This is another post I am not sure about, a bit personal maybe, but I need to write it down as it was swirling around my head keeping me awake for a lot of last night.
My day living as a Chinese person. It started with me finding a laundry; I find that you need to ask at least 3 people to find someone with actual knowledge. I wait for the person I ask to leave or I walk a bit before asking another person. You need an answer which is confident. I think I failed being Chinese for this task because what you should do is turn to the next person and not consider the feeling of who you just asked. Chinese are very practical.
Next is going to work and having a subsidised breakfast in the large company sponsored cafeteria, Annie was picking me up in her car, so I waited outside my Hotel for fifteen minutes past our agreed meeting until a rushed Annie arrived after sleeping through her alarm. So this felt suitably Chinese.
Despite her appearance, Annie is a junior Accountant in the big state run power company, State Grid. Many office buildings have gardens and car parking in their surrounding area. Annie has a park on the grounds of the building. To get to this we needed to pass a security gate with about 4 guards. I kept asking if it was all ok, if anyone would get in trouble with bringing a westerner stranger onto company property, Annie said it would be all fine, don’t worry.
Indeed all was fine, we parked in an incredibly tight park, the last, we were late remember. We then rushed upstairs to the company cafeteria, a large room with many people who naturally all looked at me, as I was the only non-Chinese person in the room. A large breakfast for two cost around 3 kuai, less than a dollar. Being late we scoffed down the lovely breakfast as fast as possible, while Annie chatted on the phone etc. I think this passes as Chinese.
Then we walked into the office and I learnt a few differences to Australian offices, this building had open space desks, but in a series of rooms based on service or job function, except for managers, they still get super large offices. Based on a sample size of 2 offices, they seemed to be segregated on male female lines/rooms, junior females, senior males.
The first task of the first day of the week, Monday, is to mop the floors (no carpet anywhere), China is a dusty place, so the most junior work place members, the intern and I proceeded to mop the work space of the junior accountant’s desks and surrounds. Mopping seems to just involve very wet rag mops and water, no cleaning solution or buckets involved. I would say this definitely passes as Chinese.
Job done, I was given a quick tour by the intern, well one lap of the floor, and scant information she had gained about the other department areas. The intern is the daughter of Annie’s boss, and is doing this while waiting to head off to Sydney next month for a language course and Sydney Tec Uni course. To earn brownie points for all, it was my task to chat to the intern to improve her English.
Annie had been away from work for a week and had a pile of papers on her desk to process, so I suggested the intern and I go for a stroll to practise English and also so I could complete a couple of personal tasks as well, topping up my SIM, and buying water. We ended up in the park over the road with all of the retired people, I think the intern was a little uncomfortable mixing with the retired gang but I was not in any way.
From my own experience, I realised that I needed to keep to very simple statements or questions in English, pretty soon I found myself asking a series of personal questions. Now as you may have guessed I have an intense fascination with China and its history, politics, laws, education system, absent parents and policies, especially the one child. Here was a chance to probe someone who has experienced this first hand and seemed to me to be showing signs of strain from a lot of the above.
Comparing the intern to Annie was like chalk and cheese, there is a few years difference but I think it is much more than this, I think the education, culture and parental pressures make or break some people.
I think a couple of years in Australia is a great thing to help balance out people, hopefully the intern will blossom with this challenge.
Lunch time was approaching, apparently the normal Chinese office worker day at State Grid includes another company subsidised meal, lunch, followed by a 2 hour break (3 hours in summer), a siesta I assume.
We were not late for lunch, so this time I walked into the same canteen but with even more people. We sat down chatting, Annie taking a few phone calls, and after a short time I noticed the room was quiet and we were the only 2 people remaining. Everyone had raced their meal and left in less than 10 minutes. So we failed this Chinese test.
Now you may have gathered, Annie is a force of nature and how can I put it, Annie is good at working the system, she had finished her pile of work and had been chasing her boss all morning trying to arrange the afternoon off to be able to show me around. The brownie points we had earned with the boss, getting me to speak to her daughter, had paid off handsomely, she had the afternoon off as a reward!
Annie dropped me at my hotel and headed off for her siesta, while I showered and instead of sleeping, wrote about my adventure the day before when Annie and friends entrapped me. So I failed this Chinese test, I later told Annie this was an example of how hard working Australians are.
Annie told me to be ready in an hour, 2pm. Near 2pm Annie messaged to say she was running 15 minutes late, I assumed normal Chinese/Annie time and replied, sure see you at 2.30. At 2.30 I was on the street and messaged, “Ok la, waiting”. At 2.45pm I messaged “Still Waiting”. At 2.53 Annie messaged “Oh no”, and arrived soon after.
The plan for the afternoon was to book a bus ticket back to Hangzhou as I had found out it was a 7 hour train trip on the same slow train I arrived the day before. After buying a ticket we visited the goods packing area to confirm the bike would fit. The answer was no (by the way I still was not sure if I had a bike at this stage, since we had not actually been back to confirm it was still with the neighbours). It was worked out a bigger bus was leaving an hour later and it was fine to change the ticket. I claim none of this organising but at least I know for next time.
As a tip, I also dropped a pin at the bus station in my mapping app, maps.me, to make it easy when riding to the bus station the next day.
We then headed off for a visit to an old river village that is famous for art teaching. Also by this time we had picked up the bosses daughter, the intern, so more brownie points.
The intern told me how children with artistic talents are encouraged/selected(?) to do special art studies. This is to the student’s advantage as they can get into university with a lower entry score. Sounded a bit like a throwback to more forceful practises but I did not mention this.
Travelling to the old town was much further out of town then I was expecting, I felt there was still a lot to do this afternoon, picking up laundry, having dinner with Annie’s mother let alone getting my hands back on my bike. But we were operating on Chinese time, so I had to keep quite.
The river town was beautiful and since we had arrived late, Annie was able to park in the middle of the main street right at the entrance to the old town. Also there were only a few tourists, it was very peaceful, with the sun low in the sky.
On the way back to town, I learned there was change of plans, of course, Annie, a friend and I would instead go out to a restaurant which has special local food. A treat or a food surprise maybe. The friend turned out to be a slightly overweight, computer games addict, who seemed overly anxious when speaking to me. Like (all?) Chinese students he had learned English at school but was rapidly losing his English language skills as I fully understood. We had a stilted meal while I was asking my simple questions again, but this time I asked him lots of questions about Annie to help liven up the discussion and not make him feel so pressured.
The meal was a series of shared dishes that I have not remembered the names of, but 2 did stand out in my mind, the first and largest was almost complete frogs in a broth; there was little flavouring, so we tasted the frogs mainly. I was surprised there were these little tiny leg bones I had to spit out and that they tasted OK. The dish I liked the most was simple soup with rice noddles, egg, and vegetables. I hinted that I did not want to have a long meal and so we finished up in a good time.
Driving anxious computer game addict friend (lets call him TS) home, we both sat in the back seat and the English continued, but something special happen, as I learned more about TS and his life plan to travel the world, his fear of flying that has prevented him from leaving China, his overly anxious concern to be more prepared before travelling that was stopping him. I greatly warmed to TS, we spoke deeply and warmly to each other. I tried to put him at ease, pointing out that I was travelling around China with much worse Mandarin then his English. Also I tried to convey to him that if he could successfully live and travel (no driving) all over chaotic China as he has done, then I felt travelling overseas would not be anywhere as hard as he was worried about. Prepare well before going, then go and be prepared to change all your plan was my advice. I think by this time Annie was driving around the block and very slow.
Next task was pick up laundry and my computer to give Annie all the photos I had taken and if I was lucky, get a copy of her movie. We headed to Annie’s home and I was introduced to her mother, it was the largest home I have been taken to in China, with a massively big TV screen dominating the room. I was offered much food and made very welcome, Annie’s mother does not speak any English, and so was a little out of the conversation. Especially for what happened next. I had casually mentioned to Annie I had posted a Facebook status about my arrival yesterday and this sparked a direct request to read it. I was a little unsure and tried to scan ahead to see if I had said anything she would take offence at. Annie was soon laughing hysterically almost in tears. I felt so uncomfortable for her mother, as it was a strange scene. Annie was not offended and wanted to copy it for her wechat friends, who ignored the English text and just commented on the pictures.
By this time it was after 10 pm and still no bicycle, so I requested we make this important trip. On arriving at the neighbours we found the roller door down again! But there was a light on and praise the lord, or maybe just a lesson on Chinese kindness to me; my bicycle was safe and sound. High fives all round. We still had photos to copy, so another ride in the night following a car with its hazard lights flashing ensured, this time I had no panniers or helmet, so I was mostly able to keep up. This counted as very Chinese.
At midnight, Annie’s mother started cooking! I was offered a large bowl of the local soup, noodles, vegetable, and meat broth dish while they had smaller bowl, a Chinese male/female thing, or just visitor, I don’t know. This dish was very tasty and I am able to give praise back in Mandarin. The dish included vegetables grown by Annie’s grandfather.
We wrapped up at 1.30 am, another big day, Annie walked with me to her car so I could collect my laundry, I took this opportunity to try to make some sense of why the last two days had occurred, I asked Annie the direct question, why was I being offered all this friendship, being asked to return next year with my wife and children, why was Annie scheming to get me an invitation to her friend’s wedding next year (our host from yesterday), why?
I fully understand being Western in this part of China goes a long way, and one who speaks a little Mandarin that much more, but I sensed more than this.
Her answer was, because she recognised my open and caring approach to life and that we had talked about our emotions and feelings in a way that friends do, not strangers. I was honoured by this response and understood.
Heading off into the night with the instructions when leaving the apartment complex gate, turn right, and then right again at the next intersection, you will go past your hotel. I turned into a completely deserted street, no cars, no bikes, my brain immediately switched to the Australian driving direction and I found myself on the wrong side. I almost switch sides, but then I remembered I was a Chinese person for the day and did not. I also ran every red light I could.