Friday, April 08, 2011

Trained by China

In between leaving Shanghai and before moving into our new place in Seoul, we traveled for a few weeks in the U.S.  I've lived abroad for almost eight years now, and though I go back once a year or so, each time the U.S. seems more and more unfamiliar. Sometimes things have clearly changed over there, like trends (I remember spending much of one trip staring at people's very large earrings -- the kind that fit into and stretch the piercings to the size of dimes), catch-phrases, or cars. But mostly things are the same there, and I'm the one who has changed. Or at least my expectations have. In China and Korea, buildings, trends, slang, manners, laws, signage, food, scandals, and the landscape change so much from month to month that it's weird to go to a place that looks almost exactly the same for eight years. 

Anyway, on this last trip, it became clear to me that I have been trained by China.

We regularly stopped at Peet's coffee. Each time there was a line. But what a line! You could park an elephant between the cash registers and the start of the line. As if people are afraid to stand too close because the cashiers have bad breath or really large personal spaces. And each person in line seems to leave a good arm's length between himself and the people in front and behind. 

The whole thing made me very, very anxious. I kept moving closer to the person in front of me, but then he would uncomfortably move forwards or sideways, so I'd move back, aware that I'd made a social faux-pas. But then I'd start to feel nervous and move up again. And every once in a while someone would come and stand in the space in front of the registers in order to get a closer look at the menu or the pastries, and my whole body would tense, ready to pounce on them if they showed any sign of trying to cut in. I fastened my stink eye onto their backs, thinking, don't even try it, motherfucker. 

When you stand in line in China, you can't let your guard down for a minute. Someone is always trying to squeeze in. You can't let any daylight show between you and the person in front of you. In the grocery store, you start unloading your cart almost on top of the person in front of you. When a taxi stops, you hop in the front seat before the current passenger finishes getting out. At the doctor, there isn't really any line exactly, just a whole bunch of people crammed into a small room, all handing their x-rays or charts or whatever to the doctor at the same time. Whichever one is in her face is the one who goes next. 

Even places where numbers are taken are not straightforward. At one point during our stay we had to get an important real estate document from a certain government agency. There were something like five steps, and both parties and both agents all had to be there to perform the first one. When the building opened at 8 am there were already 100 people waiting outside. They rushed in and grabbed numbers. But they grabbed more than one number each. So if the first number was called and some member of the party wasn't there (maybe they went to the bathroom, or the bank, or fainted from standing and waiting for so many hours) they would use the next number. 

So when we started out we had several numbers which weren't very good. But our agent, who was standing under a No Smoking sign with a group of agents trading cigarettes and smoking like crazy, would come back every 10 minutes or so with a different number. They'd trade among themselves, giving others the numbers they had pulled but didn't need.

Then, after the first few steps were done, we had to go to a different area of the building to pay a tax, and there was no take-a-number system there, just one straight line. But my agent had paid(?) someone to stand in that line all day; he just kept waiting in line, and when he got to the front, he'd go around and stand in the back again. So that by the time we were ready for that step we already had a place close to the front. 

And in the end it was almost 4:30, closing time, and we still hadn't finished everything. (Like all government officials anywhere, they shut down from 11-1 for lunch.) I really didn't want to come back the next day and do it all over again. So it ended the way things do in China. My agent found someone he knew in the office, and five minutes later we were done.

Back to the U.S.  The other moment during the trip when I realized I had become Chinese was when it was time to cross a road. My friend E sauntered across four lanes with barely a look back and forth. I stood petrified on the sidewalk, saying, "Watch out! There's a car way over there!" She said, "What are you doing? Come on! They're legally obligated to stop!" Oh yeah. People actually do that here.