Hidden unemployment in plain sight

So, there are a lot of things you learn in high school that you never use afterwards. For geography, which was one of my weak subjects, this might actually count a bit less. It is quite useful to know about Pangea and why Dutch soil is weak and why exactly Amsterdam is built on stilts.

But in daily life, I do not think or wonder too much about these things. Something that is very relevant though, is the concept of hidden unemployment. I have already mentioned and experienced enough that efficiency is not held up to the highest standards in my country (watch my washing machine saga unfold and be surprised). This is because with all these people around, we need to give them something to do. Even though it makes no sense or could be done better, faster, stronger by a machine.

I am putting aside the tedious factory work that is still making a living for many people around here. But let us take a look at the slightly less depressing examples of hidden unemployment you encounter on a daily basis here.

1. Parking meters: I do not think I have ever actually seen a parking meter in China. For parking garages, the West of course also still uses human labor as well. You could argue that having people do this work on the streets, provides some slight benefits. They can yell at you to possibly make parking your car easier (or not), perhaps you can bargain for a slightly lower price (probably against the rules) and they can keep an eye out for your car (if they are not sleeping or talking or otherwise not paying attention). Another thing that makes it almost nostalgic to encounter these parking fee people is that you often can only pay cash. Perhaps that is their most important function, preserving a link to the past.

2. Security guards: Sure, the soldiers outside the embassy gates look slightly menacing, those probably would serve some kind of purpose in any event. But with all the security cameras in this country (apparently some 20 million throughout the country) you might think hiring some extra people to make security extra inefficient is unnecessary. Of course you would be wrong. The most fun parts of my day are sometimes walking into building where I am clearly not supposed to be (I explain this technique in more detail here) past a sleeping, talking or otherwise clearly not paying attention security guy and walking right out past him within 10 minutes. But perhaps, they are meant to serve as a secretly rebellious example. That as a security guard, you can be on duty, and probably being filmed as well, without actually doing it. Or even more so, with doing the opposite.

3. Cleaners: It is amazing how much there is being cleaned in this country. Not necessarily with the goal of it actually becoming clean, but merely the act. On the streets there are sweepers on every corner with just a broom and dustpan, then you have the slgihtly cooler sweepers who have their own little garbage trucks and you also have the people in those automated street sweepers. And the streets are also being sprayed once in a while. You have people sweeping streets with dry mops, with water machines to clean the pavement, dusting of handle bars and fences. The end result is a cleaner street than you would expect, but not an environment as clean as you would hope. This might be because sweeping up leaves is not actually cleaning up anything. Or because people keep throwing trash in places that are not trashbins. Or because almost half of the cleaners seem to be 50/60/70+ years old.

In the end, we can argue how much use any of our jobs have. In this sense, China delivers a healthy reminder daily that most of us do not really matter that much. A message, that incidentally fits the Chinese dream quite well.

Animated Animals: what the duck?

I was traveling a few weeks ago and while climbing a mountain, I suddenly thought: “What if animals could talk? Surely it would make mountains and forests a much less quiet place.” I also just remembered seeing the headline somewhere that currently most ducks for Chinese dishes are imported from Great Britain. So combining the 2, I imagine it would end up something like this…

It is the same as with humans. If you do not talk to them, they do not learn to speak. Since animals are now able of learning human languages, there have been many new rules, especially at farms and outdoors areas. Everyone there needs to use sign language, to preserve some quietness and order. Sure, monkeys may be able to catch onto that, but that conveniently also scales back the amount of zoos.

So, one day you saw an add for a Business Development Manager at a Duck Farm. Such positions are now very unpopular, due to moral considerations. However, that makes for little competition, so you decide to give it a try.

“English is the main language for this task.” Your supervisor says. “We import most of the ducks, so we need fluent speakers. We also have a few English major students interning for us.” No wonder that the level of English suddenly became much higher in China. There are that many more opportunities to practice, although you doubt how in-depth these conversations could go.

“It is no option to let them handle everything by themselves under human supervision?” You ask. Your supervisor shakes his head. “Only some are well-educated enough to communicate with us. Being able to talk does not mean they have consciousness, and many conditions in large-scale facilities are still quite apalling. If you let ducks talk to each other, they will quickly veer off-topic and start complaining about putting on weight, dirty feathers and swollen feet. And in the end, most ducks are slaughtered of course.”

With that in mind, you start working and calling. “Donny speaking here, how can I help you.” You wonder what it looks like on the other side. Is the duck in an office? Is the phone strapped to his body? Is there a human supervising him? After exchanging some polite conversation, you discuss the quality of the newest batch, transport, logistics and some other business.

With the work part of the conversation coming to an end, you decide to delve a little bit deeper. “Donny, does it feel at all strange to be part of this?”

You hear a sigh, obviously you are not the first one asking these questions. “Well, it is certainly a limited life of course. If I could fly and feel fine, I would but our bodies simply are not built like that. In the meantime, instead of just eating all day, it is nice to get a break from that by talking to you guys.”

Truth be told, you never gave a thought about career choices for ducks. “So is it tough to learn how to do this?”

“Nah, not really. We have scripts and cards, so that is the easy part. Also for off-topic conversations, we have a lot of practice. But I imagine that our counterparts living in the wild have some more variety. Stories of the black market do trickle down here, with some of us selling inside knowledge, stuff like that. Another reason not to keep us alive for too long.”

“You can just straight up tell me that?” You ask in amazement.

Donny has a short laugh. “Well, by now it is common knowledge. You guys cannot keep us apart anyway, so there is bound to be some of us able to get away. Anyhow, my feet are hurting so I am hanging up. Looking forward to be in touch again!”

A click and he is gone. You have quite a lot to think about now and decide to go for a stroll. Perhaps that will take your mind off of things.

How to get old really quickly

No, not your Facebook timeline. Nothing happens on there anyway, especially when you are in China.

So, a while ago I had a talk with a friend of mine on relationships, age, marrying children and such a future that many people envision for themselves. We already both agreed it would not happen in our foreseeable future, you can read a previous Dutch post for more on that, but there are of course different views on the course of life. Specifically, in China where many people seem to be 5-10 years younger than they are. So this results in seeing women walking around your age with babies or children of age 4 or even older. And parents who would seem quite old with a little kid, but quite young again when they turn out to be the kid’s grandparents. It was not for nothing that I had the idea you could only become a grandmother or father once you were over 70 years old.

But not only do people tend to get kids a bit earlier here, there is more pressure earlier to get kids too. My friend and I based it off a timeline, in which people’s views change quite quickly and radically within a few years. It basically goes like this:

1.  18-21 years old

You are still young and innocent, studied long and hard to get into your university and need to focus whole-heartedly on your studies. Do not waste your time on such frivolous activities like dating or partying. You are still young. You will find love once you are ripe for it.

2.  22-24 years old

Okay, you are done with university, found a good or otherwise stable job. It is now time to actively think about the next steps. You cannot stay alone for the rest of your life of course. And your parents and family is also not getting younger as years pass by. Find that partner you want to stay with the rest of your life and make your life complete.

3.  25-27 years old

You have worked for a while now and probably saved up quite some money. What are you going to spend it on without spouse and a house? You are missing out and very quickly, your family will be too. Youth is fleeting and your parents’ worries will only increase. Is that what you want them to feel?

4. 28-30 years old

It is too late. You are old and need to settle down as soon as humanly possible. You might have a good job, a fun life and be an interesting person in general, but it just does not cut it. Do you not want your parents to know their grandchildren? Who is going to want you at this age? Who will take care of you once you are old? In short, you are a failure.

Would you like some service with that?

Service in China is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, things are possible here that are totally unacceptable in the Netherlands. On the other hand, things are impossible here that are generally accepted in the Netherlands.

Pro’s:

  1. Calling a waiter or waitress – Admittedly, this is not as common anymore as before. The rise of Western-style restaurants also brings with it the usual struggles to attract someone’s attention. But there are still plenty of establishments where you will hear a “FUWUYUANR” regularly in between all the other conversations. I highly prefer it to side-eyeing, cheerleader-waving or raising-your-hand-up-as-if-you-know the answer motions.
  2. Making a mess – Whether it is yourself or the table, it is almost always accepted without any comments. Bones, fish grates, shells are all nasty and troublesome, but at least you can easily get them out of your sight by just dispensing them on the floor. Provided your hand-eye coordination is reasonable and you do not accidentally hit yourself.
  3. Free refills – I remember that there was still a discussion in the Netherlands if you could get free tap water. Also, if you order a cup of tea in most restaurants or coffee tents, you will have to pay the full price again for a second cup of steaming water in which you will use your first teabag. Not so in China. In most places you can refill water and tea endlessly until you feel uncomfortable about having had more free than paid drinks throughout your stay.
  4. Your living room from home – Unless it is really crowded, you can generally lounge the entire afternoon in one spot. Order one drink and refer to the point above to make sure you are hydrated throughout your stay. Most waiters will only approach you to refill your glass, or ignore you. They are also very skilled in doing that.

Cons:

  1. Service without a smile – Some jobs can be very boring or mind-numbing. And you can see it right of their faces. People will serve you with as less interest in you or their job as possible. Not looking at you, doing only the bare minimum and certainly without a smile. In that way, many Chinese do look alike.
  2. Working is optional – I remember that for most of my jobs in the Netherlands, there are quite strict rules about when to use your phone. Not so much in China. Whether there are any clients or not, whether chatting or watching a drama, everyone is certainly not focusing on you.
  3. Inefficiency – I already mentioned that there are often a lot of people working anywhere and a large part of them are doing nothing. It is a bit similar to my instructions for working at a Chinese Japanese restaurant. Also, when a question is asked, they will be sure to not do anything directly but for example inquire if you are sure that you want what you asked for.
  4. Passivity – The customer is king is still sometimes the case in China. But that also means that any (illegal) smokers, irritating children, drunken men or screeching women will be accepted and not reprimanded. Jumping in front of you in the line? Pushing you in or out the subway? Being polite or not? It is all accepted as part of life.

Biking Battles: Work never seemed so far away

So you accept your role as prey and see if you need to call on your other bunny friends. After putting down the foot on the pedal, you decide to go for it and join your fellow friends.

The start is a wide road, separated from the main car road. So it should be easy cruising through the sun (when it is there), however in reality it only means that you need to pay more attention to the cars trying to sneak into your biking lane. They are not even being sneaky. Acting like the predators they are (see The jungle road) they push you away while giving you the side eye to make sure you do not even touch their precious skin.

Furthermore, it is not entirely clear to you how much brain power bunnies have, but there are enough moments where it seems very low, yours included. The amount of curves you made along the road and scares you had by suddenly having scooters, cars or even buses making some or a lot of noise because of your maneuvers would make any normal person question your sanity. But adaptability is the highest means the ones lower down the pyramid have to make it, so you go along of course.

And then suddenly you have trees, shade and absolutely nothing else changes. The largest difference it makes is that you can play hide and seek with your opponents and startle innocent pedestrians. A real obstacle are the bus stops on the side. The people getting off seem like real mice crawling around, seemingly walking deliberately in front of your bike or freezing at your first sight. After toying with them for a bit, you decide to go for the last stretch.

It is a bridge. With two roads that need to be crossed, way too many traffic lights and very little patience. Whenever you see the chance, you just hop in between everything. This means paying most or your attention to where vehicles come from, not the stupid lights. You especially need to be careful when going against the (traffic) flow since everyone always seems to act as if this is a rarity. And if worse comes to worse and you need to cross the road without the traffic lights, just inch forward and try to look the drivers behind their wheels in the eye. You are one tough bunny!

You manage all that, and you will arrive at the oasis. Green everywhere, people fishing, cars slightly following the rules (since the military is watching or acting like they are) and silence. Oh and then you need to go to work. Nothing is perfect after all.

Biking battles: The jungle road

So before moving onto the long road, let us take a look at what kind of people are most often encountered on the Chinese roads. A comparison with the jungle is not strange, you have for example the predators:

  • The king of the jungle: Trucks, buses and any other vehicles which are heavy, large and intimidating. They cruise along, sometimes with people furiously shouting and/or honking but almost never stopping. They can suddenly lash out with their legs and doors, just to spite you. You know you should not challenge them too much. They have teeth and they bite. Although eating and hitting innocent people is still illegal of course…
  • Cheetahs: Very fast, lean and mean cars. Except, they belong on the Savannah or the open road. Not the clogged streets of Beijing. They roar loudly to let you know that they are dangerous, but barking dogs do not bite. Unless of course they suddenly have a precious piece of open road in front of them. Oh and you should not touch them. One scratch and you are gone.
  • Hyena’s: They are lagging behind, dealing with the leftovers. They are in great, huge numbers. Diverse, irritating and only slightly frightening. They are the ones tuktuks, scooters, bikers and even pedestrians dare to defy. When they hit, of course they hit hard. But as long as you stay out of reach…

So what about the prey?

  • Birds: You can go very fast, if you want to. You can almost manage to squeeze in between everything and anything. But just like some birds cannot fly, these birds often choose not to fly. Just carry on their daily business as they go excruciatingly slow and even slalom along the road while doing their best not to die multitasking. They do make a lot of noise however, whether they are moving or not. Would be nice if the sounds were as nice as birds’ twitter or songs.
  • Rabbits: They are quite harmless and with a growing number. They are usually a group of cyclists, some really put their foot down making noise, others are less brave and just sway from side to side. When they want to, speed is made and a lot of road covered. However, they are also quite single-minded. Just getting ahead already costs a lot of effort, so often following the rules or watching out are optional tasks.
  • Mice: When they are in a group, they have a lot of power. They can basically cross roads whenever they want, however they want. But if they move by themselves, they are the lowest on the foodchain. Literally everyone speeds past them and they are the first ones to take a hit. It also helps that they do not make it easy for themselves by being easily distracted by either eating, looking on their phone or checking their hair in the mirror.

In other words, the road to work is long, hard and dangerous. How to manage?

Biking battles: The origin

“Let me bike to work today.” Quite an innocent thought, if you might say so yourself. So you pack your stuff, glance outside to make sure it is not raining and go out.

At the bicycle parking lot of your compound you look for a while for your bike. It is black and, like most others, rusty and old so it does not stand out too much. It takes you a while to find it, because you realize the community workers moved things around again. To have a large space in the front of the lot to put nothing. Probably for a higher purpose, or to perform some rituals. Things happen for a reason right?

Nevertheless, you get on your bicycle and bike away with a speed which makes the security guard pause and stare in his morning talks. Your compound is quite old and although they often renovate the roads, the fact that people people do not care and keep walking makes sure that the road stays in the same state.

After having crossed that first hurdle, you enter the main road. Here, the real fun starts of course. The traffic lights designate the invisible race that is taking place here. Bikes, steps, unicycles and scooters are going ahead, because the buses, cars and trucks have speed and mass to compensate. You are eager to get to work, so after making sure the right lights are red, you cross in one smooth go.

It always amazes you with what kinds of vehicles people enter the road and what they take with them. Lately, carrying bikes on your tricycle or truck seems to be the new trend. And you always have the hilarious look of people on folding bikes with an electric motor on it, does that not defy the purpose of a folding bike?, or the ones who can barely sit on their steps because they are so small and lightweight.

So getting on the road is only the beginning. The road ahead is long and you need to get to work. On time preferably. What to do?