Expats and locals reveal the most egregious faux pas of Western visitors to China

By Yin Lu Source:Global Times Published: 2016-5-2 18:33:01

While Chinese tourists may be notorious overseas for their bad behavior, their foreign counterparts in China have also caused controversy among locals with their manners, or lack thereof. Photo: Li Hao/GT

As the operator of a guesthouse, Beijing native Arti has seen his fair share of foreign tourists - both those who are well-behaved and those who are not so much.

Though he emphasizes that badly behaved foreign tourists are by no means the norm, these bad apples tend to stand out especially because of the nature of Arti's business: an Airbnb bed-and-breakfast that he runs out of his courtyard home in one of Beijing's older areas. The foremost problem he's run into? Noise.

"A number of laowai tourists tend to return home late, and they might bang the door closed or talk loudly inside the house, which annoys the neighbors," he told Metropolitan.

That's because courtyard houses, traditional stone structures that find residents living in close quarters, aren't exactly designed for young partiers.

In addition to lacking modern soundproofing, courtyards are often occupied by families and older folks whose harmony depends on a bit of late-night consideration.

 "You can't say it's uncivilized behavior, because they don't know that it disturbs other people," Arti said.

"They usually don't speak loudly in public, so I guess they just feel like they can talk once they are inside their own place."

Tourist behavior has been a hot topic in China in recent years, thanks to a number of stories in both the domestic and foreign media of Chinese tourists behaving badly, everything from scrawling their names on priceless relics to allowing their children to relieve themselves on the street.

The Chinese government became so concerned about the bad rap its tourists were earning that it issued guidelines for civilized behavior while traveling abroad. Meanwhile, in January 2015, the China National Tourism Administration announced that it would be blacklisting badly behaved tourists, which would not only lead to public shame, but could prevent them from traveling in the future.

Yet amid the media hubbub surrounding Chinese tourists, some local residents have pointed out that foreign visitors to China aren't so perfect themselves, an issue that's gaining increasing importance as the number of foreign tourists grows.

According to data released by the China National Tourism Administration, of about 26 million entries by foreigners into China in 2015, around 8.25 million came for sightseeing and leisure purposes. Many of them traveled to Beijing, which has given the city a front-row seat to the best and worst of overseas visitors.

What annoys the locals

It wasn't long after opening his bed-and-breakfast that Arti realized he would need to do something to combat the growing problem with after-hours noise.

He posted notices to guests who would be staying out late that a number of their neighbors in hutong are elderly and turn in early. But he said many guests ignore the warnings, which has left him in something of a pickle. Though he doesn't want to negatively impact his guests' stay (or his own reviews), he's also constantly worried about his relationship with his neighbors. Sometimes the stress gets so bad that Arti finds himself unable to sleep at night.

 "Westerners have a stronger culture of going clubbing at night. Many enjoy drinking and return late at night. Sometimes they don't return until 3 am or 4 am."

And then there are just stories of plain old bad behavior that has nothing to do with cultural difference. One of the worst Arti heard from a friend, who also runs an Airbnb guesthouse.

The friend said they recently hosted a foreign guest traveling with his son, who was 11 or 12. After they left, the cleaning lady went to their room to tidy up, but dropped her supplies when she saw what the boy had done - defecated in the bed.

"In general, these cases are rare, accounting for only a small portion of tourists," Arti said. "Maybe the number of foreigners who behave in an uncivilized way are smaller than ours proportionally. But when you compare the worst behavior of either group, they are no better than us."

Some people believe that one reason for bad behavior among Western tourists is that they lower their standards for etiquette once they begin traveling in China. Photo: Li Hao/GT

World's worst tourists?

On reddit.com, there are several popular threads dedicated to questions such as which tourist behaviors are the most annoying and who are the world's worst tourists.

Among them is one entitled "What is considered rude in your country that foreigners may not realize?" which has attracted almost 4,000 comments in the four months since it was posted.

According to some of the posters, who hail largely from Western countries, standing on the wrong side of the escalator, talking loudly in restaurants and not tipping are among the rudest things that tourists do.

As far as China is concerned, tourists from other countries are advised to stay as neutral as possible when discussing culturally or politically sensitive topics, to politely refuse gifts several times before finally accepting them, and to be aware that their host will continue refilling their plates as long as they eat. 

According to Kirk, an American musician who has been living in Beijing for years, among the biggest faux pas he sees among foreign visitors (especially younger ones) is their tendency to be loud, though he added that most are well behaved.

"The ones who come here are either too jetlagged to be obnoxious or just so overwhelmed by everything. They usually seem to be very meek when they come here," he said.

Of course, it gets much worse. Pamela Wu, a local in her 30s who works in education, remembers one instance a couple of years ago in which she was walking through a park in Shanghai and saw a young American man whistling and yelling at a Chinese woman.

"He was yelling, 'Have you ever had an American?' and repeated it several times," Wu said. "He was laughing with his friend. They were really obnoxious."

Wu, who has traveled all over the world, added that bad behavior isn't limited to any one place or nationality.

"As a tourist, you are an outsider in a foreign country, so you should be sincere and prudent in every aspect, and never act as if you are superior." 

The ill effects of lowered standards

Another source of offense, according to Arti, is when tourists fail to be culturally sensitive, or even take a condescending attitude toward their Chinese hosts.

"Some mock Chinese dishes like chicken feet, animal organs and jellyfish, acting culturally superior," he said.

"They can be surprised and amazed, but they should still be polite."

Once, several of Arti's Chinese friends treated some European guests to dinner at a nice restaurant, and were translating the names of each dish and explaining the ingredients. Upon learning that one of them was a plate of animal organs, one of the visitors acted shocked and then started laughing.

"He was very dismissive, using the word 'stupid,' asking why Chinese people eat these things that should be tossed away. He was very arrogant, which made everybody else feel embarrassed," Arti said.

Arti recalls another instance of outright rudeness, in which a friend took a client from Germany shopping at a supermarket and the client tossed a wrapper on the ground. When he was told that such behavior was not acceptable, he responded, "Why not? It's China."

"That comment was really hurtful," Arti said. "What he meant was that since China is dirty and disorderly already and all Chinese people do it, he should be able to do it too."

The tourist added that he acted like a gentleman in his own country, but since he was in China, he felt he could lower his standards.

Arti concludes there are two kinds of foreigners who behave badly in China - those who were already lacking in manners, and those whose arrogance causes them to lower their standards.

Grant Dou, a Chinese-Canadian who moved to China in 2012 and is the owner/manager of Panda Guides, an expat service provider and travel guide publisher based in Beijing, agreed with Arti that some foreigners lower their standards for conduct once they arrive in China.

"Many foreigners who have stayed in China for a while might catch some bad habits," said Dou, who said he has witnessed many foreigners jaywalking in China. "There is no limit to the kind of impact this environment can have on people."

Becoming responsible tourists

Still, Dou says for the most part, the tourists that Panda Guides serves are fairly well behaved.

Among the reasons for this, he said, is that a majority of the Western tourists who come to China are those who not only have good educations, but a strong interest in China's culture, history and scenery.

He added that there are a number of Western visitors on the other end of the spectrum, who make inquires about the local customs, such as what to take as presents and whether there are any taboos they should avoid if they are visiting a local family.

As a result, Panda Guides has begun offering guidance on etiquette in China, reminding foreigners of things such as avoiding touching a Chinese person's body unless you are good friends, waiting to be told where to sit when dining in a group and using two hands when handing out or receiving business cards. 

Arti agreed that when one tells people to follow certain rules, most will respect that, which is great.

"Foreigners are a mixed crowd. The so-called uncivilized behaviors are isolated cases, and the majority are nice people," said Arti.

Newspaper headline: Tourists behaving badly

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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