When I left Australia, I wrote on my facebook page ‘Good bye Melbourne, where things work and people smile’. I have indeed experienced my stay in China as, largely, one of things not working and people not smiling.
My apartment’s been the focal point for this. A washing machine that doesn’t spin dry, a fridge-door that does not properly close; a night without electricity, five days with no running water; two floods. I’ve had similarly experiences outside. I yelled at an Apple customer service person for sternly refusing to help me book an appointment online. I yelled at a small China Unicom shop for selling me the wrong internet card and refusing to refund it. And I left without paying at a Shanghai cafe who tried poisoned me with mustard noodles – yelling at the waitress on the streets. I’ve also left a trail of ‘never again’ cafes in the neighbourhood – generally for drastically bad WIFI, and a ‘mei banfa’ shrug from the staff.
Now – isn’t it surprising that I can spit this list of complaints easily – and most of my facebook posts are similar complaints? Why am I not mentioning what does work – the fruit or fried noodles available at 11pm from three different shops, the reliable train and metro system, or the very lovely folks at the BanpoCun cafe? No, for some reason, my western brain is terribly distracted by these few things repeatedly not working.
For a large part of my stay, these ‘things not working’ have been a drain of mental energy. I was trying to focus on my studies of the language, and building networks, and running Marco Polo Project. Meanwhile I needed to factor in added layers of contingency: could I wash my clothes and dishes, or would there be no water? Could I expect to send emails, or would the WIFI stall dead. All sorts of daily routines I had adopted as natural – jump on the computer in the morning, watch a film online, skype with my partner back home – were no longer a given.
But more than the annoyance of contingency planning, what really got me was, each time, a sense of ‘having been deceived’. Whenever I got angry, outside, it was at a ‘Western style’ place, or a Western brand (Apple). At the small shops serving noodles on plastic tables for 2 dollars, I adapt. But at the loungy place with jazz charging four dollars for an espresso, I expect ‘Western’ standards of services. Yet there’s no deep logic to it. Even considering the bad service or low quality WIFI, these ‘western style’ places (which might also be ‘Japanese’ or ‘Korean’) do provide a more quiet atmosphere, and in a city with constant pressing and pushing, that is precious. Apple had horrible phone service, but at the Shanghai shop, they were nice and efficient. So things are not, altogether, terrible – and I think my anger may be fuelled, partly, by a sense of nostalgia. Or even colonial frustration. Why are these people not all speaking perfect English (why should they?)
Still – one thing stands out, which I’ve discussed also with locals: people in the Chinese service industry – particularly waiting staff – are paid remarkably low wages. They’re not happy with it. And the brightest people certainly look for other jobs – or make sure they work as little as they can. Meanwhile, as a side effect of the population figures, or through some cultural desire for ‘warm and noisy’ (热恼), these underpaid waiting staff come in large packs – standing and sitting around in fours and fives – but not smiling much. And not making things work any better.
Am I the only one to feel this way? Or is there, at a deep level, a lack of care for efficiency, which is the most radically alienating thing in China?