I recently read a brilliant article by China correspondent Evan Osnos in the New Yorker about his experience joining a Chinese tour group on a trip to Europe [The Grand Tour, April 18th 2011]. He describes a trip at blazing speed through five countries in ten days in which tourists were told to be vigilant about thieves and unnecessary engagement with strangers was not advised. “We were as mobile and self-contained as a cruise ship,” he writes. What struck me most was that his descriptions of the Chinese tourists reminded me a lot of us.

The Chinese tourists saw Europeans as slow and inefficient. Osnos recalls:

“We have to get used to the fact that Europeans sometimes move slowly,” [the tour guide] said. When shopping in China, he went on, “we’re accustomed to three of us putting our items on the counter at the same time, and then the old lady gives change to three people without making a mistake. Europeans don’t do that.”

And later:

Li made a great show of acting out a Mediterranean life style: “Wake up slowly, brush teeth, make a cup of espresso, take in the aroma.” The crowd laughed. “With a pace like that, how can their economies keep growing? It’s impossible.” He added, “In this world, only when you have diligent, hardworking people will the nation’s economy grow.”

And by comparison, the Chinese tourists view their own culture as efficient and nimble, allowing them to emerge as a richer and faster-growing economy:

Our guide had mocked Europe’s stately pace, but Zheng said her countrymen have come to believe that “if you don’t elbow your way on to everything you’ll be last.” A car paused for us at a crosswalk, and Zheng drew a contrast: Drivers at home think, “I can’t pause. Otherwise, I’ll never get anywhere,” she said.

And later, one tourist admits she is not impressed:

Midway through the trip, the daughter was politely unmoved. “Other than different buildings, the Seine didn’t look all that different from the Huangpu,” she said. “Subway? We have a subway. You name it, we’ve got it.” She laughed.

There is a sense throughout (and I have noticed this too in my own experiences in China) that Chinese people, generally, see themselves as more practical [read: better] than their European counterparts. They view their culture as more efficient, wasting less time in “high culture” like fine art, slow dining and savoring the aroma of a cup of coffee.

Americans, I would argue, are actually a lot like these Chinese tourists. For example, I was struck by how much Osnos’s reading of the Chinese in Europe is similar to Alexis De Tocqueville’s reading of Americans in his famous 19th Century book “Democracy in America.” Tocqueville sees Americans as pragmatic people (think of the proverbs in Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac) who seek virtue and honor through hard work and good character. Believing that every man could “pull himself up by the bootstraps,” Americans rejected European aristocracies – in which one could inherit virtue and nobility in only one way: by blood. In the aristocratic social structure, with their inheritance (whether it be substantial or not) secured from the moment they are born, Europeans didn’t have to be so pragmatic and hardworking. Instead they had abundant leisure time in which they could pursue philosophy and fine art. For Tocqueville, the American emphasis on work made them “seekers of the middle” — a society based on utilitarianism, efficiency and conformity. Americans, observed by Tocqueville, chauvinistically pledged themselves to the American dream. With work as the central value in society, Americans had no taste for fine things and instead sought comfort rather than high beauty. Osnos’s descriptions of Chinese tourists in Europe frowning on the slow pace of European life strikes uncanny cords of similarity with Tocqueville’s description of early Americans.

Chinese tourism under Mao Zedong was deemed anti-patriotic and illegal until 1978.  And it wasn’t until 1997 that Chinese people could travel beyond certain countries in Southeast Asia. As a result Chinese people haven’t learned to be tourists in the way that Europeans, Canadians or Australians have. Likewise, Americans are known for their infrequent overseas travel (many Americans don’t even have passports). I am reminded of the old joke: What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Answer: Bilingual. What do you call some who speaks three? Answer: Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? Answer: American.

And why is that? Perhaps it is because, we like China, have a deep rooted feeling that we are the best nation in the world. “China” in Chinese is Zhongguo, literally, “middle country,”  as in the middle of the earth (that is how we get “middle kingdom”. Like the “unmoved” daughter Osnos writes about, Americans believe that America has everything and is indeed a “chosen” nation to put it in religious terms. If you are already among the chosen, why travel?

To the Europeans, Americans in the 19th Century were the pragmatic, utilitarian engineers with all the related connotations. Now, from an American point of view, China is taking that role.