ZHENG: A lesson in civility

I call my parents about once a week. My mom, always the practical one, goes to painstaking lengths to make sure that I am not overspending my money (difficult to do in New Haven), that I have been checking ticket prices for my flight back home (haven’t done that yet) and so on. Dad, a university professor, is more interested in the classes I’m taking, and he likes to discuss politics and social issues.

That is why I was a little surprised when it was my mom who brought up the ongoing dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Both countries assert sovereignty over the islands, and the issue has long been a focal point of nationalist antagonism, especially for the Chinese. The Japanese government’s decision last week to purchase the islands from a private Japanese owner have sparked mass demonstrations and riots across China.

My mom, being who she is, wasn’t exactly concerned about who the islands actually belonged to. She was much more worried about the safety of our car, a newly purchased Toyota Corolla. As the political tension escalated in the past week, reports of vandalism and rioting have become commonplace in Chinese cities. Japanese department stores, Japanese cars (most of which, ironically, are made in China) and anything with so much as a Japanese character on it have become the targets of nationalist hatred. Things are relatively calm in Shanghai, but, as my mom said, it doesn’t hurt to be careful.

She was especially thankful that I had already returned from my summer in Japan. Given the precarious situation Japanese nationals currently face in China, she said she would have been worried for my welfare if I were still there. She feared that Chinese citizens in Japan faced retaliatory action from locals and even the Japanese government. While I understand where she was coming from, based on my experiences in Japan this summer, I think her concerns are misplaced.

I spent this summer studying Japanese in Hakodate, a small tourist town off the southern coast of Hokkaido. Growing up in China, I had been conditioned to dislike Japan, through the thick sections recounting Japanese war atrocities in my history textbooks and the countless repetitive TV dramas and movies set during the war period.

During my time in Japan, however, I was struck most by how much I felt at home. Not only were the people of Hakodate extremely friendly and hospitable, but they impressed me deeply with their civility and sense of community.

I rode a bike to school every morning, and I was surprised by how courteously drivers would stop their cars at intersections, patiently waiting for cyclists and pedestrians to cross. Many times I had already stopped my bicycle, or the crossing signal had already expired, but people stopped their vehicles anyway and insisted that I pass first.

Has anyone been so nice to you that you felt almost embarrassed not to take up his or her offer? I found myself in such situations all the time in Japan. Once at the annual Summer Festival in Hakodate, I was trying to buy some food at a booth for 300 yen but found out that I didn’t have enough cash on me. I tried to explain to the shop owner that I didn’t have enough money, and a customer standing next to me immediately reached into his pocket and asked, “How much do you need? 100 yen? 200?”

It was during these moments, and when I was offered cheesecake and sushi by people I had just met while watching a parade, and when the participants came down to chat with the crowd because everybody knew everybody, and when the policemen kneeled down to play with the children, that I felt a genuine desire to be a member of this community, foreign yet somehow close to the heart.

The people of Hakodate taught me the power of civility and mutual respect in breaking down national and cultural boundaries. Conversely, the embarrassing events in China demonstrate precisely the lack of these qualities in contemporary Chinese society today.

Now is a difficult time to be proud to be Chinese. Chinese citizens must think deeply about how we must face and change a society in which frustration and hatred seem to have overshadowed reason and civic virtues in the name of patriotism.

I am happy to tell Chinese mothers that they needn’t worry about their children in Japan, but I am sorry to remind them that they still have to be careful with their cars.

Xiuyi Zheng is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at xiuyi.zheng@yale.edu.

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