesn’t look like the
general population.

There are over 24 million people living in Shanghai. To put
that into perspective, about 8 million people live in New York City. With more than three times the population of
NYC, one of the largest and busiest cities in the U.S., China takes the
dog-eat-dog mentality to a new level. It’s not unusual to see a young man
sprawled on the subway while a pregnant woman stands nearby. Want to get off before the doors close? Be prepared to scratch and claw your way

If you want to get a taxi, trust me, you’ll probably have to
race the person next to you. Even if you manage to outrun your fellow commuters,
the driver might deny you service simply because you look foreign. If you
sneeze, don’t wait for a “bless you”: It’s not coming.

Making a conscientious effort to shed my Western lens, I realized that Chinese manners aren’t bad; they’re merely different. Behavioral customs are an important part of culture, just like the arts, humanities and intellectual achievements. We don’t eat the same food or speak the same language, so why would we interact identically? It takes some time to realize that not every country follows the same
cultural norms and manners, but when you take the time to think about it, these aspects of society vary even within American culture.  

Now that I’ve started to adjust to my temporary new home,
I’ve learned to embrace these cultural differences as just that—a welcomed contrast.
I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for how different Chinese society is, although
the culture shock can at times be overwhelming.

After I finally made it to campus that first Tuesday, my
professor opened class with the question, “What will you tell people about your
time in Shanghai?” At the time, I had assumed I would just jabber about how it was
fun, a great experience and so on. Boy, was I mistaken.

It’s only been about a month, but I can now say that studying abroad in
China deserves more than a simple answer. The complexity of the country’s changing
culture, dense population and difference in manners
makes China one of the most unique places in the world—especially when
experienced through a Western view.

Jamie Curran CM ’16
is majoring in economics and international relations. She loves trying new
foods, attempting to speak other languages and doing anything related to CMC. 

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