Many years ago I was standing in a long line at the immigration office in Hangzhou. Everybody there was going through the arduous rounds of Chinese bureaucracy — which leaves nobody in a pleasant mood. All of a sudden, two big Pakistanis tried to walk right up to the front of the line. Everybody tried to pretend they didn’t notice to avoid confrontation, then a stout little Chinese man who was standing right behind me quite literally flipped out.
“Hey you! Get in the back of the line!” He screamed in perfect English. “We wait in line in this country! If you want to go to the front, go back to your own country! When you come to China you do things the Chinese way!”
I bursted out laughing. The Chinese way? The only Chinese way that I’ve ever known involves elbowing people in the gut who try to cut in line ahead of me. For all intents and purposes it was the Pakistanis who were demonstrating what would call the Chinese way. This is a country of people with a budging problem: every time you stand in line you must be on guard against people blatantly trying to cut in front of you — especially if you’re a foreigner.
But there are some rather easy and highly effective ways to prevent people from cutting in line ahead of you here. Doing them takes some balls, but in the end it feels better than allowing yourself to be walked over and disrespected. The following tips are specifically meant for use in China, but they can be used anywhere in the world.
When you head up to a queue, especially disorganized ones like at a market or a fast food restaurant during meal hours, be on the lookout for people trying to sneak ahead. They often go right up to the front parallel to the line, wait for the person whose being served to be finished, and then they cut in front of the next person. The clerks and cashiers here generally don’t care who’s legitimately first in line, they just do their job for whoever is in front of them. So be especially aware of what’s going on around you when you’re second in line, as the front is often where the action happens.
By far the easiest way to prevent someone from cutting in front of you is to simply tell them that you’re first. You can do this with four simple words: Wǒ dì yī ge (我第一线个).
For other countries just learn how to say this phrase in the local language.
In China, people are often so taken aback that you just spoke in a language they can understand that they saunter away dejected or stand there frozen in shock until after you’ve been served. I never once had anyone argue with me after saying this. But I also find myself trying to speak this phrase like an angry general in a Chinese film.
Apparently, I can pull this off pretty well.
One time while standing in line at a market behind a young lady who was getting a melon weighted I noticed an older woman trying to sneak in ahead of me. I waited until she tried to hold her items out to the woman at the scale before my own and I bellowed that I was first with such vehemence that the girl who was legitimately in front of me jumped in fright and ran to the back of the line. Yes, sometimes you can overdo the tough guy routine.
The longer you spend in China the more instinctive this move will be. Sometimes it’s an absolute melee in some check-out lines here, and people will try to move in front of you to the left and right. You can often catch them in the ribs with an elbow and pry them behind you with a little nudge. More often than not simply showing that you’re willing to stand up for yourself is enough to make most people back down.
As the prime place for cutting in line is right up at the front, wedging yourself between any potential line-cutters is a good tactic. Just take your elbow, squirm it in front of the person trying to cut, and firmly plant it on the counter/ bar/ cash register platform with your back facing them. This creates a barrier that’s almost impossible to get through — but it leaves the opposite flank open, so use this move strategically.
The shoulder grab and point
If someone does manage to sneak in line ahead of you, it is easy to eject them with two simple moves: 1) Grab them by the shoulder and spin them around so they’re facing you, 2) Do a “you’re otta here” kind of thumb gesture to indicate that they shoul go to the back of the line. They tend to listen.
Tell the Chinese to sort it out
Sometimes you just don’t want to confront certain people when they cut in line in front of you. For example, it is a good idea to steer clear of socially correcting Chinese men when they’re drunk. For reference, the last time I grabbed a drunken line-cutter and demanded that he wait his turn like everyone else, I got a bunch of saliva unintentionally splattered upon my face.
Now when this situation arises I get the attention of a Chinese guy whose standing in line with me (who was also cut in front of) and I point out the infraction and ask him to deal with it. Sometimes it works, sometimes I just make an innocent bystander feel enormously uncomfortable.
You have to be a Big Man when in China — even if you’re a woman — or you will get steamrolled. The good thing here is that a little self-respect goes a long way. Simply showing that you’re prepared to hold your own is enough to get 95% of the people on the planet to back down right off the bat.
Remember that foreigners have no face here. You just don’t count on the social scale of respect. People will often be polite, friendly, and helpful, but many won’t think twice about stepping in line in front of you. Really, who wants to wait in line as some dumb foreigner who can’t speak the language gets confused and holds everyone up? I understand why people seem to be more prone to cutting in line in front of us than they are their Chinese brethren. Besides just being an easy target with no face, we can also be a potential annoyance. That’s why it’s even more important that we speak up and proclaim that we are not idiots, that we know what’s going on, and that we can buy our vegetables as efficiently as any Chinese person.
I enjoy being in aggressive cultures, as the symbolism of behavior is often very cut and dry. It’s easy to figure out how to act in these places: you’re either dominate or subordinate. This is a very natural way for humans to act, and once you pick up on the social cues it becomes easy to be respected. I would much rather be in a country like China than a passive culture where the respect lines are very vague and I’m always second guessing myself and the people around me: did I offend this person? Is that person trying to offend me? Am I being showed respect or am I being patronized? Cultures like China are easy to navigate because everyone’s cards are on the table, you can discern the social patterns and find ways to fit into them.
What is interesting about China is that cutting in line is highly taboo, but it’s also ubiquitous. It’s not OK here to budge in line, but it’s incredibly common. So while everybody will say that it’s wrong to cut in line and the “Chinese way” is to wait your turn, there is a major counter-cultural current that goes against this ethic. So when you come to China, be prepared to hold your own in line.