The Ugly Way We Treat Chinese Tourists

By Elena Zhang

Why does the media continue to perpetuate discriminatory stereotypes about Chinese travelers?

Tourists have been bungling local customs for as long as leisure travel has existed. It’s hardly surprising, given that exposure to different cultures and environments is one of the primary reasons to travel beyond the comfort and familiarity of your own home. Inherent in tourism is an opportunity to learn a new set of societal rules, often by making the occasional mistake.

For example, a couple of tourists caused a bit of a kerfuffle at Yellowstone National Park when they put a baby bison into their car and unknowingly put the bison at risk. A few weeks later, Yellowstone was at the center of another tourist mishap when someone was fined for collecting thermal water. Just two blunders, both caused by ignorance; both resulting in, I’m sure, quite the learning experience for the tourists involved.

Here is an example of how the media — the Washington Post, to be specific — covered the first story: “Baby bison dies after Yellowstone tourists put it in their car because it looked cold.” The latter story, however, inspired headlines like this one: “Chinese Tourist Fined $1,000 For Leaving Boardwalk at Yellowstone Park.

Notice the difference?

Nowhere in the Washington Post article did the reporter mention the nationality of the tourists involved in the bison incident, nor did any of the other related articles I found. On the other hand, many journalists chose to specify the nationality of the Chinese tourist in multiple headlines. Was the fact that the tourist was Chinese essential to the story? Was mentioning it intended to grab readers’ attention? Many publications seemed to think so. Unfortunately, the result is the perpetuation of negative stereotypes surrounding Chinese tourists.

Chinese tourism has increased exponentially around the world over the past decade, following a lengthy period of relative isolation. International travel from China was restricted to business and foreign study from 1983 until 1997, when the country began allowing outbound tourism for a few select countries. The U.S. wasn’t officially approved as a travel destination until 2007. When travel restrictions were lifted it led to a surge of Chinese tourists. In addition, China’s economy had been steadily growing, and with more money to spend abroad, the Chinese began to truly reap some of the benefits of globalization for the first time. In 2015, there were over 120 million Chinese outbound tourists who collectively spent $215 billion worldwide, outspending the citizens of every other country.

Along with increasing global visibility, Chinese travelers have also gained a reputation as the new “ugly American tourists.” The Atlantic went so far as to label the Chinese as the planet’s “most boorish tourists” in 2013, citing behavior such as spitting, littering, and improper toilet etiquette. After a few widely publicized incidents, some in the media — and subsequently many Westerners — have come to view the Chinese as rude, obnoxious, and unhygienic.

In 2015, there were over 120 million Chinese outbound tourists who collectively spent $215 billion worldwide.

Many popular tourist destinations have gone to extreme lengths to institutionalize their discriminatory views. In Paris, the Louvre has signs written in Chinese banning public urination and defecation. In 2015, a train system in Switzerland designated specific cars for “Asian tourists,” complete with signs in the bathroom explaining how to use the toilet. While the subway had just enough tact to use the more general term “Asian,” Swiss newspapers had no such qualms, stating outright that the train cars were specifically for Chinese tourists.

It’s not just Westerners who are having trouble accepting the influx of Chinese tourists. In a 2014 poll, 80% of residents in Chiang Mai, Thailand said they disapproved of Chinese tourists’ behavior, which they said included spitting, talking loudly, littering, and cutting in lines. In 2015, Chinese tourists were temporarily banned from Wat Rong Khun temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand, because of unhygienic usage of the toilets.

Many popular tourist destinations have gone to extreme lengths to institutionalize their discriminatory views.

There is a certain amount of hypocrisy underlying the anti-Chinese sentiment that arose when the wave of Chinese tourism began to crest. Many have complained about the indecency of seeing Chinese people spit in public, as if public spitting has not been a part of almost every culture — spittoons, for example, were a standard feature in American courthouses and newsrooms until just the 1970s; and in 2012, the subway system in Paris launched a public service campaign to curb spitting among Parisian residents.

Much of the ignorance most likely stems from a general lack of exposure to Chinese culture. Many people don’t realize that a lot of these first-time travelers come from rural and isolated regions of China, where public toilets are not the norm. Even in bustling urban cities, squatting toilets are extremely common in public facilities. Domestic habits are hard to break, which a lot of Westerners don’t understand when they become horrified by the sight of footprints on toilet seats.

Grace Pan, the Director of Strategic Development and Research for Tourism and Events in Queensland, Australia, agrees that an understanding of cultural differences can go a long way toward combating stereotypes. “Westerners need to appreciate the geographic size of China as well as the diverse culture within China,” Pan explained to me in an email. “It is not homogeneous, but diverse and different; hence, tourists’ behavior from different parts of China is different.”

The situation is evolving, slowly, as Chinese tourists gain more and more exposure among locals. “I personally think that Westerners are accepting Chinese culture and Chinese tourists better than [they did] before,” Pan said. “With more and more Chinese tourists visiting Australia, seeing Chinese tourists sightseeing, taking selfies and shopping is becoming part of a norm.” In other words, tourists from China are becoming part of the landscape, and destinations are in turn adapting in order to better welcome them. Yellowstone, for example, is beginning to employ Mandarin-speaking park rangers.

It’s important to note that Chinese tourists are also changing. Among a continuous flow of first-time tourists are more seasoned travelers, as well as a younger, well-educated generation of sightseers. More broadly, the Chinese are intent on improving behavior by learning and respecting local customs. In 2013, China’s National Tourism Administration published a 64-page guidebook on tourist manners at the behest of Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang, who did not want the bad behavior of a few to damage the overall image of Chinese people.

So why does the stereotype of the Chinese tourist persist? It is fed, in large part, by a media familiar with the narrative of a “barbaric” and “backwards” China. Asians in general are still seen as the “other” in many places, and a lot of what Westerners know about China comes straight from media stereotypes and newspaper headlines. By amplifying isolated incidents of poor tourist behavior, the media continues to encourage prejudice against and dehumanize an entire race of people.

And it’s not just the newspapers keeping these stereotypes alive. In 2013, Echo Wang published a book called Pigs on the Loose: Chinese Tour Groups, which delves into all the ways Chinese tourists behave poorly in chapters such as “Pigs at Airports,” “Pigs in Toilets,” and “Pigs go Shopping.” Wang told The Awl that the book is intended to be a criticism of general tourist behavior and not specifically Chinese people, but even if that is true the image of Chinese tourists as dirty pigs is hard to erase from one’s mind.

A lot of what Westerners know about China comes straight from media stereotypes and newspaper headlines.

The growth of Chinese tourism shows no signs of abating. Travel between China and international countries is becoming easier. In 2014, the U.S. implemented a new ten-year multiple-entry visa for Chinese travelers, which has the potential to increase the number of Chinese tourists in the U.S. to 7.3 million by 2021, while contributing about $85 billion to the economy and creating up to 440,000 jobs in America. February 2016 saw the launch of the U.S.-China Tourism Year, an initiative aimed at increasing travel between the two countries by “enhancing the traveler’s experience, increasing the traveler’s cultural understanding, and expanding the traveler’s appreciation of natural landscapes in each other’s countries.”

Noting that the media can influence how foreigners perceive Chinese tourists, Grace Pan said that “with more media exposure on different cultures and different experiences,” Westerners can better adapt to the increasingly visible Chinese tourists, welcoming both a cultural exchange as well as a boost in local economy. But in order for this to occur, both host and tourist must be willing to embrace and respect differences without resorting to crude generalizations and harmful stereotypes. Tourism can offer a valuable learning opportunity for people to shed preconceived notions and battle ignorance — if only we give each other a chance.

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