Good People at Bad Times

It’s something that’s pretty self-evident, but foreigners living in China easily forget: sometimes when you catch good people at bad times, they come across as quite rude. The sad truth is that when this happens to a foreigner in China, it’s all too easy for the foreigner to mentally toss it into the “Chinese people have no manners” file as further evidence. Chalking up each incident as proof of a generalization applied to the whole population requires less mental effort–and most of all, less tolerance–than remembering that Chinese people have bad days too.

I give you an example. The other day I bought a few items at the local convenience store. It was around dinner time and the store was pretty busy, so there were people in line ahead of me, and by the time it was my turn to pay there were people in line behind me. The middle-aged lady at the register was not one of the three familiar faces I knew, so I figured she was a new hire.

My total came to 30.9 RMB. I gave the lady a 100 RMB bill and the 0.9 in exact change. She made a very irritated face and said to me, “don’t you have smaller change?” (A side note here: not having small change is one of the greatest consumer crimes one can commit in China, and will frequently invoke the ire of the cash handler.)

I told her no, I didn’t have change. Giving her the 0.9 in change was the best I could do. Muttering in Shanghainese under her breath, she pulled out the nearly empty change drawer tray and picked up a stack of bills from underneath. She removed a 20 and a 10 from the stack, slapped the rest of the bills on the counter, and proceeded to ignore me.

Had I been a little quicker, I would have realized that the stack she had pulled out was worth 100 RMB, so the stack on the counter was worth exactly 70 RMB in 10s and 5s. But she didn’t say anything to me and I wasn’t especially quick at that moment, so I asked her, “what does this mean?” (but I didn’t say it in a rude tone).

She then snapped at me, “you didn’t have any small change, so that’s what you get!” I took my stack of small bills and left.

Two days later I returned to the same convenience store, and my new friend was on the register again. It was sort of late, and there was only one other customer in the store, just browsing.

My total came to 13 RMB and change. I slapped down three 5 RMB bills and joked with her, “I’m returning some of those 5s you gave me the other night.”

She remembered me and knew what I was referring to, but rather than smiling at my joke, she proceeded to apologize profusely for that incident, telling me that it had been very busy, and she had no other change, and that she really hoped I understood. I told her it was not a problem.

Leaving the store, I realized that if I hadn’t made my pointless little joke about returning the 5s to her, I would have always considered that woman a cranky bitch. But through that little exchange, my view of her had changed.

Sure, assholes exist too, but we also catch good people at bad times every day. Sometimes it’s our first impression of a person, and sometimes it’s the only time we’ll ever meet that person in our lifetime. China is no different from the rest of the world in that respect.

Related posts:

No, I do not have change. (Talk Talk China)
Overcome by Friendliness (Weifang Radish)
Taxi Incident (Sinosplice – wherein I commit the same mistake that I accuse foreigners of in this entry)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. you really made a point! Very well written too.
    Even though in Brazil, I have also had this kind of experience here with 华侨. It’s always easy to generalize, but it takes subtlety to deal with reality.

  2. boy, i don’t miss that ‘don’t you have smaller change’ line here in HK. i can pay for a $4 HK bottle of water and pay with a $500 HK bill , no problem:)

    but i think in this particular case, she may have asked you if you had smaller change anyway whether or not the store was busy. it’s annoying to no end and businesses in china should learn to have a register with full change. it’s good business practise and chinese people shouldn’t have to live with it.

    but i do like your point about good people at bad times.

  3. Hi John, great post!

    I think I have a sort of similar experience that has stuck with me to this very day:

    Years ago, I was travelling around and a young girl (probably 14 or 15) asked if she could show me around her town. She presumably was looking to practice English but she was very nice and I appreciated the offer. While we were walking around, an old woman approached me to try and sell me something useless. I kindly told her no but she refused to leave me alone. She pushed and pushed and pushed and I finally told her rudely to go away and leave me alone. She just wanted some money but I was exhausted and she was on the end of my short fuse.

    The young girl took me to her home for lunch and introduced me to her grandmother…the old woman that was “bothering me” before. She invited me into her home with nothing but a smile. I’ll never forget my regret at not having handled the earlier situation better.

    These days, I try to be more precise at how and where my rage gets directed….but it still always gets directed πŸ˜‰

  4. Hey John, excellent point and one I so easily slip on. It’s inundating with the number of people in this country, and then to throw into that language problems (at least for me, less for you I imagine) and a completely different way of thinking of things… I find my fuse is often too short. I rarely get angry to the person (out of lack of ability to express myself properly)… but I’ve more than once caught myself cursing “dem Chinese”… and your post is something I could do well to remember. Cheers. (and Hao’d ;-))

  5. John, this is a very wise entry. I couldn’t agree more with your words.


  6. Jason S Says: July 11, 2006 at 6:06 pm

    I had a similiar experience at McDonalds the other day. I was pissed. But then again, it was early, I was hungover and afterall…it was McDonalds.
    However, one of the main reasons I think situations like these can piss me off so much, is because it’s so easy for me to subconsciously assume the behavior is targeted towards me becuase I’m a foriegner. And, most of the time I don’t think that’s the case. (or that I don’t have enough reason to assume so)

  7. Maybe her first incarnation really was the accurate one, so on the second time around you caught an asshole at a good time…

  8. thank you for your post. after reading the posts on talktalkchina, i am kind of thinking some laowais only can see straight. they complain everything not follow their standards and blame everyone not match up with their style. they have too much fun when they feel they are superior than others.

  9. John – wonderful post, and I think it goes for anyone, anywhere. Give that seemingly rude person a second chance, we all deserve one, and we all have really bad days.

  10. I was at the supermarket the other day with my wife. We had had a spat earlier in the day and both of us were still in a bad mood. Just when I got to the register, my wife decided she wanted to get one more thing and ran off to get it. The cashier rang everything up and told me the total. I asked her to wait just a little bit, my wife would be right back. She said, “Do you want these things or not?” The other customers started telling me to pay or get back to the end of the line. I can’t tell you how many curses were running through my mind and how much I wished to tell them all to go to hell. Fortunately, I remembered to breathe, payed for the things, and then, 15 seconds later when my wife came running back, informed her that we’d just have to wait until next time to get the other things she wanted. I’m really happy now that I didn’t blow my cool, but when something like that happens to you and you are in a really bad mood to start with it takes all the willpower you have to hold yourself together.

  11. Hey John,

    Maybe you are using your one-person example to generalise that not all people are rude or bad. But maybe they are.

    I would still say that Chinese people are, in fact, generally ruder people.

  12. Nice post. Couldn’t agree more. Sometimes we forget that other people have sucky days too.

  13. The mistake referred to by your post is called the Fundamental Attribution Error in social psychology.

  14. Wesley,

    Yes! Thank you. Actually part of the inspiration for this post was the brief discussion of the Fundamental Attribution Error in The Tipping Point. Shortly after I read that book I had these two little incidents at the convenience store.

  15. Michelle Says: July 13, 2006 at 11:19 am

    Hi John,

    You are very nice and understanding person. As a Chinese, I thank for your fair and correct opinions.

  16. The Humanaught Says: July 15, 2006 at 10:51 am

    The coveted Chinese praise… nice work John… you’re going to get that Friend of China plaque now πŸ˜‰ Just teasing of course. It’s funny though that on the number of blogs I read when negative opions about China are posted, the Chinese readership is often quiet (in my opinion because there’s no arguing it), but when a laowai posts good things about China much praise is given (not just this article, Michelle, but just in general) for how kind and fair the laowai is to the Chinese people…

    This isn’t a rant or anything, just a curious observation. Personally, I want more explanations for the crazy behavior we so often comment on in these blogs…

  17. Michelle Says: July 16, 2006 at 10:47 am

    Hi the humanaught,

    You certainly have read my blog, and I really don’t pretend to ignore those negative opions. I didn’t praise John, just I agreed with him like many people did, and most of them, I thought they are not Chinese. Moreover, in my opinion the reason that Chinese readership is often quiet for your complaint, is for firstly there are few Chinese people read your articles, secondly their English is not good enough to argue with you. (Of course, I didn’t mean my English is good enough, I just tried my best.) And if you want to hear more Chinese readership’s opinion, my advice is you can write them in Chinese. Then you can get more explanations that you want.



  18. My pet peave is getting a taxi. When I leave work each day it is usually in rush hour and taxis are in short supply. All passing with passengers already. As I stand, sometimes in the rain, waiting for one to come up with its red “available” light burning several people have arrived standing near me waiting just as I am. Being an American I expect the “first come, first serve” basis to apply, but it doesn’t. If you are not really quick someone will step in front of you and jump into the taxi that you were patiently waiting to unload their exisiting passenger. But I endure, after all – I am the outsider here. Sometimes I bark at the intruder, but it does no good, and only tends to make me unhappy. So I just try to endure.

  19. Beautiful post, John. Crankiness is not a trait limited to one nation’s people, and neither, you’ve illustrated, are compassion and conciliation.

  20. I think there are always young girls in convenience stores. They tend to be quite polite and customer-oriented.

  21. I had the same experience last week, except that I was the good person at bad times. It was a Friday night in a busy restaurant where I was ignored despite patiently and repeatedly asking for a menu. After waiting for 20 minutes or so, I lost my patience and raised my voice. Eventhough that got things done, I felt extremely guilty and overcompensated by being extra friendly with the waiters. Should have apologised instead. It does take quite a bit of courage to admit that you were being a bit of a jerk.
    John, you have the patience and tolerance of a saint.

  22. Hey great post!

    I think that it is truly rare for someone to do what you have done coming from a non-Chinese background. I certainly hope more of the foreign visitors who generalize all Chinese as rude get the chance to read this. I’ll certainly pass this around to anyone I hear badmouthing China.

    Before anyone jumps on me for the praise, I’m half foreign half Chinese and was raised raised western style. I think Michelle is right that not many Chinese will comment on foreign blogs with negative comments because they are afraid of damaging their own and China’s reputation through using what they think to be poor English. I wish more fluent English speakers would practice this on youtube when they proceed to bash China videos using only swear words, empty rhetoric and downright disgusting condescention.

  23. Baifameizhong Says: December 14, 2008 at 8:58 pm

    The phenomena of mis-attributing is called the ultimate attribution error. The example John gave is an excellent description of what it means….we tend to attribute certain behaviour we happen to see as a character (flaw) of that person. When we see a man pulling a small child roughly we will first say that that man is quite rough, a bad father etc….We would not first consider the option that the son had been misbehaving for hours and the father was under a lot of pressure because his wife is seriously ill.

    What is actually really interesting about this attribution error is that it is more common in Western cultures than in Asian cultures. In other words, a Chinese is less likely to make that error than a European or American.

  24. I think as someone who has been in China for quite some time, you have gained a lot of insight that I don’t have yet. Thanks for sharing the story, tolerance is something we all need to work on.

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