I turned on the TV last night and I was somewhat shocked to see Obama chewing gum while walking to a state event with Chinese President Xin Jinping. As expected media in China were incensed with this breach of etiquette. Some people here in the US may wonder why all the fuss about a piece of presidential chewing gum ? The fact is that in some countries in Asia one does not chew gum in public. In Japan, for example, baseball players will not chew gum during a ballgame because it is considered rude to do so . In fact eating anything in public in Japan is is widely frowned upon. China is a little more relaxed in this respect and people eat where and when they want. But at a higher level one encounters the same strict cultural formalities in China as they do in Japan which means you just don’t chew gum when you are meeting with a high ranking official or the president of a company. When I am in China I have no compunction chewing gum when I am talking with an vendor on the factory floor. But if the owner of the company is anywhere near I quickly jettison the gum and I am on my best behavior. That is what is expected of both Chinese and non-Chinese alike.
My first thought is that either Obama has some insanely ignorant China advisors in the State Dept or he is incredibly arrogant. I really don’t know which and I am amazed that no one in the presidential entourage whispered over to him as follows: “Sir, take the gum out. This just doesn’t look good and it will create a storm in a teacup with your Chinese hosts.” Maybe someone did say something to Obama, and in true Obama fashion, he ignored the advice. Who knows. But can you imagine if Xi Jinping were to visit Washington and as he walked in the White House Rose Garden with Obama were to light up a Marlboro ? There would be a media firestorm here unlike any other and everyone would remark how uncouth the Chinese were.
But Obama’s ignorance or arrogance, whatever it was, is a microcosm of condescending Western attitudes towards China over the past 30 years. No effort is made to understand China and its customs, while we dictate to China what we need, whether that be an order of upholstered chairs, a container of washing machines or a signature on an international carbon emissions agreement. But times are changing. If you don’t respect China, then you will find China difficult to deal with. And judging by the tone of President Xi’s remarks after meeting with Obama, the President should have saved the stick of gum for the privacy of his State Guest House.