Why Do the Chinese Butt in Line?

My wife and I recently stood in line at an American-style fast-food burger shop in Beijing. When it was finally our turn, we reached for the laminated menu card near the cash register and started looking at the menu options. Out of nowhere, a young man pushed forward, grabbed the menu out of our hands, and started giving his order to the cashier. That’s when I reached over, quickly slipped the card out of his hands and blocked his view of the cashier with my body while we proceeded to order.  

This wasn’t the first time we had encountered this kind of behavior during our stay in China. In fact, over the 18 months since arriving in Beijing from America, we’ve seen it nearly every day in various situations and venues–from train ticket queues to subways to grocery stores to airplanes. Everywhere we’ve turned, we’ve noticed locals who do not seem to accept or honor the concept of “wait your turn.”

We enjoy talking about cultural differences with our Chinese friends. One friend, a medical doctor, heard me lament about this encounter. He thought for a moment, then proposed a possible explanation. Recent research into an emerging field called “epigenetics” indicates that animals and human beings may pass along ancestral memories via their genes. In short, our behaviors, attitudes and preferences may be greatly influenced by environmental factors suffered by our ancestors. He postulated that trauma from serious famine in China’s past may now be to blame for an unreasonable feeling of urgency, pushing a person to skip ahead of others in line to be the first served.

I believe that whatever experiences we’ve had, or whatever traumas our progenitors may have suffered, we do have the ability and responsibility to overcome our own programming to act in ways socially acceptable in the current environment. We cannot blame our genes for bad behavior. However, the doctor’s explanation has caused me to re-think my own responses to these behaviors. Instead of reacting with irritation, I am now more likely to feel compassion for those whose genes might nudge them to move ahead of me in line. If echoes of China’s past whisper to the person behind me that he is starving, I may see his behavior differently and choose to respond accordingly.