It was reported by the BBC on Monday that there’s quite the culture clash taking place among China’s wealthy. In the upscale Sanlitun district of Beijing a class of people, mainly women, are sitting up straight in their chairs while a magazine photographer lectures about makeup, lighting effects, contouring and cheekbones; he’s teaching the class about camera etiquette. This particular course is called “How to pose elegantly in front of the camera” and is just one of several courses taught at Institute Sarita. These courses don’t come cheap though. One popular class called “Hostessing” teaches skills like small talk and pairing wine with food and costs $16,216 for a 12 day course.
“The Chinese have no manners. It’s just not something that is taught by parents. I am always surprised when men hold the door for me in Paris. This would never happen in China.” said Yue-Sai Kan, a TV host and producer who now trains Chinese contestants for the Miss Universe competition.
Institute Sarita, founded by Sara-Jane Ho (who herself attended etiquette school in Switzerland) boasts itself as a 21st century version of the European finishing schools of yesteryear where students, more often than not young ladies, were sent to learn social skills, cultural norms, manners and proper etiquette usually so they could snag a good husband. In the United States these were called charm schools and were found primarily on the East Coast.
Most of the world’s finishing schools disappeared once women were allowed to work outside the home and pursue academics, however Switzerland is home to one of last operating institutions in the world. Sara-Jane Ho’s Institute Sartia is open to both genders and instead of its students being groomed for marriage their goal is to prepare students for travelling abroad and interacting with foreigners, especially Westerners. As recently as 30 years ago, China was still an extremely isolated country and with the rapid expansion of its economy in a relatively small amount of time, there are more wealthy people in China than ever before and they want to be cultured. According to Forbes magazine, China is just behind the US in number of people with high net-worth, which Forbes classifies as a net-worth over $1M.
While the majority of clients are on the wealthier side, many of China’s business people are coming off as blunt and even rude to their American and European colleagues, inspiring more and more middle-class clients to enroll. “In just a few years, I have seen a real shift in clientele. More and more Chinese are travelling. They see the advantage of having an international edge,” said Ho. Some standards of etiquette may seem wildly unnecessary in this day and age, like being able to peel an orange with a fork and knife, but Ho says that in China the rich are more than willing to do what it takes to cement their new status in the world.
Unfortunately, there still seems to be a long way to go. The cultural differences between China and the rest of the world were further exposed last October when China’s National Tourism Administration issued a 64-page book of guidelines on how Chinese tourists should act when travelling outside the country. Guidelines included warnings against peeing in public, stealing the life-jackets from airplanes and leaving footprints on a toilet seat (We aren’t really sure what that one means).
Most of these social differences can be attributed to China’s history of severe poverty and a time when politeness and sophistication were seen as bourgeois. “Let’s say that when you’re struggling to get food you are not thinking about personal space,” Ho explained. But as more and more Chinese begin to travel to other countries, they recognize the need for awareness of different social customs. Awareness such as: in most Westernized places things that are the norm in China, like cutting in line, talking loudly or pushing are generally frowned upon.
One student of the institution’s Western dining class, which runs $3,243 for one afternoon, said “The next time I visit Milan and dine in a nice restaurant I can confidently tell my husband he shouldn’t hold his knife like a dagger.”