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.