Daily Anecdote: Bending the Rules, the Nouveau Riche, and Meatmarket Grannies

** I’m starting a new series called Daily Anecdote. Everyday I post an amusing or peculiar little tale about life in China. There are so many particularities and cultural quirks here, why not share them with people who have never been or may not have noticed the small things while sightseeing?

My weekend is off to an early start. Tomorrow early morning I’ll take the train to Chengde Summer Resort, old hunting grounds of the emperors. So here’s three Daily Anecdotes to get yours and my weekend started.

Thursday: The Rules Don’t Apply To Us

People who haven’t been to China probably imagine an Orwellian society of rule followers. But anyone who has spent a day here knows that the classic Chinese attitude is one of, “The rules don’t apply to me.” After thousands of years of political turmoil (dynasty after dynasty, revolution upon revolution), we know that the only way to get anything done is to bend the rules. There are so many ways to circumvent the standard procedure that there’s a whole vocabulary dedicated to these practices – “walking the back door” (going in the unofficial way), “finding people” (contacting someone you know to get your child into college, or progress to the next round of job interviews), “giving gifts” (buying off anyone from minor clerks to powerful officials).

The big things in life are most often achieved with some sort of “back door” aid, but even in daily small things you see this rule-bending in action. I once confronted a man who cut in front of me in line at immigration at the Xiamen airport. “Hey, you have to line up,” I protested. He turned to me and with a face of sincere beleif, he said, “Oh, I don’t have to line up.” I was convinced but minutes later realized, “What do you mean YOU don’t have to line up?” We’re all SUPPOSED to line up here.

Yesterday I was at the train station early to pick up my cousin who has just come to Beijing to begin his freshman year. I dutifully bought a platform ticket so I could help him unload his bags as soon as the train pulls up, instead of waiting outside the station. But once I got close to the train tracks I saw uniformed station attendants keeping people back with velvet ropes. Through the shouts and muttered complaints I gathered that a “VIP” was on the same train as my cousin and the attendants were clearing the platform for his comfort.

This didn’t fly with people and there was a lot of disgruntled platform ticketholders trying to sneak around the velvet ropes. As the train pulled up, the crowd turned righteous and simply burst through the barricades. It began with someone kicking over the velvet rope, then another stepped on it, and finally everyone decided that it was ok to disobey. We ran as one unruly crowd towards the train and as more attendants approached to ward us off, a few angry mothers got into a minor shoving match with the uniformed enforcers. In a matter of minutes I was happily jumping into the open train door to greet my cousin. And to think, I broke the rules without even having to do anything. I just followed the “rules don’t apply to us” tide!

Friday: The Nouveau Riche

The part of China that I come from, the forbiddingly cold Northeast, is known for its annual ice sculpture festival, heavy drinking, and conspicuous consumption. Something about the hearty disposition of the northerners makes them especially susceptible to the pitfalls of newfound wealth. It is not uncommon to hear of people spending ludicrous sums of money on heavily logoed clothing and jewelry, just for show. The locals often joke, “If Old Li makes $10 he’s bound to wear $12 of it around his neck (in a gawdy gold chain).” The retailers know it and play into it – China’s first Lane Crawford opened up in Harbin years ago when a piece of underclothing from its racks would’ve been multiple times the average resident’s monthly salary.

Last week my cousin called from Harbin to tell me the latest. Louis Vuitton had set up shop in Harbin earlier this year and that outlet became one of the best performing boutiques for the global luxury emporium. One day he was in there browsing out of curiosity when behind him a booming, heavily northern accented male voice commanded a salesgirl, “Bring me the most expensive bag in here!” Unflustered, the seasoned employee (probably used to this kind of showy shopping) replied, “Sir, we have a whole range of bags, priced from RMB10,000 to the RMB200,000’s. What kind would you like?” Sticker shocked and humbled, the man retracted and quietly said, “Oh, is that right. I’ll just take a RMB10,000 bag then. No need to spend too much.” What a guy! My cousin wanted to laugh out loud, but also felt mildly sorry for the guy. Not knowing what Louis Vuitton was but merely knowing that it was an expensive status symbol he barged in to the store hoping to impress everyone there, and later all his friends, with his ability to buy an impossibly expensive bag (without knowing what it looks like). But it seems, even his audacious spending habits couldn’t keep up with the large price tags at LV!

Saturday: Chinese People Love Their Parks

For thousands of years, Chinese people have built pavilions, lakes, and elaborate rock-scapes in profusion. Even today, no Chinese week is complete without a family trip to a nearby park and millions of retirees would be put out to roaming the streets should their beloved parks shut down. Alongside restaurants and homes, public parks are at the heart of social gatherings.
In any park you’ll observe a host of amusing activity. Hundreds of spontaneous hobby groups gather at unspoken but agreed upon times. Sports make up the most normal stuff — Qigong and Taichi practitioners moving en masse, silently and fluidly; badminton, Ping Pong, and basketball lovers dart around their respective courts noisily; even social dancers strut their stuff in public.

Organized sport is one thing, but quite a few retirees adhere to calisthenics of their own bizarre invention. I often chuckle at groups of three or four old women brutally pounding their fists against their thighs, each convinced that this routine keeps the muscles limber. Elderly men bending from the waist to reach down, then up, all in rigid and rapid succession. Some even beat their heads with grenade-shaped dumb-bells, to keep the brains supple?

Music is a big part of park life and most often it consists of people over the age of forty gathering under shady trees to rigorously belt out revolutionary songs. Usually someone acts as unofficial conductor, holding up a sheet of music and waving his arms enthusiastically to elicit vocal harmony. Newcomers to China may be a bit taken aback by this public outpouring of Communist sentiment, but realize that revolutionary music is the basically the only music (the “pop” music you might say) that this age group had access to when they were growing up. When people are loudly singing “The East is Red” or “Socialism is Good” they aren’t expressing the lyrics literally, but rather just indulging in a shared nostalgia.

Calligraphy is another favorite and the more skilled writers wield broom-sized brushes dipped in water to cover concrete paths with artful characters. The beautiful shapes last but a while before they evaporate into the hot summer air.

My favorite of all time is the “meatmarket grandparents.” Every grown Chinese man or woman has a quartet of parents and grandparents eagerly awaiting their marriage to a suitable partner. To hasten the process, concerned grannies gather in parks holding up wooden signboards advertising their “goods” – “My grandson, 25-yr old Bachelor Degree holder, Beijing resident, honest, hard working, employed at a foreign company” or “Granddaughter, high school graduate, good job, down to earth girl.” The gramps and grams mingle, exchange signboards, and when a suitable match is found, the parties collude to set their grandchildren up on a blind date. This is even better than going on a dating show!

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