Everywhere a Line by Jacob Magasanik

When I first came to Beijing, I thought people were a bit rude. I was constantly being cut in line, if a line even existed. Everything I witnessed on the roads told me that Beijingers cared very little for the rules of the road, caring more about getting wherever they were going as fast as possible. People rush the subway as soon as the doors open, shoving and pushing to get on first. It sometimes irked me, largely because I didn’t understand it. Was it because I was a foreigner that they cut me in line?

Eventually, in one of my classes, we learned about the Great Famine and Mao’s Cultural Revolution, both traumatic events in recent Chinese history that pitted citizens against one another and instilled a mindset that the world is a positive-sum game. In other words, history had changed the Chinese point of view. “If I let him go first, what if it runs out before I get any?” is a question that still plagues the Chinese mindset. It comes from a time where people asked, “if I let him take food first, will I go hungry tonight?” and it has not fully gone away in modern Chinese society.

This obviously contrasts the American zero-sum game mindset, which has a stronger emphasis on rule of law. After experiencing both, there is something truly beautiful about Americans seemingly naturally waiting in lines or letting me go first at an intersection. It seems like a small thing, but it truly does hold meaning. This is not to say that I hated the positive-sum game lifestyle, in fact, after understanding it, I did get quite used to it and found myself shoving on the subway with the Beijingers next to me. There is something admirable, however, about people with the mindset of “I can be kind, there will be enough for me after.”

 

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