Thursday, January 14, 2016

The practice of everyday life

It's another week until I leave, but here are some things I'd forgotten about China, for all their being a part of every day I spent here. We're heading to Qingdao for a few days, and I might forget I remembered them...

People use coupons - generally found online, accessed by cell phone - everywhere. Indeed, there's almost always a coupon for a place, so even if you've already finished a meal somewhere, you might still find you can pay ¥88 online for ¥100 of food (for instance), and the waiter or waitress will patiently wait while you punch away at your cell phone for part or all of your bill. If you haven't noticed the deal, the waiters will tell you about them; if one coupon doesn't work, they might suggest another. They don't do this for tips, since there's no tipping here. Sometimes it seems like they're giving friendly advice, but not always; they may seem vaguely bored, but never impatient. A big part of being a waitress or waiter here is waiting - menus are often the length of small books, and they wait patiently while people go through them page by page... I still don't quite understand the service ethic here; waiters or shop assistants seem neither on the side of the establishment or the customer, but more like accidental bystanders.

Motorcycles drive at night without their lights on, often in packs just as their light turns red; at the best of times some of them drive soundlessly on the sidewalk. Like bicycles, many drive on the wrong side of the road. Drivers beware: anyone might appear at any time from any direction! The same goes for pedestrians. Whenever you want to cross from A to B, someone, on foot or wheels of some kind, will materialize going from B to A, into or out of a doorway or laneway you hadn't noticed was there, and others may appear at the perpendicular too. Alertness is constant, though it seems nobody's paying attention. Nobody stops unless they have to. It comes back to me that I first felt the miracle of still being alive every time I made it home from Fudan on my bicycle, but later came to take it for granted that, still miraculously, none of the collisions I saw about to happen around me (and sometimes involving me) actually would.

Going into every metro station there will be a security checkpoint (or several) with someone watching a monitor and one or two people directing people to place their bags and briefcases in the scanner. Most people walk right through, bags or no bags. My friend X had been trying for a long time to get me not to put my backpack in the scanner, which I did out of a habit of law abidingness and a sense that guests should be on their best behavior (especially in a police state) - I also used to feel indignant at those who seemed to me to think themselves too good to participate - but I have seen the light. Walk past the people directing you to put your bag in and some will say something; some will gesture, half blocking your way; some will even hold onto your arm. But if you keep moving they'll let you go through. At one point, when someone seemed to be blocking my way I put the backpack on the belt, only to have my friend angrily snatch it away... and nobody did anything. Another time my backpack actually went through and the monitor-watcher asked my friend if there was a bottle of water in it. I said there wasn't, which he relayed to the security team, who said something about how it had looked like there was - and let us pass without checking. It's a gigantic farce, really. X's view is not that the system is ineffective (which clearly it is) but that "I've already paid for it" through his taxes, probably to line the pockets of some party insider who makes unreliable scanners. Maybe it's a make-work scheme, I once speculated; no difference, he said, they're getting paid and shouldn't get in our way. And they don't.

I'm amused that I forgot about these things, but I suppose that's just the thing about everyday life. When you're in it, you participate without noticing. When you're not in it, it's out of mind, too. But I wanted to jot them down here, if only so that I can at some future time note that they have, once again, slipped my mind - something I'll only know, as this time, by surprise at reentry.

No comments: