Are Chinese people rude or are we just too ethnocentric?

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My weekly lunches with a foreign co-worker  have too often degenerated into a recap of all of the ‘rude’ behavior that we have observed (or been subjected to) since we last met. Like being shoved into the side of a bus by a crowd or having someone almost run us over with their scooter as we crossed a campus street. Or seeing someone spit right in front of our shoes on the sidewalk.

Sometimes we don’t even have to talk about such behavior in the past tense. It is happening even as we eat lunch. A boy lets a door slam in a girl’s face (and then they go and sit down to have lunch together). Or a boy is talking loudly on his cell phone right behind us apparently forgetting where he is. 

“Chinese people are just rude”, my friend remarked to me recently. “People simply don’t know how to be polite here”.

I thought about this statement for a moment before responding. A few years ago, when I first got here, I probably would have wholeheartedly agreed with him. The pushing, shoving, spitting, peeing, yelling, cutting, obstructing, etc, was at first overwhelming for me.

In fact, if you have been a regular reader of my blog, you know that I have often vented my feelings about this kind of behavior.

But after being here for a few years, something bothers me about calling this behavior outright rude. I’m not sure anymore that it’s fair to use that label.

“What does the word ‘rude’ actually mean?” I asked my friend. “Who decides what ‘rude’ means?”

This very question has been bothering me for a while now. Thousands of foreigners come to this country each year and very quickly condemn Chinese culture as rude and uncivilized.

But aren’t we making this judgement on the basis of a comparison between our cultures and Chinese culture? Are we not defining rude behavior as the opposite of the social norms in our countries?

And if so, is it not a bit arrogant to come here and tell the Chinese that they are rude?

I recently asked a group of students about the way that this uncouth behavior is perceived

“Do you notice when someone pushes past you to get on a bus or when someone cuts in front of you at the bank because ‘they’re in a big hurry’”?

Most of my students said no. Why would they notice or even care? After all, they have grown up in such a culture. These behaviors are just normal here.

Yet, I am unwilling to completely let the Chinese off the hook for their ‘rudeness’. Aren’t there some behaviors that should be condemned in every society? Like when an old person is knocked to the ground while everyone is rushing to catch a subway train? Or when a scooter darts out into the street without looking to see if a car is coming?  Or when a child takes is allowed to take a pee right in the middle of the vegetable section in the supermarket?

Or is that just my ethnocentrism kicking in again?

I suppose that at one time, like many other delusional foreigners, I somehow thought that I could contribute to changing the ‘system’ here. I thought that maybe I could help my Chinese students and friends to understanding that looking out for other people is also important.

Who was I kidding? And what was I thinking? This is not my country.

In the end, you either have to accept the way the culture is here or get out. And if you accept it, it probably won’t be along before it becomes a part of you.

33 Responses to Are Chinese people rude or are we just too ethnocentric?

  1. Dafydd says:

    The question whether the Chinese are masters of rudeness or not is a very simple one to answer. Asians are, on the whole, a polite, collectivist people except the Chinese who are predominantly a rude, “me first” people. It used to be you needed to go to China to discover this, but the Chinese are now taking their rudeness with them abroad and people the world over remark about how rude and uncivilised they are. For as long as the rest of the world view them as a rude, uncivilised and primitive people who invent nothing and copy everything, this is the correct opinion to come to, whether the sinophile fanatics cannot take it or not. There is really no need to ask this question. The answer is too obvious.

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  2. expatseek says:

    The Chinese can be abrupt and in public spaces are equipped to shift ahead to get what they want. I’m not sure this equates to rudeness.

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  3. Jim Krugh says:

    I am in China and a computer/network glitch prevented me from getting to the discussion board so I will post it hear. It concerns the issue of English names Chinese students choose.

    Agatha, a regular contributor to the forum mentioned an issue of English names. I hope that you get a chance to read this.

    I think that I posted something similar to this previously. Please forgive me if I did and write it off as another “senior moment”.

    Student names can be an issue. I had a female middle school student choose the name “Easy”. A university student I had chose the name “Swallow”.

    I am an older male teacher, so in order to avoid what would have been a verey uncomfortable situation for my student, I opted to contact her Chinese English teacher to explain. And, yes, the explanation to the Chinese teacher was inteeresting.

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    reply Reply:

    You’re looking at the names from your perceived interpretation of the names. Swallow, there is a species of bird called “Swallow”. It does not necessarily mean that she swallows!

    Easy, what do you think the student meant by naming herself easy? This is a female middle school student. If you know anything about Chinese female middle school students they are very naive and far more innocent than western middle school girls. The meaning to her most definitely does not mean that she is easy in the terms most foreign men would interpret it.

    Your response to these names is your perception of the meaning of the names, not the perception of the student. did you bother to find out why they chose the names?

    I hope you realize that these people are not living in a western society and the stigma or taboo attached to certain types of names have no relevance in China, only to you or any other foreigner with your preconceived notion of what the meaning is to you and your experience. The problem is not with the students and what they have chosen for their names. The meaning is not the same to them as it is to you. So I don’t think the problem lies with the students. Your responsibility should be to inform them that while in China it could be an acceptable name, the names hold a different meaning in the west and they will need to change it if they ever have the opportunity to go to a western, English country. The chances of that are very slim, so in context to this article, you need to change to suit your environment, not the environment to you.

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    steve Reply:

    I’m here in China to teach English culture as well as language. The reality is virtually nobody from my culture would ever name a child “Swallow” nor “Easy”. If I hear anyone use such a name, I have the responsibility to tell an adult guardian the culture implications of it!

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    Junior LaRoche Reply:

    About names: Swallow is a bird too. It is the same in USA or any country. Some names sound funny, and you insult them, make of them, or so on. I mean, some people in USA are called Dick. Get your mind out of the gutter and be an adult. I think there are rude people everything. I knew people in USA, and we always see this in 1970s movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Phantasm, etc., people pissing along the road side.

    I think it is the culture shock. People are lost in the mystery. I have been in China for 7 years. I have been to 8 countries. America and Europeans can be rude too. Some people need to get out more, I think before they just starting assuming.

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    Anon Reply:

    Before you choose to question your interpretation of these children’s English names, why is it that you cannot question why they need to have an English name in the first place. When foreigners (the West) decide to go go to different countries, do they change their names for the host countries people to better pronounce and relate? No, they do not. The fact that they are at least willing to try and make an English name strictly for making your/our life easier should be commended rather than reprimanded. They should not have to be condemned for yours or anyone else’s ignorance or lack of decorum.

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  4. Claude says:

    OK, I understand everything your saying they are rude and alot of them do lie when you sign a contract there very happy but when it is time for them to do something to fit there idea for the contract they think they can do anything they what too, it sad they have to be that way and they do the same here in america there rude and they need to go back to china …….

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  5. Beryl OMonkiss says:

    Don’t think for a minute that Chinese don’t care about people who cut in line ahead of them. They do. They just don’t react to it (usually). I know a LOT of Chinese who find it deplorable that a child’s parents allow him to pee in the grocery store. Again, others just don’t react to it.

    Though one won’t often see children peeing in a store in America, we do see people who cut in line in the grocery store. The difference is that Americans become indignant when it happens. If Chinese did not regard certain behaviors as inconsiderate, many of us westerners wouldn’t be shown so many acts of kindness and consideration from complete strangers in China.

    Yes, China can really p*ss me off, but there are so many other things to consider about life in China.

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  6. Cymbidium_Smile says:

    Hi,

    I’ve read a lot of these comments and have found a lot of what has been said very interesting.

    I am British Chinese and so have two VERY conflicting points of view! Typically British in many ways imaginable – from my disdain for public displays of extreme emotions to constantly apologising even if it’s not my fault,to using an excess of words in order to ensure politeness (Hugh Grant style) – I also was apalled by the brashness of a lot of what I saw when I lived in china.

    However, one thing I would say is that many of the comments that have been posted here are incredibly shortsighted. While different cultures will always conflict in accordance to the social values each society prioritises, I don’t think it’s ever fair or right for one culture to think themselves superior as a result. When condemning a whole nation as simply ‘rude’ or ‘uncivilised’, you are essentially saying you are better than them.

    On the other side of it, Chinese people could very easily turn around and condemn the lack of family values, the ‘broken societies’, and cut-throat self-promotion of the west as completely inexcusable.

    I personally wouldn’t go back to China to live as I know I am at base too British so have different social expectations. I know it’s just human nature to judge everyone and everything around us. However, whether you decide to express these discretely and in a more balanced manner, or to diffuse comments on the internet that you know are just going to propagate more prejudices, is a choice you should make with more consideration.

    If you guys don’t like it there, go home. Don’t stay, enjoy the benefits of being there but then spread negative press about it.

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    bshirt Reply:

    It’s true that the Chinese people do value family above almost anything. It’s refreshing and desperately needed in many western countries (especially my USA).

    However, the aggression at bus stops, trains or even taxis is simply disgusting. Mothers having their little kids piss & shit on main public roads and sidewalks isn’t fun to see either.

    Also, I used to think we Americans were easily the most money greedy people on the planet. Then I came to China and now stand humbly corrected.

    China is “unique” is several good and not so good ways.

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    reply Reply:

    Well said, I am tired of seeing the America blah blah blah reply by Americans though. I hope you Americans out there realize that your society, though different is as flawed in many ways as any other “civilized society out there. Your current debate on gun rights, which puts you inline with most third world countries with regard to guns crime is proof of this. I am not Chinese nor am I American. Both your societies have it’s pros and cons. I have never lived in America, but I have been in China for almost 5 years now. As far as personal safety is concerned, I would pick China over the US any day. A few million guns on the streets of any society is not something to be comfortable with. I have also lived in London for 6 years which is supposed to be a “gun free” society though I was in closer vicinity to violent crime in London than I ever was anywhere else in the world while living there.

    So while the Chinese may spit, urinate and defecate in public, the same as vagrants and yobs and people out on the piss, where ever in the “civilized” West, and the Chinese push and shove, though don’t stampede and the beat the crap out of each other like you Americans do during Black Friday, or the British youth riot to steal TV’s and DVD players and work at mass intimidation at football matches, and they do cut in in queues more frequently, the same as I have experienced at the British postal service offices, or while purchasing tickets to some show in the UK. They do have the safest society I have lived in so far compared to where I have been.

    Oh, and they’re not the only people to cheat and lie and screw people in the world. The West does that in large quantities en-mass and we have all just accepted it while the corporations and bankers cash in their million to billion dollars in bonuses, causing recessions and mass unemployment.

    The world is flawed, people are too quick to pick out someone else’s rather than their own. If you don’t like China too bad, be nice or go home.

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  7. goober says:

    “When in rome” seriously does that mean we should condone children taking a crap in the street. Or people pushing each other out of the way. yes this is china but to say a behaviour is cultural just because it takes place within a given culture and is therefor acceptable is ludicrous. Chinese culture no longer includes foot binding but that is a cultural practice. I had a girl(a university graduate) tell me that boiling water makes it dirty. when i told her this was sientifically the opposite of the truth, she told me this was a “cultural difference.” The banner of “Chinese Culture” is so strong that it keeps many thing backwards. Its an excuse for not moving forward. Im sure most higher class chinese would frown on children deficating in the street, epspecially in larger cities. There are plenty of cultural practices in the united states, mormonism, racism, christian fundementalism. That doesnt mean i would jump in as soon as I cross the border. THIS IS NOT ETHNOCENTRISM THE SAME ISSUES YOU MIGHT HAVE A PROBLEM WITH IN CHINA ARE NOT APPARENT IN KOREA OR JAPAN. though there are some questionable practices there as well. bosses making employess drink in korea for instance, a “cultural” practice that has become illegal as more women join the work force. Just because something is under the banner of culture does not desirable or healthy. To carry that preconcetion that it is so is in itself deeply ethnocentric.

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  8. eyram says:

    that is what you pple always think…but there.s a saying that if u go to rome do what the romans do. so pls everybody , i dont get it here why barriers of culture and ethnocentric comparisons should be involved here.

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    g-man Reply:

    Eyram, I don’t think that you understand the reasons WHY us western visitors get so frustrated with Chinese peoples’ behaviour. It’s not just a case of us disliking something that’s different to what we know. Should we “do as the Roman’s do”, and copy them, when we believe that there are good reasons why so many Chinese behaviours are wrong and should change?

    Education is the issue; you have to understand why something has to change in order to make a change. To accept things as cultural differences or even national traditions, as people here often do, is just ignorance.

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    Ultraman Reply:

    Well said g-man!

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  9. Mike says:

    Like the piece, I live in a ‘westernised’ Southern city and every day I’m repulsed by the behaviour of the Chinese, the constant hocking (often until they puke) when there isn’t even any pollution in the city. Throwing half eaten food everywhere…except the bins, all the foreigners have stories of having to clean the rat crap from the cupboards and the Chinese just don’t think anything of it. The total inability to queue and just being generally gormless beyond belief.
    They just don’t think at any time of anything, they walk down the bike lanes with electric scooters wizzing by as if they are bulletproof and don’t even mention the driving standards where most drivers look down when approaching a roundabout and everyone just goes through in all directions!
    Do I think we actually have the right to call them rude, well everyone else in the world shares a consensus of opinion and the Chinese individually usually have no opinion whatsoever so erm YES.

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  10. KathleenP says:

    Hello, I just started reading this blog and as someone in my fourth (not consecutive) year of teaching English in China I’m interested in this discussion.

    I share Robert’s feelings about most of these less-positive aspects of Chinese society. I had to adjust to the pushing and shoving and refusal to wait in line very early on in my travels here and had to quickly learn to be a lot more aggressive than my nice (Canadian) upbringing had prepared me for. I don’t push people myself, or I try not to, but I sure as hell will NOT let someone shove in front of me; an upheld arm and some strong words (English will suffice if you can’t speak Chinese; they may not understand the words but they will get your tone) are usually all it takes as most Chinese I have found are physical cowards, although they certainly will whinge about it (“what is WITH that uppity foreigner?”) I’m a short middle-aged woman and have held my ground with plenty of chinese men and women younger and taller than me. It does us foreigners no good to let the Chinese treat us as badly as they treat their countrymen.

    I agree with some commenters that it’s the lack of communitarian values – highly ironic in a so-called “comminist” country” – that is to blame for a lot of this. It’s not that Chinese really mean to be rude; just that they are not brought up to have any consideration of the rights, needs, and comforts of others, at least those outside of their family. You see evidence of this attitude everywhere, from the disgusting condition most public restrooms are in – for example (sorry men, TMI alert here) Chinese women NEVER seem to wrap up their sanitary products before throwing them in the garbage – if they even make it to the garbage can – the way us finicky Western women do, although most of them wouldn’t dream of being so careless in their homes; I’ve seen how clean most Chinese homes are and they take great pride in this. But they honestly cannot see the point of making that little bit of extra effort in a public space. They don’t feel any sense of obligation to their fellow citizens. It’s a totally different attitude and one that is hard to change. And the more tragic manifestations of this attitude are seen in incidents like that little girl who was run over twice on the street without any bystanders coming to her aid. I’ve seen variations of that in China too. People can be appallingly callous about the pain and distress of strangers. I saw a group of young migrant workers laughing at an elderly man who had tripped and fallen over on a busy road. The poor guy managed to get himself back up before I could get to him (I was on the other side of the street), but not before several drivers swerved to avoid him and honked their horns. Not a soul around him on this busy street – save for one foreigner – seemed to give a damn about him. That’s China.

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  11. G-man says:

    I am a ‘foreigner’ working in China and I am often appalled at how the Chinese people treat strangers! By strangers, I mean the people around them, the people that they encounter, but do not know. I mention this because compared to the UK (where I come from) Chinese people are more accommodating and generous with friends and family.

    Why do the general populous of China treat each other so badly? I’m sure that there are many reasons, and I’m only just starting to get my head around some of them, but generally there seems to be an almost total lack of consideration. Consideration of the consequences of your actions is the basis of western manners, I believe. The Chinese, if they ever had this (which I believe they did), have now forgotten about it.
    There are many reasons why: history, politics, culture, overpopulation….., but one important factor has to be the masses of quite literally totally uneducated workers migrating into the cities and surrounding towns. These people have grown up in a different world to ours. Things that we see as common sense, they know nothing of.

    Another factor has to be China’s ‘non-feedback’ society. I’m talking about ‘face’. If you tell someone that they’ve done something wrong, or that perhaps they should have done something in a different way, you are making them look bad. You are making them lose face! This way of thinking means that often whatever a person has done wrong, by mentioning and drawing attention to it, you are committing a greater sin. So people just tend to keep their mouths shut, and when they do complain, they are the ones seen to be the problem.

    We have to remember that we in the west have only recently become ‘civilised’. In fact, many of the things that we now consider normal (such as personal hygiene) were the norm in this part of the world long before we knew anything about such things.
    It’s a shame because China is a beautiful country with such lovely people (when you get to know them!). It will change, one day. But I don’t expect that mingling with the masses here will be a comfortable affair during my lifetime!

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  12. Bill says:

    I grew up in the UK with a few British-Chinese friends in school. I can honestly say that as kids we treated each other absolutely the same regardless of ethnic background. I grew up thinking Chinese people were generally hard working, respectful, polite and kind. Then I emigrated.

    I now live in a North American city with a large population of recent chinese immigrants and they are rude, inconsiderate, impolite and terrible, terrible drivers to boot. So I was left stunned – what happened to the nice kids I grew up with…? Then it hit me, I grew up with Hong Kong Chinese pals and these people in my new city are Mainlanders. It isn’t just the 70 years of brutality, indoctrination and propaganda that spoils them, it is the fact that almost all of them grew up as only children, as did their parents, grandparents and maybe great-grandparents. Their rudeness is a consequence of 3 or 4 generations of people telling their children that they are all that matters in the world. Hong Kong Chinese didn’t grow up in the same circumstances and are much nicer people – it has nothing to do with genetics or race – it is nurture vs nature.

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    come on now Reply:

    The one child policy was introduced in 1981, before that most Chinese families were large, and in a poor country that meant most were not spoiled – quite the opposite in fact.
    This has contributed to the spoiling of children we see now – not just that there is only one child per family (not all families by the way)- but also that the parents and grandparents had such a hard life and are now relatively well-off, so they want the new generation to enjoy the fruits of their labours.
    Understandable I think.

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  13. Greenieweenie says:

    This is dumb. I used to think this way, and then I read my own country’s history a little more closely. In doing so, I realized that we ALSO used to spit everywhere…that is, until the Spanish Influenza came along, and then the gov’t cracked down on that. The FACT is that modern manners come with modernization; my wealthy students here all hate people who cut in line as much as I do. Take time to comment to the next person who decides to 差队; he’ll defend hinself and insist he isn’t because he KNOWS he’s wrong.

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  14. Glocester says:

    It’s just rudeness they are used to without knowing that it is regarded as rude. I try to avoid taking one of these buses wherever I can, and in case I can’t avoid taking a bus and when being pushed from all sides, then I simply push back. I am tall and strong, and that mostly helps the pushers understand the message. Young women, according to my own experience, are the worst in this respect.

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  15. DJ says:

    In my seven years of living as an English teacher in China, I am still adapting to what I consider socially rude acts in the Middle Kingdom. Hey, I’ve shoved and elbowed my way through train and bus stations but but do not publicly spit my yellow mucus out on the street or for that matter publicly relieve myself.

    I believe Ken Losely put it correctly; overpopulation and too many years of isolation from the rest of the world. In fact my young University students find a lot of rudeness in their culture. I appreciate what Jade said about how indivuduals are disciplined by their families, and how it is applied to others.

    It is amazing the the drastic steps Beijing took to “clean up” its acts of rudeness to impress the foreigners. To my knowledge things are back to norman.

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  16. Jade says:

    Hi! I had fun reading your blog. You are not the only one who notices such behavior. I think its a not a normal practice for Chinese people but because no one cares here. Have you seen a Chinese family eating together in a public place and how their behavior differ from other races? How they chew their food and speak to their elders? How they treat other people depends on how they were disciplined by their family and how they apply it to others. they think different maybe that’s the reason why..

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  17. Artur says:

    I decided to ride my bicycle to work this morning, instead of driving as usual because the weather was fine and the roads were less busy on Saturday morning. At some point on my way to school I heard the loud sound of cleaning the throat, a sound which, perhaps, is familiar to all of us, just very close to my ear, from behind.
    I turned left and saw a young boy riding his electric scooter and a yellowish substance flying in the air out of his half-opened mouth. It happened in a split second, then he turned his face to the right and let out another, much smaller mass of the same yellowish matter which flew just in front of my nose without hitting me, fortunately. Then I heard loud shouting from behind, two women riding their bikes behind were not as lucky as I was. They shouted something to the boy, the boy shouted something back to them without even turning his head. They yelled at him while trying to catch up with him, he yelled back even louder and sped up. He yelled at these two women much louder and longer and then he put up his hand showing some gesture in the air and disappeared in the crowd. The women stopped, one helped the other to clean up her face…she began to cry hysterically…I rode past them.

    Dear Robert, dear readers, if these women were the students in your class, what do you think they would say about this incident? Would they say “We are used to this and we don’t notice it at all?” Would they say I am ethnocentric and this is their country and they don’t notice any rudeness?
    Overpopulation? Does it have to do anything here? Young people? The guy was young, well dressed!
    Do you happen to know any country under the sun where spitting on each other’s face without a reason is considered normal and a sign of politeness?

    I will be much relieved if you can tell me which culture it is.

    Regards

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  18. paul says:

    you have put me of going to china,i was going on a 27 coachtour.and i wanted to back next year for month on my own

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  19. Wombadan says:

    There’s some nationalism in there too. China Briefing have an interesting piece called ChinaGlare thats worth a read as a companion piece.

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  20. Jenny says:

    Hi! I enjoy reading your blogs. I am also an EFL teacher in China and I have been experiencing the “rudeness” of Chinese people here but I am getting used to it. I am from the Philippines and so I am not a native speaker of English but I am confident to say that I have learned the standard American accent that makes me do my job with more confidence. I’ve been here for two years and I want to move to a bigger city primarily because I want a change of scenery. However, it’s difficult for me to find a school that will hire me. I think that most schools I apply for ignore my application online once they see that I am from the Philippines and thus making me a non-native speaker and won’t really consider my 5 year experience of teaching English as a second language to foreign students. I just want to know your opinion about this. I guess I just want to have more motivation to keep on looking for a school that may hire me because of my experience and not because I am not Caucasian or not from a country whose native language is English. :)

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    Kevin Reply:

    We’re sailing the same boat! I am not Caucasian and not from and English speaking country. I acquired English thru hardwork and been teaching this language for over 15 years now.It’s hard but stil possible to hunt jobs in China. Try smaller cities rather than large ones. Find places where few foreigners go and teach. Good luck and I am sure you’re an excellent teacher.

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    mye Reply:

    hello jenny good for you that you’ve found teaching job in China. I am a teacher here in the Philippines and i am planning to apply for a teaching job in China. Can you give me some tips and advice how to get a job there?

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  21. Ken Losey says:

    It’s not just Americans who think the Chinese rude, but most of the rest of the world as well. I’ve lived in China for over three years, and I’ve talked with Europeans, Indians, Africans, and Koreans on this subject, and most think that there is more politeness and civility in their home country than in China. Two factors about China, I think, are at the root of the problem: overpopulation, and too many years of isolation from the rest of the world. I do think that the younger Chinese people are more aware of the problem than the older ones, and less likely to be rude, but I think they’re only slightly better.

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    Dolly Reply:

    Hi there, I am a Malaysian Chinese, currently teaching mainly Chinese students (from China) and African students in a private university in Malaysia. I stumble upon this interesting forum and would like to share my two cents.
    I would agree that Chinese are rude (now), but the same apply to some Africans. Just be patient, things will change with time. Like some of you already mentioned, majority of them have never been exposed to what constitute good etiquette, good manners… Since all here are “educators” in a way, just do our part by educating them, plant the good seed into the minds of the young, nurture them, ripple effect will take place, eventually all of us will enjoy a better world.
    I strongly believe it will happen one day. Why? I was educated in Australia (Yr 12 + uni). I experienced a reverse cultural shock upon returning to Malaysia many years back… people seemed so uncivilized then, but through education, things have been improving day by day.
    The Europeans and other nations had walked the path, the Chinese is going through it now. It is just a manner of time….

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