The Land of Courtesy and Integrity
Who says Chinese people are not capable of returning to being The Land of Courtesy and Integrity? Hong Kong is proof that Chinese people can.
Twenty-four years ago, in 1984, when I went back to Hong Kong for the first time in twenty years, it was truly shocking. The place was completely unlike what I remember as a child.
Back then, in the late fifties and early sixties, the Hong Kong of my childhood was a place of at least courtesy, if not integrity. My mother would take me to market with her and would teach me that one must address the vendors on the street politely as Lao Ban (“boss”) and the workers in the shops as Shi Fu (“master”). In turn they would always address her politely as Shi Nai (“respected madam”) or Xiao Jie (“miss”). In the shops people were always polite and friendly. In school we were taught li rang: to be courteous, considerate, and to let others go first. When the teacher entered the classroom we stood up as a class, bowed and said in unison, “Good afternoon, teacher.” When we met a teacher on the street we bowed and said the same thing. It was considered shameful beyond imagination for siblings to argue, let alone fight, in front of anyone other than the immediate family. We were taught by our elders and by the popular culture surrounding us to be polite and respectful, to be kind to others, and to never speak ill of others. The movies we saw extolled courtesy, integrity, loyalty to country, and of course, being good to parents (xiao).
In 1984, however, when I walked into a store the staff just stared at me and didn’t say a word when I said good morning. When I couldn’t find what I wanted the staff yelled at me as I walked out the door, “If you are not going to buy why did you come in?” When I tried to flag down a taxicab I had to flag down five cabs before I could get in: all the four others I flagged down someone appeared out of nowhere and jumped into the very cab in front of me! The only way I could get a cab was to jump in as soon as the cab stopped, before the previous passenger had gotten out, and to sit right next to him as he paid his fare. By the way, I had been warned about this before my trip, that Hong Kong people were so bad they barged into cabs flagged down by returning overseas Chinese, but I had dismissed it as anti-Hong Kong fabrication – no people in the world, I had reasoned, could be that barbaric, let alone Chinese people! And the children, why, the children! The ones I had contact with were very cute and energetic, but when they opened their mouths filth came out! Little five year olds were spouting words of contempt, cynicism and outright insult to strangers, and then looking to their parents for applause! And the parents proudly smiled and said, “So smart, this cunning little kid!” The children fought with their siblings loudly in public, with the parents approvingly looking on! When I turned on the TV, I could see where it all came from. The people on TV lightly and constantly yelled at, insulted, and lashed out at each other; what was in fashion was cynicism and contempt. Quite the opposite of the Land of Courtesy and Integrity. I left Hong Kong saddened and angry.
In 2007, however, when I returned to Hong Kong after twenty-three years, the place had again changed completely. When I walked into a store, the staff were friendly and actually smiled and nodded. When I asked for directions the store people actually spent time to tell me two different ways to get there. When a taxicab stopped and my wife mistakenly thought that it had stopped for her, the person for whom it had actually stopped said that it was all right and waved us to go ahead and get into the cab when we started to apologize and defer the cab to him. The children I saw were actually polite and friendly! And on TV, the people spoke politely and were decent to each other. People told me that the famous Korean series “Da Chang Jin”, which I saw in America and which portrayed a very kind, polite, and idealistic Korean woman doctor, had been all the rage in Hong Kong. Good gracious! The wheel has turned; Hong Kong is back in the folds of civilization! Who says there’s no hope for Chinese people? I left Hong Kong elated.
Was it because I was better dressed last year, compared to 1984? No, not at all, I was still in my usual North American overseas Chinese plain garb. Was it because I was older now and so more respectable? No, because my children report the same thing: people, they say, are nice in Hong Kong.
Of course, these are all things on the surface that I see; deeper down there must be a lot of things not to one’s liking. It is undeniable, however, that customs in Hong Kong have improved.
Yes, Chinese people can improve; it’s entirely possible for Chinese people to return to being The Land of Courtesy and Integrity…
Feng Xin-ming 冯欣明