[photopress:thisischina_1.jpg,full,alignleft][photopress:onlyinchina_1.jpg,full,alignleft]The recent spate of grumbling entries on our blog about the trials and tribulations of living in China (particularly a comment along the lines of "it’s China, deal with it" in one of the responses) has cried out for counter-examples to balance them out, of which I hope to provide a few here. Please feel free to post your own in the comments section.
Anyone — or I suppose I should say any foreigner — who’s lived or spent a significant amount of time in China has experienced many of the seemingly infinite ways this country can grate on you. People smoking in elevators despite obvious no smoking signs (which happened in most other countries well into the 1970s), cars zooming through pedestrian crosswalks when the green man is lit, suffocating pollution, constant stares and "hellos" (in parts of the country anyway — not such a problem in cosmopolitan Shanghai), people not thinking to call you to inform you of the cancelation of a class, the lack of a concept of "personal space," the yelling across restaurants for a waitress to come over (actually, I quite enjoy doing this as loud as I can, but it’s not for everyone), the cramming into subway trains before letting people get off first, inexplicably extreme impatience with the automatic door-closing capabilities of elevators … the list goes on and on. These are the things that make you throw up your hands, roll your eyes, and groan "this is China." As in, this is just how things work here, better get used to it, although you don’t see how you ever could. There’s even an entire website devoted to this stuff, not that I’d recommend spending too much time there. In the face of all of this, what makes life here bearable, and indeed enjoyable, are those times when Chinese people’s kindness, the quirks of the culture, and serendipity conspire to counterbalance the annoying bits and make your day.
The motorcycle mechanic who invited me to dinner with his entire extended family, drove me to the train station, and offered to put me up "anytime" — after I stopped to chat with him for a while simply because he called "hello" — would be an example. The Chengdu taxi driver who waived half of the fare at 4:30 in the morning after I’d explained to him that I was locked out of my apartment and was running all over town looking for a place to sleep, would be another. When you come across people like this, you have to smile, shake your head, and say, "only in China."
I had one of those redeeming "only in China" moments on a trip to Nanjing about a year ago.
I was about to enter the train station at 12:20 to catch a 12:40 train back to Shanghai when I felt around in my pockets and discovered that there was no train ticket where there had been one only half an hour earlier. It must have fallen out when I was fumbling for money to pay the cab driver. I was at a loss for what to do as my friends passed through the entrance, showing their tickets to the attendant. A Chinese man had been watching me, with my friends looking nervous on the other side of the station’s glass wall, and guessed my situation. "Just explain that you lost your ticket," he suggested, in remarkably good English. Right, I thought. Aside from the woman checking tickets, there were about three security guards standing around the entrance. No way they’d let some random foreigner through without a ticket. Not a chance.
I sprinted back toward the ticketing hall to buy another ticket. It was, predictably, chaotic. Lines for the ticket booths were long, slow, and didn’t seem to follow any particular order. Multiple customers were demanding service from the same ticket seller at once. This is China, I thought. I was desperate. I approached a man who’d just advanced to the Plexiglas after what must have been a long wait and explained that I was in a rush and had a big problem and could I please cut in front of him. He paused for a second and then began nodding his head, gesturing toward the counter. Only in China! I rejoiced. I hurriedly plead with the woman at the counter to sell me a ticket, even if it’s just a standing ticket. She said she couldn’t do it: it was already ten minutes before departure, and they’d stopped selling tickets of any kind for that particular train.
My heart sank. This is China. I ran back to the station entrance as fast as I could and told my tale to the ticket checker, apologizing profusely for my stupidity. She looked at me for a minute, then let me through. As I rushed toward the platform, the security guards called out at me to come back. Uh oh. I turned around to see them pointing to the x-ray conveyor belt and motioning for me to put my backpack through. I grinned and gave and embarrassed laugh as I took it off and fed it through the machine. They grinned back. Here I was, dashing wildly through their train station with no ticket, and they just want me to slow down and pass one of my bags through the x-ray machine? Only in China.
(By the way, I made the train with seconds to spare.)