The art of being inefficient

So there’s not many things I actively emphasize about being Dutch or Northern European, but direct communication and efficiency are. Having lived in China for about 4 years, I have experienced the differences and adapted many times.

Of course this is partly because ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do’. At the same time, there is also a sort of fatalistic mentality that even if you would try your hardest to change the process or way things go, it will not happen and make nobody any happier in the process either.

After my washing machine soap, I hoped I would be free of repairs for a while. Alas, I had tried to ignore the bubbles on the wall of my covered balcony, which slowly started to grow moldy. Once it seemed the wall would be able to move by itself any minute now, I caved and started the repair process.

Since I rent through an official agency, the process seemed to be relatively straightforward. Just choose which part of your home needed to get repaired through the app, take a few pictures, add some relevant comments, choose the convenient timing and then you’ll automatically be assigned a repairman or woman.

These processes do go very quickly in China, so after providing all the information in the morning, I already got contacted by a repair guy in a few hours. We agreed to him coming at a certain time in the afternoon and I minded my own business. When the time arrived that he was supposed to come, I did not really pay attention and decided to sit it out and see how long it would take. He was an hour late. Oh well, what can you do.

To those who remember my last series on repairing stuff in your house in China, it probably will not surprise you what happened next. A guy knocked on my door, looked at my wall, took some photos and told me he would inform someone else come again to repair. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Long story short, I had 2 more people coming (not on time as well of course) and taking photos again. After the third person not actually doing anything, I was just not very motivated to continue with the process. But, after that third person someone actually came to fix the wall, hallelujah!

The only thing was, after asking him about the leak in the roof, he said: “I’m not responsible for that. You’ll need to get on the roof, ask your account manager about the arrangement for that.” Another long story short, I asked my account manager, then the management of the complex, then the agency’s central customer service, and then another account manager again, just to get the same guy to now ‘be allowed’ to go on the roof to further fix things.

In other words, it was Chinese communication at its finest and most effective. Most importantly, it has been raining quite a lot the past few days and I have been eagerly eyeing my wall. It seems like I will be able to give the guy some more work pretty soon again.

Animated Animals: Research and observation in the reservate

Besides pets, there is another group of animals where it is unavoidable that they learn how to talk: in zoos, reservates or captivity.

A visit to the famous tiger reservate is very different now. This is one of the few places where you are actually allowed to converse with animals directly, albeit at a safe distance. Since this is a place where you can ‘feed’ the animals by choosing to purchase a certain type of prey, this requires a negotiation with the tigers.

At the entrance, the sign with disclaimers is updated to contain a few new things:

  1. We try to have a wide variety of tigers with different preferences available. Guests are still allowed to feed the tigers, but it is impossible to guarantee that you can purchase the prey of your choice.
  2. We advise our guests to wear the provided noise-cancellation earphones to put all focus on the tigers. We provide noise-proof facilities wherever reasonably possible since we are unable to control everything the tigers say. Anything you hear because of not wearing earphones is your own responsibility.
  3. It is explicitly forbidden to communicate with the tigers in any way possible. Any written signs or smartphones will be collected at the entrance. Speech or text on clothing needs to be covered.
  4. Our employees communicate with tigers for general or research purposes. We welcome any suitable questions from the public which you can provide in written form to our staff.

Getting into the car, you wonder what kind of questions have been asked before. An employee gives you a little brochure with more information. Inside, the contents mention a few interesting questions:

Q: How do tigers use speech when hunting?
A: According to our observations and research, most tigers use it to intimidate their prey. They seem to understand that whispering and shouting has different effects. Since the prey cannot talk, it is a one-sided conversation.

Q: Do tigers tend to pronounce words that contain an ‘r’ better?
A: We hear that our tigers indeed tend to emphasize the ‘r’ within a word. However, if a word contains more than 1 ‘r’, they will only focus on one of them.

Q: Which type of prey do tigers prefer?
A: Among the choices that we provide (rooster, sheep, cow) we do see most tigers preferring the larger prey. However, some tigers told us they like to eat roosters because of their feathers’ texture and the fact that the little bones are easier to crack and provide a crunchier texture.

Pushing and pulling, but no punches

This morning, I read an article about the bleak reality of gang violence in Latin-America. Yeah, the best way to start off your Sunday for sure.

But it did make me think, there is not that much fighting in China, normally. Of course, certain exceptions exist (a few months ago I experienced one myself) however, physical fighting is just not very common on the streets. Sure, people always tell me that Chinese sound like they are constantly angry at each other, but that is just the ‘beauty’ of Chinese and the fact that most people do not feel the need to be close to each other when communicating (instead preferring to shout from a distance so everyone can enjoy and listen in).

You will experience a lot of pushing and pulling in China though. Especially when you are in any line (subway, touristic spot, restaurant, etc.) or need to wait. This is however quite anonymous pushing and pulling, not especially geared toward you as a person, but more at the crowd in general.

The times I have seen people become upset and threaten to start a fight are actually quite comical. Mostly, it is just the voice that gets louder and possibly higher- or lower-pitched (depending on the gender and amount of anger), and a few cocky movements. Bystanders will gather and might pretend to pull the people away from each other, although there does not seem to be too much resistance to be honest. It all seems very reminiscent of the kinds of fights you might have in elementary school where giving off the image of a fight is more important than engaging in one.

And honestly, I do prefer this kind of fighting in the end. It is more petty, but also a lot less dangerous. Even being a fit and somewhat muscular girl myself, I do not like pulling any punches. It might be my Chinese blood after all.

Animated Animals: birds of a feather talk together

Outdoors, nothing is as easy as it once seemed. There are decibel meters everywhere. It is finally more acceptable to stare at your phone all the time, since it is safer to chat with each other digitally.

However, especially in China many pets and birds in particular serve a distinct social function. These birds of course learn to talk and twitter away quite literally, which is fine as long as they are confined. Some do escape however, which created pockets in the wild where it is allowed to talk out loud.

So after your first work day, you decide to go to such a park. It is so quiet on the streets these days, it is unsettling. At the entrance of the park, there is a large map marking spots where talking is allowed. Another sign reminds you that there are decibel meters and cameras recording, so anyone talking too loudly in any other parts will be fined.

Passing the gates, you follow the path. There are still people dancing and elderly men intensively playing chess. You hear a bunch of different sounds coming from those crowds. Apparently, people have found new ways of communicating, either with clapping in morse, which works especially well if you are trying to make a point while playing chess or dancing the flamenco.

You walk on and arrive at a fork in the road. The path leading to the talking zone, leads into a dense forest. Once you enter it, you suddenly hear something that is quite overwhelming. Everyone is talking. Conversations are being had. People and birds laugh en get merry.

There are some cameras in between the trees, and all the birds are on leashes. This spot is specifically meant to only have birds. After some talks, the others tell you all outside spots are separated as much as possible. Also, everyone needs an outdoors license to be sure only well-behaved pets are taken outdoors.

After taking a look around, you sit down next to an older man who is having an animated conversation with his parakeet. “So today’s grains where definitely not the most tasty you say?” “Nope,” the bird answers “They just come out whole. It is terrible.”

“Do you have a special diet?” You chime in. The bird tilts his head and makes a sound like a sigh. “I just have an incredibly sensitive stomach. You know how some within our bird family will just eat anything of the street? I am not like that. I have standards.” The man scratches the bird’s head. “I have a little side business in luxury bird feed now. We are crossing boundaries.”

“Crossing boundaries,” you think. Would there be any spots where these talking animals meet?

Nothing to be done pt. 4

“When are you coming around?” Something I am not saying to anyone I would like to actually come, but my (un)trusty repairmen of course.

“Do you know if your neighbors are home?” Surely one of the most logical responses to that question ever. Sidenote, no I do not know if they are home.

So after a few messages on WeChat, setting a date and then not coming, setting a new date and still not coming, setting a final date and somehow showing up it was fixed.

What was funny though, is that my contact person of the housing agency sent a picture of the fixed and newly connected pipe. with a heap of mud around it. “It is done!” The accompanied text said. I was a bit confused and certainly not happy why there should be a heap of mud around the pipe for my washing machine. If there would ever be a heap of mud somewhere in my house, I would certainly not want it to be next to my washing machine.

“That heap of mud needs to go.” I said curtly. “There is not enough room to cover it up, it will be fine.” That is the favorite answer of course besides, “Nothing to be done” (see the title of this series).

I was certainly not going to let all our efforts lead up to me having mud piled around in my house. In the end, I understood it was cement and I made them understand it should at least be flattened out. As a bonus, they did add a tile on top of it. It made me feel very happy to have this extra service, even though I had to ask for it at least 5 times.

2 weeks have passed now without any middle-aged unhappy men, young and useless repairmen or wringing housing agency employees knocking on my door or reaching out to me. I have been using my washing machine without any problems. Life is good again.

Hush, hush, hush

Peace and quiet. Two things people definitely do not come to China for. The whole environment here is just plain noisy. From people to pets, from cars to cicadas there is always something happening and you can hear it.

I live in a ‘traditional’ 6-story building in Shanghai and there is always some pipes making a noise, or the airco outside, or my neighbors getting up at 7 to dance to very loud music.

In Shanghai, it is prohibited to honk for the greater part of the city center, but in Beijing that is definitely not the case. The symphony of all the noises sadly do not come together and it can make for quite an overwhelming experience when a bus, a truck, a car and a scooted are all honking at each other at the same time.

Furthermore, the Chinese are sort of famous for letting others ‘enjoy’ the sounds they make. Whether it is playing mobile games (without earphones), watching a drama (without earphones) or plainly calling (without earphones on the toilet), everyone can very clearly hear what they are doing.

It is the same with human comunication. People rather loudly call each other from the other side of the street, than cross it to talk normally. Kids running off are being accompanied by the increasingly louder screams of their parents that they need to come back. It does not work.

So in this environment, I always find it quite funny when people find me being too loud. I think I have been told a bit more above average to be quiet, or that I am loud. To which I can only say: I am a product of my environment. Apparently I sound more Chinese sometimes than the locals around me.

Nothing to be done pt. 3

So being a good tenant, I took the advice of my housing agency and just started up my washing machine. Not even 30 minutes passed when I heard some familiar tapping on the door and saw the same face in a state that combined anger with frustration and a touch of sadness.

“You are using your washing machine!” It sounded as if I had started a war with my unknown neighbors below.  I started explaining that I was just following advice I had gotten, but he started to mumble and walk around as if he could just take up my washing machine and move it around to solve the problem. In the end, he sort of told me that I was violating the rules and since there was no repairmen coming, he would get a guy of his own. He then stormed out of my house again.

So I reached out to my housing agency and asked them to have it repaired again. And the guy said, “Will try tomorrow.”

But the management was of course getting his own guy, so I again had visitors a few minutes later. I do not think I need to tell you what the management’s repairguy did. He walked to the washing machine, looked out of the window, took some pictures and told me I could not use my washing machine. Getting quite a bit frustrated myself I got both of them to hear the full message my housing agency sent me. Told them I am only a sheeple and following orders so if they tell me I could use the washing machine, I would.

It left an impression. Being direct still is a good way to get people to back off in China. But they would still be coming back again soon.