That’s how it’s done in China, baby

How to describe daily life here? Things are done so differently to back home, even now I still never fail to be amazed and/or amused. For example, on my first day here I went to open a bank account, accompanied by a German friend who has lived here a while. However, I did not know my room number yet, and a bank employee explained that without a room number she wouldn’t be able to open me an account. After a moment’s dithering she said, “Oh, I’ll just make up a number then”, and wrote in a random number. My mouth was hanging open, but my local friend was busy cursing herself for not having had the presence of mind to think of doing that first.

Customer service is not really a known concept here. Don’t expect shopkeepers and waiting staff to be nice to you in China; usually they are stony-faced and abrupt. It’s nothing personal, and they do not expect courtesy in response. Last night at a restaurant, our friend who was in charge of ordering for the group was calling to and speaking to waiting staff in what I thought was quite a kind manner (especially as they kept walking off partway through his orders), but our foreign friends seemed taken aback by his tone of voice. The meaner you are, the better people treat you. If you want to get your way, just kick up a fuss and make a lot of noise and you’ll intimidate everyone into doing what you want. No-one will get offended and sometimes, it’s the only way to get things done. An elderly friend of the family once got so rowdy at the bank (Chinese banks are notorious for the ridiculously long waiting times) that they gave her a VIP card so she’d never have to queue again. Result.

Health and safety apparently hasn’t been invented here yet. The university campus alone is basically an open building site (supposedly they choose the summer holidays to do their construction, when most students are away). Just innocently walking home the other day I very nearly got a faceful of rubble as I passed by a pick-up truck into which a builder was throwing spadefuls of I don’t even know what. Another time, someone was using a pneumatic drill on a rooftop a couple of metres away as we walked by, bits of jagged rock flying everywhere. Each day when I step out the front door I wonder what new chemical emanation will greet my nostrils as I hold my breath on the way to class.

Don’t let the diminutive frames of the local population fool you; you need to be tough to live here!


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