I cringed for a while on vacation yesterday.
Increasingly, my brother and I had to slow down to see that our grandparents were taking pictures with far too many landmarks, and had to slow down our pace being tourists for the two days we were away from home. It didn’t matter what landmarks they were, but my grandparents insisted on taking pictures everywhere and of everything. I assume if you went through my grandmother’s phone, you would see pictures of all four corners of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the street, and every fountain you would see.
For me, it brought to my mind the uncomfortable stereotype of the badly behaving Chinese tourist. You probably know what I’m talking about through anecdotal traveling stories: Chinese tourists that left Thai bathrooms in disrepair and outside the Louvre, officials had to place a sign in Mandarin to remind Chinese visitors to not defecate on surrounding grounds. Chinese tourists are commonly reprimanded for spitting in public, flaunting rules and taking pictures in very inappropriate places. In 2013, a 13-year-old Chinese tourist carved “Ding Jinhao visited here” into a 3,500-year-old Egyptian temple wall.
The trope of the rude Chinese tourist is behavior I have sneered at, as a Chinese-American. In my discussions with some other Chinese-American friends, we lament that the misbehaviors of these tourists gave Chinese people a bad name, including people who are native-born Americans like us. Let it be noted that this is not all Chinese tourists by any measure. We are aware that it is a select group or few that engage in socially and culturally unacceptable behaviors for where they tour — but yet the problems are obvious to non-Chinese audiences.
And they’re especially glaring to people of Chinese descent, like myself, and someone with people in my family that behave in ways that are often derided by the general public. I am nothing but conflicted. While I have the same feelings of distaste and aversion at hearing and even witnessing some of these outrageous stories of bad tourism by Chinese people, part of me also searches for what is behind the behavior. I knew that part of that would explain a lot about my family, about my culture.
For that context, I asked no one other than my grandparents. First off, my grandparents could care less about what surrounders think of them. Both of them take pictures to, in a sense, immortalize their experience at areas and locations they would never visit again. After our vacation, they would send pictures to their old friends and classmates through WeChat (the primary Chinese chatting app) and brag about what they saw.
From my experience growing up, the Chinese people in my family have a habit of extreme boasting. Often, the worst feeling I had as a kid was to feel more as a commodity for status and respect than as a child who was loved. That isn’t to say that my parents cared about me, because they always did. But they always cared about their image as much, if not more. They hushed any problems at home we were facing to family friends, and would spend entire hours at dinner comparing their children. Whether it was grades, athletic achievement, SAT scores, or college admissions, the image and status-obsessed culture is endemic in Chinese culture, and even many Southeast Asian cultures. “I don’t care what anyone thinks of me” is a phrase you will rarely ever hear from a traditional, conservative Chinese family.
And where that obsession with status and image comes from, for my family at least, is an origin of poverty. They are the ones who “made it”, who ascended a poor, mountain village in the Hunan province to America, the epitome of the world’s wealth. My father and my grandparents on his side are the picturesque representations of the nouveau riche in his village: I will always remember images of him in the community gathering center, shaking hands with the children of the village. He was a celebrity because he made it out.
But my father isn’t an anomaly. Recent history has seen the explosion of China’s wealth and middle class, and China’s wealth has quadrupled this century. For so many “new money” Chinese people, like my father’s side of the family the greatest comparison I can give is Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. A lot of people in my family didn’t grow up knowing what it was like to have money. They survived day-to-day, plate to plate, and always wanting more. They wanted better for their kids. They wanted better for their grandkids.
And yes, they did very well. No, my family wasn’t financially stable, but I have never wanted for food on my plate or a roof above my head. That’s substantial progress — and that’s something not everyone in my family can say. And like Gatsby, or any person with a relative rags-to-riches story, that stability feels precarious. That money feels like it can slip away at any moment. I will always remember the absolute chaos that came whenever either of my parents went through struggles with unemployment, and their subtle ways of showing that they felt like they failed their kids.
What I’ll say is that, in a tragic way, these people in my family have always reminded me of Gatsby — and strove to act like it. The obsession with image and status is a way not only to prove that they’ve done better for their kids than what they had as youth, but that, in a way, they always had that wealth, image, and status.
“Gatsby needed more than money: he needed to be someone who had always had it….. this blind faith… [is] the classic story of the fresh start, the second chance,” writes Christ Matthews of MSNBC. And Gatsby tells the story of so many Chinese families like my own, so many Chinese adults like the ones in my family whose families have newly come to money — and aren’t used to it.
It may sound condescending for someone like me to write this. I grew up my whole life in America, but even though growing up in the States seems picturesque compared to the lives so many of my Chinese relatives had, it wasn’t easy.
Due to instabilities in employment, we moved almost every year until I went to high school — and despite the fact that we lived in America, money was still always a problem. My family will do its best to pretend like that wasn’t our reality, but it was. And maybe the stereotypical Chinese tourist without respect for local decorum and civility is a way of sending the world a message. For their entire lives, other people or circumstances have had control over them and told them what they could or couldn’t do, whether that’s a lack of resources or the Communist government of the Cultural Revolution.
Gavin Haynes of Vice says it best here:
“Theirs was a generation raised in the awful shadow of the Cultural Revolution — who often had aeons of good manners wiped clean from them, only to be replaced with a few shallow algorithms about being a good little communist. And now even that has bled away, what you’re looking at is the purest noveau riche you’ll ever see. A new consumer class that started from the bottom, and now that they’re approaching the top, inevitably feel that more is more.:
Haynes goes on to note that the pros far outweigh the cons of Chinese culture. In terms of economics, Chinese consumers are a booming market for tourism and luxury goods around the world. With a trade war between America and China, the buying power of Chinese consumers has become smaller, and Thai businesses are suffering because of it.
And I, as an Asian-American that grew up very much cared and provided for, now see the problems of the misbehaved and rude Chinese tourist to be secondary to the bigger picture. Yes, I wish things were different, that I grew up in a family and community less obsessed with status and image, but understanding the context and where my family and so many nouveau-riche Chinese families come from will give us the ability to empathize.
Now is the time to start.