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Patience is a virtue … and is often in short supply in China

When I first came to China – back in the days before everyone had a mobile phone surgically attached to their ear and lusted after automobiles – I was rather naïve. Like most Midwestern Americans, I grew up believing that if I dug a hole deep enough, I would come out in China. I also believed that I was a connoisseur of Chinese food because I regularly ate my Swedish grandmother’s chow mein.

On arrival, however, I realized my ignorance of Chinese culture was bottomless – if I dug a hole deep enough I would just get dirty and Grandma’s chow mein functioned better as tile grout than it did as sustenance. So I went in search of knowledge. My first mentor was a former university acquaintance whom I met when he was a visiting scholar at my university in the US. When I got to China, I tracked him down and landed on him like a fly on your lunchtime gong bao ji ding. Each time we met I would pepper him with questions, trying to get at the “secret” of Chinese culture, that one swing-thought that would guarantee my complete understanding of this ancient civilization. Our conversation ranged from the esoteric – the Confucian foundations of modern society – to the practical – how to make coffee in pre-Starbuck’s China (which, if memory serves, required grinding tree root, adding pencil shavings and squeezing it through a damp athletic sock).

In the end, though, the only Kung Fu Master-like statement he ever made was this: “Kent, if you want to understand China, you must know what it means to be patient.” Which sounded both cool and logical; after all, a country with thousands of years of history knows that things take time. To better grasp the profundity of this concept I formed the following suppositions: China is old, therefore it is patient; America is young, therefore it is brash and impatient. Cool.

But over time, I discovered that this, like most generalizations, was only partially true. Chinese people are patient in some things; in others they are the most impatient people in the world. Attempt to board any form of public transportation – bus, subway, airplane, train – and be prepared to become a human speed bump if you don’t flow with the anxious crowd. There are no lines; no taking turns. The doors open, heads go down, feet start moving and the devil-takes-the-hindmost.

Ever try to board an elevator here? It is an accepted practice to punch the “close door” button the very second passengers enter or exit the car. Indeed, you can always identify the “close door” button by the finger-shaped indent caused by excessive use. If your timing is right, you might even get extra points for clipping the heel of their shoe. What is this irrational fear of open elevator doors? Is everyone here an agoraphobe who can’t wait to shut themselves into a tiny box with twenty other people? Contrarian that I am, when I happen to be standing near the buttons, I purposefully do not push the close door button and casually block others from doing so. Call me evil, but I enjoy watching everyone squirm.

Airplane travel is host to any number of impatient acts. Just before the plane touches down, people jump up and haul their bags from the overhead storage area like they are sky-surfing in a big metal tube with a carry-on slapped on their back. When the plane docks, the crowd pushes ahead as if the jetway might suddenly be pulled back leaving stragglers stranded on the plane. And so the herd pushes on, up the ramp, into the terminal and on to the people mover where … they abruptly stand still, letting the equipment do the work. Why? I honestly don’t know!  Maybe they are husbanding their strength for the next assault?

As for me, well, I’ve learned to hang back, sitting calmly in my seat until the scrum passes, then nonchalantly amble out of the plane. By the time I reach the people mover, I am already going faster than those that emerged before me. And – bonus! – I am not bleeding.

My last example of impatience in China also comes from the transportation sector. When I drive along a residential street, someone is bound to leave the sidewalk and suddenly cross the street in front of my car. What is up with that?? Do people value their own lives so little? Do they think my reaction time is as good as an F1 driver? Are they thinking at all? Do they not think: “Hey… my ancestors have been around here for thousands of years and have built one of the most enduring cultures in the history of our species. I am going to wait three nanoseconds until that pale, nervous looking guy driving the van goes by me and then cross the street”? I’m just asking here.

Yes, the irony is apparent. Here I am, an American, harping on the importance of patience in China. We Americans invented fast food, the microwave oven, the One Minute Manager and neo-con regime change. I thank my local friends for their patience in not giving me the butt-whooping I deserve.

I hate traffic lights too

I had a meeting the other day in Pudong, the new(ish) part of Shanghai on the east (“dong”) side of the river (“Pu”) and was on my way back to the west side of the river where the older part of downtown Shanghai lies.  I am not sure just why but, no matter the time of day, traffic is always heavier coming into the city than going out.  I could understand if there was a rush-hour thing going on – everyone going one way in to work in the morning and the other way going out at night.  But no, traffic is always bad coming in.  Where do all the cars go that come into the city … do they go out, eventually?  If so, when?  At night, like a teenager tiptoeing home stealthily after curfew? If they don’t, where do they go?  Is it like socks in the clothes dryer – put two pairs in and 3 individual socks come out, none of them matching?

Anyway, I digress … so I was in a taxi and we came through the tunnel and then only had a couple of kilometers to go to get to my office. Suddenly, the taxi driver veered into the lane to get on the elevated highway which, of course, was more like an elevated used car lot without the clowns, balloons and hot dogs for the kiddies – cars were bumper-to-bumper and completely motionless.

“Um … why are you getting on the highway?” I asked, very politely (rule #1: Don’t poke the bear if he’s driving a cab in Shanghai).  “My office is really close … just take the streets.”

“No way,” he said, “there are too many traffic lights.”

“Uh … yea, but at least the traffic is moving between the lights.”

“Nope.  I hate traffic lights.”

Oddly, I hear that a lot from taxi drivers in Shanghai … they all have this preternatural aversion to traffic lights.  When I first came to Shanghai in the late 1980s, there were, maybe, four taxis in the entire city; rather, the public bus ruled the road, like some lumbering brontosaurus ready to devour the mammals newly emerged from the primordial slime. (Warning: if some dinosaur geek sends a comment that my metaphor doesn’t work because brontosauruses were plant-eating and, therefore, would not eat mammals, I will delete it and with malice aforethought).  Traffic signals were kind of iffy back then – if they actually worked, no one knew if traffic would actually stop for them – so the authorities installed traffic cops.

I don’t know about you but, until I came to China, the only traffic cop I’d ever seen was the one who yelled “Stop” at Frosty the Snowman (non-Americans, don’t ask … just Google it). To me these men (and the occasional woman) were heroes, boldly standing in the middle of the maelstrom of rushing vehicles, most of which had loose steering, questionable braking systems and brand-spanking-new drivers, the Traffic Trifecta. The traffic cops coordinated their hand motions with the traffic lights, like some early version of Dance Dance Revolution, and, for the most part, drivers obeyed them.  When the traffic cops called it a night around 9 p.m., of course, everyone completely ignored the traffic lights and it became Dante’s Seventh Ring Road of Hell.

It’s different today and most drivers will stop for lights … but it’s clear that they don’t like it.  Most traffic lights in China have countdown mechanisms, telling you how many seconds you have to wait for it to turn again … and as the counter creeps down into the single digits drivers will rev their engines and slide slowly up against the bumper of the car in front of them, fearing that even the slightest gap might encourage queue-jumpers to insert themselves into the space. When the light does turn, there is a collective stomping of the accelerator, blasting a hole in ones eardrums and the ozone layer, and the cars are off on a steeple-chase to find their place among the lines painted on the road which drivers usually treat merely as good advice, like being asked to recycle or wipe down the equipment at the gym when you’re done.  By the time some semblance of order is resumed, everyone pulls up to the next traffic light which, instead of being timed with its siblings along the same street is rather synched with some acid jazz inflected disco beat played by tone-deaf musicians in an alternative dimension and has just reached the downbeat of the red light … and the game starts all over.

Hmmm, on second thought, I think I hate traffic lights too … they control your driving and tell you what to do. It’s not about speed, man … it’s about freedom! So I’ll take the elevated highway where I can breathe the sweet air of vehicular liberty and feel the wind of driving independence blowing through my hair.  Of course, I’ll have to stick my head in front of the air conditioning to feel that wind because creeping along at the speed of glacial ice melt doesn’t force much air into the car.

License to Kill

I’ve had a couple of requests for an article I wrote for a local Shanghai magazine a few years ago about getting my driver’s license.  The Chinese media – even English language publications – are all owned by the Party and are managed by the Ministry of Propaganda (a group that needs some help in re-branding their title to approach a bit more obliquely their mission statement).  I wrote for this publication for a number of years but was summarily fired by the good Propaganda people for (and I’m not kidding here) “writing about the behavior of the Chinese people.”  I guess I was welcome to be surrounded by 1.3 billion of them, but I couldn’t write about them.  In any case, one of my first columns for this magazine was one I wrote after getting my driver’s license.  I’ve had a few requests to republish that here and will do so below.  You can be the judge of whether or not I should be able hang on to this blogging gig.

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A wise person once said, “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.”  However, I think they were wrong.  Shanghai walks like a modern international city and quacks like one too…but underneath the fluffy down of its subways, Starbucks and stock exchanges, Shanghai retains the inner core of a bureaucratic nightmare, most often benign but a pain in the hind quarters nonetheless.

To support this argument, I bring as my first (and only) witness, what in English is called the “Shanghai Transportation Police Headquarters, Vehicle Administration Bureau” (what Americans would call the Department of Motor Vehicles).  I ventured there yesterday to get my China driver’s license and I suspected, even before setting foot in the place, that it would result in confusion, headache and a great story.  It turns out I was right on all counts.

Automobile sales are growing at a faster pace in China than almost anywhere else in the world.  In bigger cities like Shanghai, rush hour moves slower than a Democratic tax refund.  Not surprisingly, traffic accidents in China are increasing exponentially as thousands of new drivers hit the streets (and each other) every month. It is rumored that every day in Shanghai nearly 20 people are killed in traffic accidents.  Let me repeat that in case you missed it…that is 20 people…dead…every day!

The irony of the STPHVAB office is that they are building a new elevated highway around it and drivers have to break several traffic laws to even get in the place.  On the way from my office to their office, the taxi drove the wrong way on a one way street, went against two traffic lights and caught some air when we went too fast over a sewer line that had not been completely filled in.  This was not an auspicious beginning to the day.

The traffic bureau office is actually a complex of about 9 buildings housing nearly 3,000 workers.  Chinese government entities are famous for over-employment and under-productivity (what government isn’t?) so this was no immediate surprise.  I went to the office in Building # 1 where I was given a piece of paper that told me to go to Building # 6.  I originally thought that this first office was The Office for Telling People to Go to Building # Six but I was wrong…it was really the epicenter of the entire operation and one needed to return there after each foray to outbuildings to find out where to go next.  It was, in fact, The Office of Telling People Where to Go.  Now wouldn’t that be a great job??

The buildings were not numbered and I found Building # 6 by looking for the most people wandering around the complex looking for Building #6, a communal, Zen-like approach to orientation.  I paid a fee equal to a few dollars and got a checklist of all the rooms in Building #6 I had to go to.  But first, I had to go to a numberless building across the way to get my picture taken, the results of which proved that no matter where it is in the world, everyone’s driver’s license photo looks like they were drunk, brain-dead, unemployed and destitute when they had it taken.  Or maybe that’s just me.

Photos and checklist in hand, I went back to the third floor in Building #6 where, upon filling out more forms and paying another fee, I was ushered into a hall with a series of rooms off of it, each room housing a different examination of some kind.  But I am not talking about a simple written examination (that will come later)…these were physical examinations of all types.  They took my blood pressure, did a hearing test, checked my height and weight, hooked me up to an EKG machine to confirm I had a heart and gave me an eye test (which the guy ahead of me nearly failed and—I am NOT making this up—said in frustration under his breath “I am a pilot…how can I fail an eye exam?!”  I decided, then and there, to walk to Beijing the next time I had to go: I was certainly not going to fly with a chance of getting that guy as a pilot and I wasn’t going to drive either because he could be on the road on his way to work!)

They finally gave me a test where I had to pull on a chain coming out of the floor and then squeeze the handle of a machine.  I am still a bit confused about that last one, how it could disqualify me: “I’m sorry, Mr. Kedl, but you have the grip strength of a six year old girl with the flu…we cannot allow you to drive.”

These tests were the most arduous part of the process, in part because there were probably 50 other people trying to complete the same checklist at the same time.  A brief survey of them, however, revealed that, while they were all anxious to get their driver’s licenses, none of them actually owned a car.  This is quite common and there is a Chinese phrase describing these types of people, “Ben Ben Zhu”, literally the “Group of the License” (and, by reference, ONLY a license and no car).  I guess they do it because they can or because, some day, they will purchase, lease, rent, borrow, steal or be given a car.  Some people collect stamps, others collect driver’s licenses.

The part of the experience then came that I had been dreading…the written examination.  Who does not still get the flop-sweats remembering their written exam when they got their license at age16?  When I first arrived at The Office of Telling People Where to Go, I was given, to review, a study guide of 100 questions with the correct answers and was told that 20 of them would be on my examination and I was required to pass with 80%.  In between physical exams, I spent furtive moments cramming my brain with useless information I would never actually have to use (cue flashbacks to graduate school).

I was lucky enough to be able to take the exam in English, but it was really no help at all…both the questions and their multiple-choice answers were completely unintelligible, as if an off-the-cuff speech from George W. Bush had been translated into Swahili and then back into English: neither the original nor the two translations make any sense!  I kept a copy of the study guide as a souvenir and I repeat now, for your own edification, some of the actual questions that were on the exam (in all their Chinglish-y glory!) and the answers that I wish I could have given:

Q: If you get in or out of an alley, cross a level crossing of a railway, make a sharp turn, or pass through a narrow road, a narrow bridge or a tunnel at the speed of 20 km/hr, you:

A: …are lucky to be alive.  The same goes for reading this question…if you exceed a 20 km/hr reading speed, you are sure to miss the point, as I just did.

 

Q: What causes most accidents?

A: Driving.

 

Q: If there is no causality between the violating act of the traffic accident’s party and the traffic accident, the party:

A: …will go on as planned, with even louder music and more food and drink.  Being absolved of any responsibility in a traffic accident is a reason to party!!

 

Q: When the party of the traffic accident maintains that he refuses to accept as final, how soon may the party apply for remaintaining to the upper-class public security organs after receiving the maintaining statement of traffic accident responsibility?

A: Huh?  Can you repeat the question…I was not sure if you were maintaining or remaintaining something for the upper class.  Is this a trick political science question about class struggle?

 

Q: If convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol, to which public security organ must one apply?

A: The liver.

 

Q: In order to ensure the safety of driving, the driver with excess tiresome is not allowed to drive the car.  The excess tiresome means to drive every day over

A: …the roads I traveled to get here to take this tiresome examination.

 

Q: If smoking, eating or performing any other actions that would endanger traffic safety while driving, the driver of a motor vehicle should be penalized 5 Yuan, true or false?

A: Wait a minute…what?  You mean that I can get pulled over for scarfing a Ho-Ho while driving?  Well, there goes my breakfast time.

 

Q: When the traffic police stretches his right arm horizontally with palm of hand facing the front and with the left side of the body facing your car, that is:

A: …a signal that he is about to begin the traditional Shanghai Traffic Police Hula Dance and Fire Breathing.  We recommend pulling over and watching this time-honored art form (no pictures, tips appreciated).

 

Q: When you are driving in a normal way, a traffic policed shows a stop indicating sign, you should:

A: This is a trick question in two ways… stop signs are intended as friendly recommendations and are not to be taken seriously and, besides, NO ONE drives in a “normal” way in Shanghai.

I passed with flying colors.  OK, I barely passed with an 80% and only after begging the examiner for answers to some of the trickier questions (she did not know what “remaintaining” meant either and didn’t speak any English besides).  I got another piece of paper with instructions to go to another room where I paid another fee to get another piece of paper telling me to go to another room in another building where I paid a fee to get another piece of paper to go to another room to get my completed license (an M.C. Escher painting written into a government bureaucracy…it just goes ‘round and ‘round!).  However, I emerged from that building the proud owner of a Shanghai driver’s license, giving me all the rights and privileges of every other loony behind the wheel of a car.

The more attentive reader—if you have had to patience to get this far in the narrative—will have noticed that, although I was poked, prodded and examined as to my physical state and my ability to read broken English, not once was I asked to get behind the wheel of a vehicle and actually prove I could drive the danged thing.  Does this sound strange to you too?  It did to me too, at first; however, after further consideration, I think they are on to something.  Anyone who has eyesight like a hawk, the grip strength of a bull and knows precisely when to remaintain to the proper upper-class security bureau will do just fine on the roads.  No one else has actually learned how to drive here either.

Middle Aged in the Middle Kingdom

Middle age.  So named because that’s the migratory destination of one’s body mass over time: The Middle.  Love Handles?  I wish.  Try Love Shelves.  I’ve become the Ikea of body fat.

The challenge of being middle aged in China is keeping fit. Having a fit is easy.  Keeping it?  Not so much.  China is tough on one’s health.  The air quality is poor enough where I’ve considered starting to smoke just so I could filter the intake.  And since Dunkin Donuts entered the market and had the audacity to put a store near my office, all the benefits of walking the stairs out of the subway instead of taking the escalator are crushed under the weight of two Boston Cremes and something called the “glazed choco-infused sugar nut squeegee.”  I gained two kilos just typing that last sentence.

But I try.  Lord knows, I try.  I like to lift weights occasionally in my garage, using a universal system from, I think, the 1950s.  No doubt it is loaded with lead plates and asbestos paint so as I am building body mass, I am increasing carcinogens.  I’m not a doctor but I don’t think the trade-off is a good one.

No, I need a cardio-vascular workout.  Something to get the blood flowing, the lungs breathing and the heart racing.

I watch, with envy, the joggers in my neighborhood, looking so cool in their (mostly) coordinated outfits, long strides and glowing brows, like arrogant gazelles frolicking on a lion-less savannah.  But I think there is something morally wrong with running for pleasure, at least for adults.  Humans have evolved to the place where we should run only if we are being chased by someone.  Preferably someone with a weapon.  I do run, on occasion, but the pavement pounding compresses my spine enough to turn vertebrae into small diamonds and makes my knees crackle like Rice Krispies in Dolby.

I’ve thought of power walking, but that’s not for me.  I don’t have much self-respect left, but I refuse be seen in public affecting that purposeful stride, like I’m running late to practice for Kim Jung Un’s next birthday celebration.

Treadmill?  Stationary bike?  Nope.  Too close to a possible metaphor for my life – working hard and going nowhere.

I’ve thought of joining a gym where I would have lots of options available to me and the support of my fellow humans, all of us striving towards the common goal of health and clear thinking.  But I know what I look like when I work out and I’ve seen others … and that is not conducive to a social situation.  Humans should gather only when there is food, wine and – optimally – a nice cigar involved.  But even the best Washington spin doctor would be hard-pressed to call Happy Hour a ‘workout.’

Maybe the apparatus of choice for me should be the lowly bicycle.  China was once famous for their bicycles and in my early days here, this was the vehicle of choice as one joined the herds and hordes, prides and pods, flocks and phalanxes of other bikers on the way to work at the State-run factory where you would sit around all day, smoking, reading the newspaper and making up spurious production figures to send to Beijing.  But I’m not just looking for transportation, I want transformation.  I don’t want to get somewhere better, I want to be someone better.  That’s a ton of expectations to put on two wheels and an aluminum alloy frame.

Serious bike riders talk about “the burn”, that place of Zen-like tranquility where the body is working at its peak of energy and efficiency, thus freeing the mind from the bonds of the corporeal world, raising it up to contemplate more lofty ideals wherein one can imagine a brighter future for all mankind. Imagine all the people …  Dude … that sounds cool!!

At least it sounded cool before I actually got on my bike.  In China.  In reality, this is what ended up going through my mind:

“OK … here we go … deep, centering thoughts … life … death … meaning … purpose … YOWZZA … that guy was going the wrong way … or is it me going the wrong way … what way am I going … hmmmm … HOLY BACON BITS, is that a pig? … oh, its a pig on the back of someone’s scooter, the pig’s not driving … that’s ok … but what if a pig drove …  where would it go … this little piggy drove to market, this little piggy … WHOOPS, look out for the jogger … wow, he’s wearing colors not found in nature … nice green, buddy … looks like the love-child of Kermit the Frog and a neon Bud sign … sign, sign, everywhere a sign … LOOKOUT … it’s a dog … a small dog … a really small dog … looks like a squirrel in a dog suit …

Yea … that was getting me no where near Nirvana.  In fact, if anything, that was Nirvana-proof activity.  And I felt pretty exposed, like the only thing between me and a speeding car was, well, ME!

Then I found the answer.  I will drive.  Shanghai is famous for its gnarly traffic and creatively horrible drivers. Someone asked me what side of the road they drive on here and I responded, “my side.”  I drove downtown the other day and, I kid you not, narrowly avoided at least six accidents.  It was like making my way through a city of Stevie Wonder clones driving bumper cars.  When I arrived, my heart was racing, I was gasping for air and I’d lost a few kilos of water weight in perspiration.  And I was safely wrapped in a sheet metal cocoon with nary a scratch on me.

Elevated heart rate? Check!  Weight loss?  Check!  New appreciation for the wonder of being alive? Check!  Nirvana Schmirvana.  Mission accomplished.  Now, let’s do Happy Hour!