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No, I like Chinese people; I just hate Chinese tourists.
There is a wide range of foreign travelers that come to China. They fit into nice little subcategories like “backpackers” and “businessmen.” They either behave themselves properly or heap embarrassment upon their native lands. It’s a coin toss. Chinese travelers however, by and large fit into a single category, the Chinese tourist. I know, stereotyping an entire nation of people is naughty and at least impolite, especially when the stereotype is not flattering. But hear me out; my opinion comes from long experience and many encounters with the perplexing ways of the Chinese tourist. Also, I make a distinction between Chinese people and Chinese tourists. Expat scientists are still trying to figure it out, but something happens to a Chinese man when he takes a vacation and joins a tour group. He becomes extremely obnoxious. It is this phenomenon I wish to expose. So let me be clear; I like Chinese people in general. I just hate Chinese tourists.
The average Zhou who joins a Chinese tour group is at least in his 30s, most often much older and retired. He has money, and he’s not afraid to use it. He of course wants something for it, but your average Chinese tourist is willing to spend a lot more on a nice big meal than most foreigners would on vacation. Traveling in China is still a luxury that most cannot afford. Therefore Chinese travelers are out to make the most of the occasion. First, they get dressed up. Compared to a Chinese tourist, most foreign travelers look rather grungy, especially backpackers. Whether scaling the Great Wall, hiking in a national park, or river rafting, Chinese tourists have to look their best. Slick-soled dress shoes and high heels are standard wear, and dress shirts with the occasional tie are ubiquitous at all tourist attractions. It never ceases to amaze me when I see people hiking up mountains in their finest. I’ve also lost count of how many times Chinese tourists have looked at my sneakers or hiking boots and commented with sincere admiration, “Hmm, it’s probably much easier to hike in those shoes.” You think?
Next, Mr. Chinese Tourist joins a tour group. Traveling in China is a group activity, no doubt about it. I’ve met countless foreign travelers that have struck out on their own, for up to a year at a time and across several continents. True, this kind of traveler is a special breed, but not an uncommon one. Chinese tourists however rarely travel in packs of less than 10. In China, travelers consider the more the merrier. Further, joining a Chinese tour group is like joining a team. You don’t just eat and travel together; you wear the same hats or pins or track suits (I’m not kidding) or all of the above. Your flag-and-megaphone-wielding guide is your leader, and you’d follow him into the gaping maw of hell if he told you there were good souvenirs there. The tour group becomes your identity.
Red Hats following their colorfully dressed guide and her yellow flag in Dali, Yunnan Province.
I didn’t realize how strong this identity was until I rebelled against it during my first Chinese tour group experience. I and my girlfriend at the time joined a tour to see Zhangjiajie National Park in the northwest of Hunan Province. I decided I didn’t really want to wear the group-issued red-and-white hat. I had already joined the tour group against my better judgment, but I couldn’t bring myself to fully join the herd. My girlfriend was confused. “But you have to wear it.” “I have to wear it? Why? Believe me I don’t think the guide will forget that there’s a lao wai (foreigner) in his group, and I’m sure I won’t have any problem keeping track of our guide or the rest of the group.” So we met up with our fellow tour members that morning and immediately several of them asked why I wasn’t wearing my hat. My girlfriend made excuses for me by saying I had forgotten it in the hotel room, but I don’t think we were fooling anyone. Perhaps it was only my imagination but I got the very tangible feeling that thereafter we were not considered part of the group. Not only did no one really talk to us but they always kept some space between us. The tour guide didn’t acknowledge us. This didn’t bother me at all but it amused me thoroughly. The next morning was even better. This time my girlfriend didn’t wear her hat either, and it again became a topic of conversation. And then, as if they hadn’t realized it was an option before, several other members took off their hats. On each successive day of the tour, more and more members stopped wearing their hats, and by the end only two elderly members still had their hats on. I didn’t know whether to feel proud or guilty. Either way, I had upset the tour group dynamic.
My tour group at Zhangjiajie National Park, Hunan Province.
Not only do they travel in groups but they like to go to places guaranteed to be re nao (热闹). This is best translated as “hot and noisy” but its connotation is more like “lively.” To most foreigners, “hot and noisy” places are to be avoided. To Chinese people, re nao means a good time. Here’s a simple example: you stand outside of two restaurants with comparable food and prices. One is packed to the rafters, and you’ll likely have to wait and/or sit at a table with strangers. The other is nearly empty and rather quiet. Which restaurant would you prefer? Most Chinese people would choose the crowded restaurant while most westerners would go for the quiet one. It’s just one of those things you have to chalk up to cultural differences. You see, Chinese people like crowds partly because they like doing what everyone else is doing. If you go to Emei Shan you must see the sunrise, even if it’s cloudy and cold and you’d rather not get up at 5am. The hotel I stayed at didn’t even give its guests a choice; they banged on every door assuming that everyone was there to see the sunrise. Wherever you go, you must take a picture in front of every single object and sign, especially the famous ones, with you either grinning broadly and flashing a peace sign or standing stolidly, but nothing in between. These are among the foremost rules of being a Chinese tourist.
There are other ways in which Chinese and western tastes in tourist attractions differ. Many Chinese people don’t quite see what’s so great about ancient architecture or other things that foreigners associate as “very Chinese.” Chinese tourists have grown up with these things and of course aren’t searching for the authentic Chinese experience like most foreigner travelers are. For them, the “real China” is called life and they live it every day. So when they travel on vacation, they’re looking to get away from all that and see something special to them. My second experience as part of a Chinese tour group drilled this lesson into me. This time I was with an even bigger group, all of whom were my coworkers at Melody. Part of the itinerary for our 4-day tour of Hainan (the island province touted as “the Hawaii of China”) was a visit to a temple that contained a large statue of Buddha. Admittedly I didn’t know anything more about it than that, and there was no mention of any such temple in my Lonely Planet guide. (So it must not be worth visiting, right?) And I’ll also admit that I’ve seen more than enough Buddhas and temples in China so that missing one is really no tragedy. However, I was more interested in that temple than anything else we had seen so far. Then I learned that we were replacing it with a visit to an “authentic” minority village. If you know anything about these showcase minority villages in China, you know they’re anything but authentic. When I expressed that the Buddha would be cooler than the minority village, I was rebuffed by everyone within earshot. “Who wants to see some old Buddha? Only old people like that stuff. Let’s go see the Li Minority Village!” So we did, and it was everything I expected. And my coworkers loved it immensely and took pictures of them next to every last one of the “natives” and bought enough souvenirs made from coconut husks to fill the bus.
An "authentic" Li wedding and village house in Hainan Province
For the same reasons my coworkers couldn’t understand my interest in seeing “some old Buddha” so it is inconceivable to many foreigners traveling in China why the Chinese tourism bureau goes to great lengths to “ruin” tourist attractions. Instead of leaving sections of the Great Wall in crumbling yet majestic conditions, they completely rebuild them (I mean with newly quarried stones), add a cable car up the side, and pipe in loud pop music. Westerners understand the impetus behind stall after stall of souvenir vendors (money), but why are they selling shoddy facsimiles of Mickey Mouse and baby dolls dressed like Amish farmers that play music and dance when you flick a switch? Why? Because that’s what Chinese tourists like. Why do “hiking trails” in China mean wide swaths of neat stone steps cutting through a forest or up a mountain, lined with snack and souvenir stands? Because Chinese people like to hike in dress shoes and high heels, remember? Actually it’s the “hard core” Chinese tourists that actually hike up these manicured trails; the rest take cable cars or elevators up the mountain. Yes that’s right, elevators. I stared in shock and disbelief for at least 5 minutes at the elevator up the side of Tianzi Peak in Zhangjiajie National Park. Here the sheer cliff face of the citadel-like mountain (exactly the type of scenery that draws people to the park in the first place) had been covered up with cement and steel reinforcements to support a glass elevator. After all, the hike up would take a whole 3 or 4 hours and cable cars are passe.
The elevator at Tianzi Peak, Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province.
So foreign tourists need no longer wonder why ancient buildings and monuments receive complete makeovers so that they look like Disney-esque versions of ancient China. Give up trying to figure out why the local tourism board improves access to natural tourist attractions by destroying vast portions of the natural beauty that draws tourists there in the first place. To the local entrepreneur, it is much more lucrative to make your business/tourist attraction appealing to Chinese tourists instead of foreign ones. Unfortunately, the amazing difference in what is appealing to westerners and Chinese means that you can only choose one group, and because of this many sights in China have become completely unappealing to – and devoid of – foreign tourists.
At this point the reader might be thinking that while these aspects of the Chinese tourist are reason enough to avoid joining a Chinese tour group they aren’t enough to inspire any sort of loathing for them. Yes, certainly, and I’m not so easily stirred to hatred. So let me tell you why the average Chinese tourist makes me want to punch them in the face: pollution. I’m talking about every kind, from littering to noise pollution. I could still derive some enjoyment from even the most Chinese version of a tourist attraction if it weren’t for all the Chinese tourists there.
Pollution comes in many shapes and sizes, not the least annoying of which is noise pollution. You can tell me that American tourists are loud. I know they can be. But Chinese tourists are hands-down the loudest on earth, especially if they’ve been drinking. I can understand this somewhat. It’s their vacation; they’re having a good time. It’s annoying but understandable. But even without the noise of the tourists, the racket of the constant, poorly enunciated trivia emanating from tour guide megaphones would drive construction workers mad. If you want to enjoy the tranquility of nature in China, you will have to either visit it in the middle of the night or during another SARS outbreak. (I don’t wish for another outbreak, but I must say I loved traveling during that May Holiday.) Otherwise “tranquility” at a Chinese tourist attraction remains only a holy grail for foreign travelers. During a recent trip to the Dazu Buddhist carvings in Chongqing Municipality, I observed a tour guide using her megaphone to address a solitary tourist. It was just the two of them. The room we were in wasn’t crowded or noisy. I wanted to wrench the megaphone from her hand and shout into it at her, “You could whisper and he would still hear you!” Instead I took a picture and counted it as another wonderful encounter with Chinese tourism.
The guide with her solitary tourist, still using her megaphone, Dazu, Chongqing Municipality.
However, for me noise pollution is nowhere near as infuriating as the wholesale littering I see whenever I travel in China. I grew up in the mountains just outside of Yosemite National Park in California. It’s a beautiful area. In the US, it’s a commonly held belief that littering is bad. In California, it would make you a pariah (along with the smokers). In Yosemite, it’s a hanging offense. So I find it difficult to remain calm when I see tourists littering en mass in an area of great natural beauty. After all, they are destroying what they have come to admire simply because it would be inconvenient to dispose of their garbage properly.
My first memorable experience with polluting Chinese tourists was also the most shocking. I was enjoying a cruise up the Yangtze River just a few months before the completion of the Three Gorges Dam would begin submerging much of the area’s scenery. I was gazing out my cabin window on a quiet moonlit night with only the hum of the boat’s engine and gentle plopping sounds disturbing the silence. Gentle plopping sounds? I leaned out the window to get a view of the port side of the boat. Trash was literally raining out the cabin windows. And it wasn’t just small things; I saw big bags of trash, big enough to make audible plops over the noise of the boat. This is of course to say nothing of the human waste discharged into the river as the ship’s public bathrooms consisted only of a long urinal/fecal ditch that drained into the river like a rain gutter. This was just one boat with at least several hundred tourists, among a fleet of boats daily plodding up and down the Yangtze, the worlds longest toilet. By the way, every cabin in the boat had its own trash can, but the window was apparently just as handy.
Returning to my favorite Zhangjiajie National Park tour, among my tour group was an average Chinese family, 30ish parents and their young son. On the one occasion that we actually walked up the staircase of one of the smaller mountains, I witnessed another senseless act of pollution. Keep in mind that on this trail one could actually stand at one trash can and see the next. As we rested, I watched the little boy finish some candy and, standing right next to a trash can, fling the wrapper off into the woods. I lost it. “Hey! There’s a trash can right next to you.” My girlfriend grabbed my arm and begged me not to say anything more. “But he just threw his garbage into the woods!” His parents lowered their heads but said nothing and did nothing to discipline their child. I thought that was the most frustrating thing I had seen ... until the next trip, and the trip after that.
To be fair, I must acknowledge that I have come across one tourist attraction in China that goes to great lengths to prevent pollution. The park rangers in Jiuzhaigou National Park in Sichuan Province are extremely diligent in enforcing the park's smoking and littering bans, both of which carry heavy fines for violators. There are no food stands in the park except for a centrally located tourist center with plenty of trash cans throughout its area. Tourists are not allowed to stay overnight in the park, legally anyway. I actually got in trouble for spitting sunflower seed shells instead of collecting them and disposing of them in a trash can. I was very impressed, but now I must get back to my ranting.
When I express my frustration about polluting tourists to my Chinese friends I always get the same answer: “China is a developing country.” Some of my western friends have fleshed this idea out a bit more. They point out that attention to environmental issues usually only comes after a population’s more basic needs have been addressed. In other words, the average Zhou can’t be bothered with the pollution of the Yangtze River when he has to worry about feeding his family or even how to afford that bigger TV set. My answer to both groups is, “Bullshit.”
I acknowledge that China is a developing country and that many issues require education drives to solve them. So I would accept this argument for issues such as the unofficial AIDS/HIV epidemic in China. However, individual pollution (as opposed to industrial pollution) is only the result of a lack of common sense. I don’t think any of the people on that boat tossing their trash into the river thought they were doing something good for the Yangtze. If they didn’t realize they were hurting the river then they’re utter idiots, which has nothing to do with the development of their nation. On that trip, I even overheard people pointing to the trash floating in the river and lining the banks and commenting on how terrible it was, which only frustrated me more. I doubted that those people hadn’t thrown one ounce of trash overboard themselves. At best one could argue that the tourists who litter don’t know how much they’re hurting the environment when they do it. But can anyone explain the reasoning behind someone who goes to an area of natural beauty for the purpose of seeing said beauty and then consciously performs actions they know will damage that beauty? The only answer I can come up with is that they don’t care.
Likewise I am aware of the economists’ formula my western friends always point out when I bring up the pollution issue. To me that explains why the government and most Chinese people would pay more attention to the benefits of projects like the Three Gorges Dam (irrigation, flood control, generation of electricity, and so on) than the detriments (destruction of an ecosystem, submergence of world-famous natural and archeological sights, and so on). It doesn’t explain how relatively wealthy tourists have no concept of the damage they are doing. The only need they’re concerned with is getting their garbage out of their way. So the people in the boat threw it out the window instead of putting it in the trash bins in their cabins. The little boy dropped his candy wrapper into the forest instead of into the trash can right next to him, and his parents took no notice. And every time I get on a train, I get to see Chinese travelers toss bottles, plastic bags, and more out the window instead of putting them on the trays between each column of berths or at least into the trash cans that are at either end of the train car. If education or the satisfaction of other needs is necessary to combat this problem, then this only leaves me with the conclusion that human beings (since these theories do not only apply to China) don’t care about hurting others or other living things until they find out that they are also indirectly hurting themselves. How depressing is that? Perhaps that’s what makes me so angry about this littering, because it’s an indictment of human behavior that I didn’t notice until it was brought to my attention through observation of a foreign culture.
Hmm, this is getting a bit heavy for my website to handle. I should stick to low-grade humor and leave this stuff for people with fancy titles. However, my issues with Chinese tourists have been something I needed to get off my chest in a public forum. I’ll leave off with a final plea. Please, if you are a Chinese tourist or if you’re thinking of becoming a Chinese tourist, consider staying home. But if you must go on vacation, I hope you’ll take my comments here to heart. Thank you.
And now to get to work on a more tactful Chinese translation of this article.
Written June 17, 2004 by Shelley Timmins (shelleytimminsatyahoodotcom)
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