Cultures as they want to be, and cultures as they actually are

Bear with me here hear, because I’m doing the blogging equivalent of thinking aloud.  I was at the post office today in my friendly little Marin town.  Unlike the rest of Marin the postal workers are not friendly.  They’re not actively rude, but they are surly.  Also, as always, the line was slow and long.  The office is set up to have four windows open, but only one was operational.

I actually understand the open windows reflect staffing problems.  Nevertheless, it’s profoundly irritating to see the implicit promise of those empty clerk windows.  Incidentally, in my entire life, and we’re talking post office visits going back to the 1960s, I’ve never seen all windows operational.  Some loony architect must have designed post offices with a sense of goofy optimism that, by throwing in extra windows, people would actually get served more quickly.  What my “n” of one says (“n” being my lifetime of experiences in Bay Area, Austin, and Dallas post offices) is that the delays and under-staffing are not the result of the chronic deficit afflicting the post office.  Email hasn’t brought the service to such a sorry point.  It’s been this way for at least 40 years, through boom times and bust.

But back to my thinking aloud.  Where was I?  Oh, right.  Long line, one clerk.  The one clerk is a Chinese man who speaks what used to be called in the bad old days of racism “pidgin” English.  It’s totally workable, but it’s sufficiently minimalist and accented that you need to be fairly alert to catch what he’s saying.  Other than the communication problems — which are rather significant, really, when one considers that his job is to communicate with customers — it’s clear that this guy knows his job.  He rings things up, stamps them, tells users which forms to use, etc., all with aplomb, confidence and, of course, surliness.

Today, though, there was a problem.  A very elderly man, quite deaf, and barely standing (owing to the fact that, as he told the clerk, he’d just been released from the hospital after getting a hip replacement) needed an envelope and a stamp.  He did what people used to do in the old days, when the post office was full service, rather than barely service:  he asked the clerk for an envelope.  While pointing to a wall behind the shrunken, shaky old man, the clerk snapped back, “You get der.  Envelope der.”

The man quavered again, “What?  What are you saying?  I need an envelope.”  The clerk again snapped at him.  “I no give envelope.  You get der.  Envelope der.”

Those of us in line waited with bated breath.  What I assumed was that, after two, maybe three, rounds, the clerk would say, “Never mind.  I get for you.”  But he didn’t.

Just as I was ready to break out of my analysis paralysis (do I butt in?  will it offend the old man? am I reading the situation correctly?), the gal in line behind me said loudly, “I know how it feels to have a hip replacement.  I’ll get it.”  She walked to the wall with the envelopes and, turning to the clerk, asked “Which one?”

At which point the clerk, obviously relieved not to have to deal with the man, snapped at her “Dat one.  No!  Dat one.”

Once the man had his envelope, things went a little better but I did what I usually do, which was to start thinking.

I’ve grown up surrounded by Asians.  Not Americanized Asians, but people from mainland China or Hong Kong or Taiwan.  One of the things one always hears about Chinese culture, going back at least as far as the romantic and often misleading Pearl S. Buck, is that the Chinese have a reverence for aged people.  Watching the postal employee, I saw no signs of reverence, just irritation.  At first I was inclined to attribute this to being a postal employee, but it occurred to me, looking back on my life in San Francisco, that Chinese people are often extremely rude to old people limited by physical frailty, or hearing and visual impairment.  It seems that they’re not necessarily respectful of all old people, just of their old people.

I discussed this notion with my sister, and she said that, up in her neck of the woods in Oregon, the Chinese have an appalling reputation for elder abuse.  I’ve heard similar things in the Bay Area.

So, a few random thoughts:

1.  Was I witnessing the chasm between a society’s ideal and its practice?

2.  Was I witnessing the destruction of a societal ideal thanks to more than 50 years of Communist rule?

3.  Am I refining too much on a single postal worker, in an industry that, in my experience, is notoriously surly.

Incidentally, none of the other clerks I’ve dealt with at this same post office speaks English as his or her primary language.  All of these front line clerks are extremely difficult to understand.

And then of course, the big question:  What about our culture?  Do we still have behavioral ideals?  Is there a huge chasm between ideal and practice and, if there is, is the chasm attributable to 40 years of Leftism in the public square or to the usual gap between aspirations and actual deeds?

Your opinions would be very welcome.

BTW, I hope it’s not to late to say that I’m all good when it comes to Asians.  In high school, I only had Asian friends, so much so that they and I used to joke that I’m honorary Asian.  I hate the colors that they paint their houses (sorry, mustard puke or black just don’t work for me) but, as a culture, I admire their industry, their family values and, of course, their food.  On individual level, some people are more or less nice, or more or less honest, or more or less interesting than others.  I take ’em as they come.

Be Sociable, Share!
  • Charles Martel

    Book, your story reminds me of an old saying about the difference between northern whites and southern whites when it comes to their attitude toward blacks: “In the North, we love Negroes as a group but hate them as individuals. In the South, it’s just the opposite.”
    I think the Chinese are honorary Northerners. I have no doubt that the Chinese, whose religious instincts have always been directed at The Great Steam of Life, thus, ancestor worship, have an official attitude of veneration toward the old. It’s just the effin’ individual elderlies that get in the way.

  • Earl

    BW: “I actually understand the open windows reflect staffing problems.”  Or their union-negotiated coffee breaks, of course.  Much like the TSA, it doesn’t matter to these “public servants” at ALL if the actual public has to stand in line, miss appointments (or flights) or whatever….coffee breaks are sacred time, and WILL be taken, regardless.
    Martel:  I always heard it like this:  “In the north, they don’t care how big you get as long as you don’t get too close; in the south, they don’t care how close you get as long as you don’t get too big.”  Either way, it’s a generalization that works much of the time, but not in all cases.
    I don’t know what mainland Chinese culture is like – read lots of stuff, but I don’t kid myself that I have a clue, really.  My only experience is with the “Straits Chinese” ( and they have a great reverence for their ancestors.  How that works out when they have to interact with an old stranger, I can’t tell you – we were only in Penang (,_Malaysia) for about three weeks, and if you’re anywhere near, be SURE to get out there — wonderful. 
    Penang Adventist Hospital (, and was the attraction for us – it was founded by my grandfather, and the Chinese folk who run it today have a wonderful display celebrating “The Founder”, with photos and artifacts (many of which I sent over) in one of the halls.  They also preserved the original hospital Papa built; it now forms the core of the institution, with modern additions all around (  This is a bit OT, but not totally…apologies if I let my pride in my grandpa run away with me! 

  • Spartacus

    Shopping around for some rather pricey software for our little company a few months back, I took a tabula rasa approach.  Never heard of most of the vendors, so I just made a spreadsheet and started reading websites.  One company seemed to have a reasonable product at a very competitive price, and a very professional-looking website with well-edited text.  It was on its way to the list of finalists until I stumbled across their terms of support: basically, every question you asked, they wanted money.  Longer question?  More money.  Tougher question?  More money.  Follow-up question?  More money.  Stupid question?  More money.  Half-kidding, I said to myself, “Jeez!  What is this, the Nickel & Dime Software Company?  Are they based in China or something?”  A few more mouseclicks revealed what the superb English had not… yes, they were Chinese.
    My very rough and tentative hypothesis is that if you cram a billion people into a space the size of eastern China, the relative value of each one of those people seems a bit lower to all the others crammed in there with him.  (My own charity and magnanimity are certainly inversely proportional to local population density.)  You learn to use your elbows while waiting in… well, I guess they’re somewhat less into lines, so you just learn to use your elbows.  We lose 620,000 people 150 years ago and call it an epic tragedy of historic proportions; they lose 50 million people 50 years ago and call it a government program.
    We’re all God’s children, but to deny that there are cultural differences is foolish.

  • jj

    Velly insclutable.  The last one who honored all that stuff was Warner Oland, who played Chinese better than most Chinese do.  As for our cultural ideals, we’ve stopped recognizing “American” as a culture at all, so what, precisely, would one expect?

  • Danny Lemieux

    Our neighborhood has steadily become more Asian. Not all Asians are alike culturally: my wonderful spouse the teacher likes to refer to her Korean students as the “all American” kids, for example. She uses different generalizations for her Indian, Pakistani, Chinese or Japanese kids, all of whom reflect different cultures. The person in the post office was obviously an Asian immigrant who reflected an Asian culture.
    It probably takes two generations before immigrants become fully absorbed into the American culture. One of the things we noticed in our neighborhood is that the Asian immigrants don’t like to mix with the American “locals” and do not get involved in civic organizations or events. In fact, they prefer that their kids don’t mix with the locals. They hang around their own. They prefer to speak their own language and to dress like they do in their country of origin. They do like to hang around the library a lot, however. They also don’t generally greet Americans in the street and avoid eye contact. All this is reflective of their culture and how they interact in their country of origin.
    But then, here’s the kicker: when I lived in expat communities, we “first-generation immigrant” Americans behaved exactly the same way. We were strangers in strange lands.

  • Ymarsakar

    “We lose 620,000 people 150 years ago and call it an epic tragedy of historic proportions; they lose 50 million people 50 years ago and call it a government program.”
    That doesn’t explain all of it. The Chinese government is adeptly utilizing common propaganda methods to misdirect people’s attention. Like a certain faction in the US does. For one thing, Japanese occupation of China destroyed a lot of martial art villages/families, knowledge, and various other things, so many of the deaths can be tied to them. Much as Southerners still resent Lincoln, Sheridan, and Sherman, for example, for the deaths and suffering caused in the Reconstruction by the Democrat KKK’s super majority political dominion in the South. They aren’t allowed to remember that it was Democrats who decided the war was useful and that it was Democrats, not common Southerners, who planned out the short victorious war and culminated in decades old Jim Crow after they lost but were not wiped out.
    So, Japanese, bad. All this other stuff done by Chinese government? Japan still bad. Useful way to deflect most criticisms.
    Mao replaced Chinese traditions with modern institutions. Modern, at least, from the stand point of Russian communists and German fascists. But everything he did, could be blamed on traitors inside America, Japanese sympathizers, and those exiled non Communists in Taiwan that took all the Tai Chi knowledge with them before it was burned by Mao.
    Even now, the school children of China call Mao the Great Chairman, Godfather, or some such Dear Leader esque devotion. I should know, I know of one who transfered to the US after the childhood indoctrination period. And many other Chinese students are college exchange students. Even if someone doesn’t like Mao, they know to keep their mouths shut if they don’t have anything good to say.
    So Chinese traitors are the fault of the deaths and famines. Taiwanese traitors are the reason China is backwards and not up to Western standards of growth and tech. Japan is the problem when it comes to Chinese problems.
    And that’s all you need to keep a population under control. Give them a domestic and foreign enemy to hate, like the Tea Party and Assad in Syria, and everything is fine. But make note of this. Never give the people just a domestic enemy or just a foreign enemy to hate… because then you’ll lose control over them completely.

  • rick9911

    I recently read that to refer to Asians as Oriental is an insult. Is that true and if so why? Also, I understand that people of the Middle East ( Iran, Iraq, etc) are also considered Asians. If that is correct, how does one distinguish between an Asian who looks like an Iranian and one who looks Chinese? 

  • Ymarsakar

    Only certain decadent Leftist propaganda arms consider the ME Asian. If this is repeated through media and entertainment, then there it goes.
    Oriental doesn’t exist as a word in the East. Most people there refer to themselves as family clan first, given name second, city of birth, nation of birth, and genetic foundation last.
    They have as many terms applying to the West, as the West has to the East.

  • bkivey

    Any illusion I might have had about Chinese veneration for the aged went out the window the first time I saw the boarding crush for the 38 Geary.

  • Bookworm

    Bkivey:  I rode the 1 California, another bus notorious for the brutal push for space. 

  • Earl

    Our experience with Chinese folks overseas convinced us that they’re even more rude than the French on holiday….brutal.
    Haven’t seen the Chinese at home, but my 36 hours in Paris demolished my prejudices about the French in France.  I was amazed at how kindly we were treated…..and blown away at the beauty of Paris and its walkability….at least, the part of it where we stayed:

  • Charles Martel

    Another great SF Muni crunch is the 30 Stockton, which some have described as coming the closest you can come  to experiencing being trapped in one of those torture chambers where the walls slowly advance toward the middle, crushing whatever is in between.
    The idiots who run San Francisco are currently pissing taxpayer dollars down a $1.6 billion subway that runs less than two miles from downtown to Chinatown. Nobody asked for it, nobody wants it, nobody needs it. However, we are all resting assured that when it opens, the subway will be taken over by aged Chinese ladies who are all elbow and no couth. Thank God, some things never change.