Who remembers the good ole’days, back in grade school when school lunches, library books, even paste and crayons were dispensed on the honor system? What about having a line of credit at the corner grocery, in the days before ‘Line of Credit’ became a corporate term that you get charged interest for and sometimes taxed on?
Ah, the honor system! Where each person was relied upon to do the right thing, pay their own way, take only what they need, and leave the rest for the next person or the rightful owner. What happened to the honor system?
It migrated to China. Or, maybe it has been here for centuries like so many other culturally iconic behaviors. Here a man’s word is his bond and a handshake is a deal-maker. You know, just like it used to be in the States before corporate greed and petty theft took over.
Just a moment to talk about greed and theft. I am by no means saying that all of the reports of corruption and embezzlement coming out of China are false. There is plenty of greed here, and lust for riches, as well as corruption and bad deeds. A lot of that happens at higher levels of society – in government circles or in business, when there is actual profit to be made.
But at the people’s level… the street vendors and the bus riders and the hole in the wall shop owners. Here is where you still see the honor system in place and functioning beautifully.
It is not uncommon that a street vendor will simply tell you to make your own change from the box of money he has openly laying on his cart while he fixes your food. He or she may well cast an eye in your direction to make sure you don’t take a single Fen (1/10th of a Yuan) more than you’re supposed to, but I’ve not experienced that any time I’ve been to a food vendor stall. From what I’ve seen, the food vendor keeps his eyes on preparing your food and the customers take only the amount of change they’re entitled to.
Same with the ticket takers on the bus. Some of the bus lines are not government run, so a bus card will not pay your fare: you must pay 2 Yuan in cash. This ticket taker has as big a stack of bills as he or she can wrap their hands around, even some 100 Yuan notes – the largest denomination of currency available to the people. I can’t speak for every single Chinese person, but it appears that nobody has ever thought to club these ticket takers over the head and grab their money and run. Even on government-run buses, when a passenger does not have the benefit of a bus card he or she will drop the full 2 Yuan fare into the collection device without fail or trying to cheat by folding up a one-Yuan bill and pretending it is actually 2 Yuan.
The hole-in-the-wall shop owners presumably don’t even deal with banks. They keep their cash right there in their establishment. By day their wad of money is kept in a type of hip pack and worn; by night… who knows? It might be buried in jars among their inventory. Again it appears that no one ever thought of simply cutting the strap off of that hip pack and running with the cash.
Just the other day, at the farmer’s market, I did not have enough small change to pay for my 9.8Yuan purchase so I had to give the merchant a 100Yuan note. Being as it was fairly early in the day and she could not make change… she just told me to give her the 7Yuan I did have in small money and bring the rest back next time. Honor System! I love you!
Living under the honor system is like a blast from the past: something I only dimly remember from my childhood, and mostly have only read about in books. I have always wanted to experience living like this. What an absolute pleasure to finally do so!
But, I’m sad to report that tide is turning. Quietly, but maliciously, like a cancer growing. I see the signs already showing: anti-theft devices at store doors and on merchandise, lockers for people to put their big bags in so they don’t carry them into stores, video surveillance cameras.
Every time I go out with some of my students they constantly remind me to keep my bag secure and keep a good hold of it. Most times people hold their cell phones in their hand while riding the bus so that it doesn’t get stolen. Nobody ever shows any money (other than their bus fare) out in public. Men’s pants fronts have odd rectangles showing in front because they carry their wallet in their front pants pocket rather than their back pocket.
Lately, reports of violence are ramping up. Sometimes I actually read about a kidnapping, hostage standoff ending badly or the occasional murder or two. Of course, the hostage taker or murderer uses a knife as private citizens are not allowed to have guns. This is the type of desperate crime the regular Joe might perpetrate when pushed to the edge of an already abysmal life. Or regular Lee, if you want to distinguish Chinese regular people from American ones.
There is a disquieting undertone lurking around here. As uncomfortable as the pollution levels as just as toxic, the seeming paranoia of being a victim of theft is infiltrating this once harmonious society. It is sad to see women hiding their good watch after stealing a quick glance at it, always making sure no one is looking directly at them. It is sad to see people finger their money while it is still in their pocket so they can try to pull out only the smallest bill needed for their transaction. It is sad to see that some street vendors actually do collect their money and make change for you, rather than just leave their box of money on their table.
But there is still a measure of the honor system left. For as long as it lingers, I intend to enjoy it. I like riding the bus and watching people pay the right fare every time. I like patronizing the street vendors who trust enough to leave their box of money right there in the open. I like not having to separate my money into specific denominations and stuffing my various pockets with a few small bills so that all the pickpockets get from me is chump change.
I want to keep living like this. Not with my head in the sand, but enjoying a throwback to the time when people believed in honor. Until I get robbed or pick-pocketed, I’m guessing I will.