top of page

A Gweilo in Beijing

A few years ago—way before Covid-19 made the word "China" a four-letter-word—I spent a week touring Beijing, or more specifically chasing the ghost of Emperor Ming from one musty temple to the next with my son and some friends of ours. I came away from that excursion with some rather strong feelings about the Chinese people, at least those residing in Beijing.

In short, I found the Chinese people to be, well, somewhat rude and crude.

That’s the bad news.

I feel just as strongly, though, that the Chinese people can become polite and refined.

That’s the good news.

I could have solved the problem rather quickly by sending my Mom to Beijing for a few weeks. After a few days of hearing her yelling, “Mind your manners,” and “What, were you raised in a barn?” even the most set-in-their-ways Chinese would come around.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed my trip and I was captivated by the mystique and wonder of China. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t take the time to critique.

But if China wants to continue to increase the number of tourists and business people coming to their wonderful country, somebody needs to educate the populace—both residents and, in particular, business owners—about the dos and don’ts of polite society that are being followed by virtually every other country on the planet.

Here are a few of suggestions from this Gweilo—a Cantonese slang term for foreigners—to the Chinese people:

—Smile. At least once a day. Try it. It won’t kill you. I promise you.

—Stop spitting in public.

—Do not use your finger to blow your nose onto the sidewalk.

—If you bump into someone, say “excuse me” or “I’m sorry”, even if you only say it in Chinese.

—Don’t cut in front of people in line.

—Don’t push.

—Walk to the right. Always, whether it’s in a hallway, or going down stairs, or up an escalator. If everybody walks to the right, then everybody will get to where they need to be quicker and with fewer bruises.

—Don’t yell. Talking louder than the other person does not make you right.

—Pause and take a breath every now and then when you are speaking.

—Put a reasonable price on that item you want to sell and then sell it for that price. Enough with the haggling; life is too short as it is.

—One less scoop of coffee grounds in that pot please. I love strong coffee and normally put just one packet of artificial sweetener in my cup; in China I needed three packets of raw sugar. Strong coffee is good; nuclear coffee is too much.

—Put napkins on your restaurant tables. If you don’t, everyone will continue to just wipe their hands on your tablecloths.

—If you do put napkins on your tables, make sure they are really napkins and not those thin tissues that are masquerading as napkins. Here’s a clue. If it breaks apart when you wipe up three drops of spilled green tea, it is not a napkin.

—And while you’re setting the table, how about some salt and pepper shakers?

—Gray is not a color. Introduce some bright colors to your wardrobe. Try yellow or pink or green.

—See a dentist once a year.

—Street cleaning should not be an old woman with a handmade straw broom moving a pile of dusty dirt back and forth from one end of the street to the other. Try using a water hose.

—Put individual toilet paper dispensers into each stall, not one huge dispenser in the common area where the sinks are. No one wants to stand there peeling off strips of toilet paper in front of complete strangers, basically signaling that, Yes indeed, I’m about to go have a bowel movement.

—Eventually, and I know you don’t want to hear this, but all of those holes in the restroom floor are going to have to be replaced by flushing toilets. Look, it’s just not sanitary. I made it through my entire trip only having to use the hole in the floor once, and I am proud to say that I hit 80 percent of the target. It’s that other 20 percent where the sanitary issue comes in.

—Are you aware that they make Diet Coke? Stock it.

—Every bicycle in Beijing looks like it’s from the 1920s. Break out the heavy-duty soap and water, the wire brush and the WD-40 and get that chrome sparkling. You won’t drive in a filthy car so why ride on a filthy bike. As my Mom used to say, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”

—Every Chinese person should learn just four words or phrases in English—hello, thank you, bathroom/restroom, and how much?, so that you can greet a Gweilo, thank a Gweilo and answer a Gweilo’s two most frequently asked questions.

—And if you work in a restaurant, you should learn these seven words—water, ice, coffee, glass, fork, spoon and knife, because, trust me, a Gweilo is going to ask for them.

Incredibly, we stayed at a high-end, 300-room hotel that specialized in hosting tour groups and not one of the waiters or waitresses knew any of these words. How long would it take the Food & Beverage Director to teach the staff those seven words so that we grown adults would not have to do Charades at every meal pantomiming eating with a fork or screwing the top off a bottled water. Although it is possible that the wait staff knew exactly what we were asking for and enjoyed watching us act like monkeys.

—Don’t worry about learning other languages. A German or a Frenchman or a South African is going to recognize the word “fork” 99 times out of a 100, but they will have no clue what a “cha zi” is. English words like hello, thank you and water are universal; little aborigine kids in New Zealand know what they mean, so why can’t your waiters?

—Candy is supposed to taste sweet, you know, like with sugar in it. I don’t care if it’s wrapped just like candy in a colorful wrapper, and I don’t care if it’s stuck right in the middle of those long tables with mounds of candy, duck livers are not candy. Talk about being surprised.

—Take some of that tax revenue and spend it on fixing the city’s sewage system. If you live in Beijing you are used to the smell. If you are a newcomer, it can be quite horrendous. It’s strange to be admiring a $50,000 platinum Rolex on Wangfujing Street in the window of a high-end watch store manned by men and women in smart black suits while having your nostrils assailed by a stench that you would only expect to smell at the city dump. Your eyes are saying one thing and your nose is saying another. Not a good mix.

—If someone asks you a question, look up and make eye contact with them, whether you understand what they are saying or not. Try to be friendly.

—Put the English name of your store or restaurant on your sign under the Chinese name. And make sure that the English translated name includes verbiage like “restaurant” or “market” or “appliances” so tourists and business travelers will know what you are selling. You live in the second largest city in China with business competitors on every corner; can you really afford to miss out on new business because a foreigner has no idea what you are selling?

—Don’t be so serious. Lighten up. Tell a joke.Laugh out loud.

Chinese people get it so perfectly right in certain areas.

Your tourist attractions and historical landmarks, from the Forbidden City to the Great Wall of China, are unrivaled. Your airport is modern and magnificent. Your Beijing duck melts in one’s mouth. Your KTVs are the greatest entertainment idea since Bruce Lee movies. Your outdoor food markets tantalize every one of a person’s senses. Your thousands of foot massage parlors are heaven on earth. Your taxis are incredibly fast and incredibly inexpensive. Your minimal police presence and almost non-existent military presence in the city is a surprise and a joy.

At the end of my first dinner in Beijing, I noticed that a Chinese guest at our table had his left hand cupped over his mouth for what seemed like the longest time. I was a bit bewildered until I noticed that in his right hand was a toothpick and I realized he was being courteous to the other guests at the table by covering his mouth while he worked the toothpick. I watched dozens of Chinese people doing the same thing at the conclusion of other meals on my trip. In America, we don’t cover our mouths and instead just dig away with that toothpick in full view of the other table guests, which is rather uncouth.

The toothpick thing told me two things.

First, that even we Gweilos can become more polite and refined by observing other cultures.

And second, Chinese people have the desire to be polite and refined but they need assistance in those areas because they can’t correct what they don’t know is wrong.

So, I say let’s start the process with just one smile.

Every day.

bottom of page