Kindness and Courtesy in Shanghai

I thought this kind of thing could only be seen in movies and comic books. A very old lady slowly shuffled to the edge of the street. As the light changed she glanced fearfully to both sides, looking very uncertain at the start of her journey across the street. A middle-aged woman–clearly a stranger–appeared at the elderly lady’s side and exchanged a word or two in greeting. The old woman then gratefully held onto her savior’s arm as she was very patiently led to the safety of the opposite curb.

The other day I was working when I got a call on my cell phone from an unfamiliar number. I picked up my cell phone, but before I could answer it, the call stopped. Figuring it was a wrong number, I went back to work without giving it a second thought.

Then I received a text message. The message read (in Chinese):

> I dialed the wrong number just now. Sorry about that!

Some mornings on the subway when I’m packed in tight with the commutants, it’s all I can do to just stay stone-faced and hang onto my sanity. Other mornings, I notice things. Instead of pushing, I see people actually talking. They say things like, “Are you getting off at the next stop?” and “Excuse me, I need to get off at the next stop.” What’s more, the other person politely steps aside!

Today on the way home from work, after the subway doors opened and expelled us, we surged up the stairs as a group. On the way up the stairs, in two separate incidents, two men just barely bumped into me. Both promptly apologized.

Kindness and courtesy in Shanghai: there have been multiple sightings. There will be more. Keep your eyes open.


John Pasden

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


  1. You sir, are a prevaricator.

  2. Just joking. Good to hear about some people with good manners for a change.

  3. So sweet a post!!

  4. Great post. Good to hear positive things.

  5. I noticed some of these when i was in Shanghai too, but not very often. Sometimes, i was thinking are they Chinese from other countries? Anyway, it’s good to see this type of scene in Shanghai. If everybody can do their part, it’ll be a better place. In fact, it takes a special person to notice the good things out of everyday hectic life. 🙂

  6. Da Xiangchang Says: September 6, 2006 at 3:17 am

    I once was riding on a bus when this middle-aged woman and her kid were both sitting. A teenage girl got on, and the middle-aged woman got up and literally forced her–after many rejections on the girl’s part–to sit down. It was kind of funny; the girl was annoyed by the woman’s forced kindness.

  7. DXC,
    Your example does not make sense but I can picture it happening – anything can happen in among 1.3+ billion people.

    Of the four examples in your post, I must say that the helping an elder cross the street and the asking to swap closer to the bus door have been there decades, maybe more evident in small and mid sized cities for sure. All these make me smile.

  8. Gin,

    Sure they’ve been there for decades… I’m sure there was a lot more of it in the 1950’s. But I think it’s really easy to overlook the fact that they do still exist–even for someone like me who is not a “China basher,” but gets worn down by this city from time to time.

  9. Wow. Will keep my eyes open here in Beijing. We get everything a few years after Shanghai does, so perhaps by 2008 we’ll get people actually being pleasant to one another. Or at least get a Burger King and a Taco bell.

  10. Shanghai has a taco bell? Awesome.

  11. Someone is after the key to the city, Shanghai!

  12. parasitius (Justin) Says: September 7, 2006 at 12:06 pm

    I don’t know about the apologizing for bumping business — I’m very suspicious of it. I’m ESPECIALLY suspicious when they have the word “sorry” at the tip of their tongue, it tells you they are primarily aware of the fact that you are a 外哥儿人 and only secondarily aware that they bumped you. Read: special treatment. Don’t you remember when you were first learning Chinese and would slam into random Chinese-look’in folk at Wal-mart just so you could practice “Dui-bu-qi!” and hear them hollar, “Not all Asian-looking people are Chineses ASSWIPE.” Or just like the day I missed my train and was covered in unreal levels of sweat returning home on the subway. A nice girl handed me a tissue to wipe my face, but I highly doubt it would’ve happened if I were some random Chinese d00d.

  13. parasitius (Justin) Says: September 7, 2006 at 12:07 pm

    Oh, and BTW, the granny was my gf’s maternal grandmother and the woman my gf’s paternal mother.

  14. John, great examples. However, I rarely hear people saying excuse me on the bus in Chinese or English – though when I do I really appreciate it.

    I’ve been thinking for a while now that Chinese doesn’t really have words or expressions exactly the same as “excuse me” or “pardon me.” Small wonder it’s a different culture of couse, but there are some vague approximations.

    After a few months in Shanghai I seriously asked local friends about this since most people just seemed to push me out of the way, once in a while managing to grunt, but almost never speaking. “Isn’t there a word for excuse me in Chinese?” I asked. Yes, some of you will think that the locals wouldn’t bother trying to speak Chinese to a foreigner, but first, they don’t bother with their compatriots too, and second, I’m riding the bus, and I’m not exactly wearing a fanny pack and tour group hat.

    对不起 我下车 or 不好意思 was what I was told to say. I sometimes hear those, but not enough. Any other ways of saying you want to get past before you push?

  15. To Kris: you could say ” 麻烦让一让” when you want to get past, furthermore, I think” 不好意思”, “麻烦一下””对不起” could be the same meaning in chinese with ” Excuse me” ……

    To John: Good to hear these examples, sometimes encouraging is much useful than criticizing to get people’s attention and become better.

  16. To scientist: thanks for the 麻烦让一让 and 麻烦一下, I wasn’t thinking of those. Still, I never hear those on public transportation.

  17. wow, huge contrast to the vitriol spewed on TTC.

  18. Now if it was only like that in New York City!

  19. Seems to me that many of the “common” forms of politeness are not here in China, but sometimes the uncommon ones pop up. Like the day we had a huge deluge here in Harbin, water was literally forming rivers in the streets. I couldn’t wait any longer and braved the flood and started home. A woman saw me without an umbrella, I’m from Washington near Seattle we don’t believe in umbrellas, and she insisted on walking me home under the protection of her umbrella. Very nice!

  20. I kinda feel bad now. Whenever someone rings me with a wrong number, I try and string it out as long as I can: “Yes, Mister Li is here, but you’ll have to shout. He’s afraid of phones and I’ll have to hold it at arm’s length from him.”

    Seriously, if someone answers the phone with ‘hello’ and you only speak Sichuanese, I would have thought it would have been immediately obvious that you’ve dialed the wrong number.

  21. what u seen are just traditional manner form ancientry of china,it is “respect the elder,cherish the young”

  22. I think such things are definitely rare in Kunming. At the hospital I go to, people charge into the lifts without allowing the 10-20 in the lift to get out first. I find myself telling the people waiting for the lift “let the people get out first”, in a somewhat schoolma’am-ish way. But when discussing these things with Chinese friends, they generally say that the 素质 is higher in Shanghai, where polite behaviour may be found. What I can’t quite square up is how, in unrelated conversations, I am told that everyone outside Shanghai dislikes Shanghainese for their snobbery: but maybe this is because Shanghainese feel disdain for their fellow countrymen who charge on to lifts in hospitals without allowing the other people to get out first?

  23. @DJW
    I quite do not agree with what u told at the latter part of your post.First,quite a lot of local shanghainese,especially mid-age women,just behave no better,even worse than Kummingese described above,local women pushing and elbowing their way is often seen on bus and metro train,second,in some extent you are right,fellow countrymen dislike shanghainese because their snobbery,but it has nothing to do with who behave better,shanghai locals disdaining for their fellow countrymen are duing to their metropolis ego.third,in most of cases, shanghainese disdain for the
    coolies from the for those men john mentioned as goog behaviour, are maybe from outside shanghai.

  24. to LING:I have to point out that some of your words lack justice and rationality. Never degrade a whole group due to small sums of exceptions. it’s better to raise good suggestions than to complain, especially whether the case derserves complaining

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