Last Rites in Columbia, First Rites and Guanxi in Beijing

Written by Travel

Posted from: Beijing

In my final days in South Carolina, faced with an empty house and no internet, I actually bought a jigsaw puzzle. The analog kind, with actual pieces you can actually lose. And on our very last night, myself and a nameless collective of miscreants wrote a note about the origins of Blue Stalin on a paper plate  – the last plant-based writing surface we hadn’t packed yet – stuffed it inside his hollow, hollow head, and left him in a bed of leaves in an undisclosed location.

I had forgotten how much of travel is waiting. The good traveler knows how to make waiting bearable. Waiting for the dryer to finish the last load of laundry so you can finish packing. For the shuttle to come. For the plane to take off, and immediately thereafter, for the plane to land. For the jetlag to wear off, for it to be early enough to fall asleep or late enough to get out of bed. But the waiting’s over. We’re in Beijing, finally, finally.

On our second morning here, Kyle and I stumbled out of our hotel into the dry, crackling cold and found a sticky-bun restaurant that smelled like pee, chestnuts and bland corn porridge, 50 cents for three buns. I ordered the ones with vegetarian filling. “WE. DON’T. HAVE. ANY. OF. THOSE.” the shop owner bellowed at the dumb foreigner, waving her hands dramatically. Four waitresses clustered behind the counter, staring inscrutably. I almost cried with joy: I’m home.

This has no bearing whatsoever on my move, but when I see someone who knows and loves their craft well, it’s like they’ve reached some kind of nirvana and they become mesmerizing to watch. The dumpling baker was only about twenty with a smooth impish face, and he probably makes a few dollars a day. But he sang village songs with twinkling eyes, a huge smile and a ready voice, and his singing filled the whole kitchen as his flying hands transferred baozi from rack to oven three at a time in perfect rows. He stopped just long enough to fix me with a blazing grin and shake my hand below the serving window. What’s his secret, I wonder?

My secret is a smartphone. Considering that nothing in this country – nothing at all – can happen without a mobile device, that was my first order of business. Even website registration for services like WeiBo (China’s answer to Twitter) or TaoBao (China’s answer to eBay) is often verified by text messasge. The iPhone sales lady in Apple’s SanLiTun location smiled at me pleasantly. “Sure, you can buy one. You have to go online after 10:00p.m., go to a special url, and try to make a reservation. If you manage to do so successfully [erm…?], you might be able to come back tomorrow and pick it up.” Not sure if that “path of most resistance” sales procedure is a response to in-store theft or some kind of inventory management technique, but I went next door and bought a Droid. Just outside the glass doors of the Apple store, a dozen or so men brazenly stand around offering boxes of pirated iPhone 4s to passersby. Mall security loiters a few meters away, disinterested.

The last few frantic days have mostly consisted of procedural t-crossing and i-dotting. Apartment hunting was a blur of staring at real estate agents’ backs as we walked over and over and over the same two square miles. “Hah,” they all said, “You might have found a place for that price a few years ago, but now? No way.” We ended up with a nice, but slightly smaller and vastly more expensive than we wanted, two-bedroom near SiHui subway, on the eastern edge of the city. The bathrooms are lovely. The floors are heated from beneath. Our neighborhood is pretty great. That’s all I wanted, really.

Even in such a short time, it’s clear that things have changed here. The Beijing I remember – where gaggles of pudgy, shirtless old men playing mahjong dominated the residential districts and women walked their dogs in pajamas – is being crowded out by frenetic modernization. No one seems to be hawking and spitting as often or as loudly as they used to. Housing prices have doubled. Traffic is twice as bad, if such a thing is conceivable, and taxis are twice as hard to come by. By government decree, there are now ‘no smoking’ signs in every restaurant, which seems to mean that people are free to go on gleefully smoking inside as usual, but now chuck their cigarette butts on the floor for lack of an ashtray. The dive bar where I met Kyle has been gutted, just one more empty husk of industrial rubble in a soon-to-be decimated alley squeezed between the flagship Adidas store and a new luxury mall.

But still, I keep stumbling on bright flashes of that more familiar Beijing in the little corners that development passed over. The beverage aisle in the local grocery carries a mysterious brand of soft drink, which they courteously translated into English as “XJPT SPMQG DPFFF.” Fruit sellers and steamed dumpling vendors gather around the subway entrances. From our sixteenth floor window, we can see the coal trains passing by on the tracks beside our building.

And then there are the things that have always been and will always be part of China. The winters here are so dry your lips harden and start to crack within hours of arrival, and no amount of water or chapstick will save you. Taxi drivers are as ornery as they’ve always been. And cultivating good guanxi in your apartment complex is a matter of necessity.

Apartment life here is like accepting a new family.  If you insist on privacy, if you expect professionalism or perfection rather than warmth and good spirit, if you demand that the kid who installs the cable makes an appointment before showing up, or if you make a stink about punctuality, customer service, or plumbing problems, you will quickly become irrevocably and universally hated. Workplaces here are like brotherhoods, and gossip travels with otherworldly speed: when you make an enemy of one cleaning lady, you can be certain that the electricians four complexes over have heard all about the rude foreigner in building #3. And when your Chinese property management team doesn’t like you, all the tiny, invisible moving parts that propel your life smoothly forward immediately begin to break down. It’s like instant and observable karma. Mysterious fees appear on your bills.  The guards won’t let your friends into the building without you coming down to fetch them (they tell you it’s “policy”). You can’t get blown fuses fixed. You’re always last on every waiting list. Your questions are answered in monosyllables. I’ve been down that road, it’s exhausting and unrewarding and littered with my undelivered mail.

All it really takes to get anything done here is to skip the getting-to-know you part of human relationships and treat everyone on staff like a long-lost brother. Bring cookies and American cigarettes. Accept happily that no one will do what they said they would when they said they would (it’s not personal), understand that whatever can go wrong will, and welcome any visitor from the building staff warmly at any hour, and suddenly there are a hundred people who will bend heaven and earth to make your life a little easier. This is the Chinese concept of guanxi in action, the almost formulaic creation of personal connections and favor-trading that, much more so than money, make the Chinese world go ’round.

I used to hate guanxi. To an American, it feels like vastly unfair favoritism and blatant bribery. In our culture, we expect to be treated like valued customers in every dealing with service and industry, regardless of our behavior or personality. An American sees and feels a distinct line between personal and professional relationships, personal and professional behavior. In China, these lines are indistinct. But I’m coming to understand guanxi as a form of community building. It makes vast sense that a newcomer should quickly show their colors and the community should quickly fold them in, particularly in a place like China, where the collective supports and protects the individual, especially when bureaucracy and government can and do so often fail in that regard.

And similarly deep-rooted Chinese attitudes seem to remain intact.

On our way to the mandated health examination (where we saw a contraption mysteriously labeled ‘reverse vending machine’. I can only assume that you give it soda and it gives you money.), our taxi driver informed me with strong undertones of disapproval that Obama has yet to issue formal condolences to North Korea on the death of Kim Jong Il. He also seemed to consider it a shame China hadn’t been involved in a major war in a while. “We’re out of practice,” he said, shaking is head, and then, “Oh well, leave government things to the government. We ‘old hundred names’ can only mind our own problems.”

This old-hundred-name can agree with that last bit, at least.