On Again, Off Again

I’m developing an on again, off again relationship with China, it seems. As in, some days (today, for instance), our power is on. Other days (the first half of this week, for instance), the power is completely cut off. From Sunday morning to Wednesday around midnight. Snip—no power. In all fairness, though, we were warned it would happen. Monday afternoon, I believe it was, a day and a half in, we received a phone call—yes, the phone still worked—from Robert, one of the other foreign teachers, informing us that he had just been informed by the Vice Dean of the Foreign Language Department that we would be out of power till Wednesday.

Room-temperature refrigerator, the coldest showers I can remember, no reading after 7pm, not till we got some candles—candles from Robert, coincidentally, the nearest stores being out—it was a joyous start to the week.

What really astounded me, though—is astounded the right word? yes, well … I’ll use it—what really astounded me was the reaction from the people. The Chinese, that is, who also lost power. Calm as Hindu cows. Did it bother them at all? I don’t know. But there weren’t the riots I was expect. Imagine, if you will, the power being cut—with no warning—to an entire city block for three days in America. Pick whichever city you would like.

Christina said to me, “China had to’ve been the birthplace of Zen philosophy,” as we walked down the dark sidewalk to our apartment building’s gate, Chinese people gathering with chairs from their apartments to huddle underneath the few random building lights that still, miraculously had power. Children laughed, shining flashlights in each others’ faces. None of the frustration and annoyance that we felt evident at all in them.

Robert tells us, “This is just how things get done in China.” The people don’t get mad, they can’t get mad, because this is just how things are done. Cultural indignation wells inside of me, and I have to fight it down, unclench my fists, find a way to distract myself from the stress.

Should they be pissed? Should I learn to just go with the flow? This is perhaps the biggest cultural difference between America and China that I have noticed—improvisational business. The Chinese, it seems, are unable to make plans. Like a puppy at a garbage heap, they sift through the waste of the day until they spot something shiny and go chasing after it, dragging you and anyone else they need along with them. And I get mad at the Chinese for not getting mad about it. A Chinese rule of thumb: Anyone with any kind of power sets the agenda and everyone else has to fall in line.

Americans have a reputation for being self-centered, egotistical, etc. The Chinese, on the other hand, supposedly stress a communal agenda. This has not been my experience. Here we just get a different flavor of self-centeredness. Whether it’s random strangers walking up to me and asking for anything from a photo to private English lessons or university leaders who call twenty minutes before a meeting that I knew nothing about twenty seconds before, there is a common thread, and it is not efficiency or the communal good—it’s convenience. Convenience to them.

I met the other day a foreign teacher, named Ian, at another university. He’s from New Zealand and has been teaching in Asia for five years (two in Thailand, two somewhere else I can’t remember). “You hear the stories about the Chinese,” he said, “and you think you know what you’re in for, but that hasn’t been my experience at all. I have a totally different opinion of them from when I first arrived.”

Funny thing, Ian. Me too.

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