By Jim Fields
Recently, I went to Tianjin on a one-day business trip. In the morning, a co-worker picked me up from my apartment at Yonghegong. After completing my business-related tasks, I bid farewell to my colleagues (who had more to do) and took a cab to the local railway station, where I planned to buy a high-speed train ticket.
I felt a vague sense of dread upon getting out of my cab, but I wasn’t sure why. I walked to the ticketing windows and got in line. There was a train leaving in 20 minutes — perfect! Approaching the front, I heard the cashier asking people for shenfenzheng (state-issued ID card), which must be shown in-person to the ticket vendor in order purchase a train ticket. This system was designed last year to curtail the activities of huangniu (yellow cows, or ticket scalpers), who buy tickets in bulk and then resell at exorbitant rates.
Of course, because I drove to Tianjin that morning, I had neglected to bring my passport.
This realization dawned on me as I neared the front of the line, slouching toward my certain doom. I felt like a criminal in shackles, crowd jeering, guillotine awaiting.
When I reached the front of the line, a young man sat facing his computer. “Where are you going?” he asked, eyes directed at the shockingly low-resolution computer screen. “Beijing South,” I responded, stuffing 55 renminbi into the slot underneath the glass window and hoping to avoid the ID issue. His gaze turned towards me. “Where’s your passport?”
“I don’t have it.” I pulled out my smartphone, where I’d saved a picture of my passport in case of a spot check during the early phases of the 100-day foreigner crackdown. “I do have this, though,” showing him a picture of my passport on the screen of my phone. He looked at the phone screen briefly, then at me, with a slightly incredulous expression. If he decided not to sell me a ticket, I would have to spend hundreds on a cab to get back to Beijing – assuming I could find one – much more than the reasonable 55 renminbi I would spend to take the train.
I didn’t hold much hope. The lumbering, soulless nature of Chinese bureaucratic institutions is well-documented. Eric Abrahamsen wrote a pretty devastating takedown of the Bank of China in this piece for the NY Times Latitude Blog:
I couldn’t help overhearing a British man next to me in the midst of a breakdown. For reasons he could not fathom they would only let him withdraw half the amount he wanted; he would have to wait until next week for the other half. But why? And why did they need yet another photocopy of his passport? And what exactly were they doing with his money?! Mounting rage began to derail his otherwise fluent Chinese. I admired his principles, but wished I could whisper to him: peace only comes to those who abandon hope.
Yes, simple trips to pay for utilities can result in a wild goose chase between branch offices, electricity can shut off without warning at the whims of local officials, and as Abrahamsen writes, ostensibly simple bank transactions can easily transmogrify into hellacious experiences.
It is important to remember that the Chinese understanding of customer service is dramatically different than the one that abides in the US, my own country of origin. The quaint notion that “the customer is always right” has almost no relevance in a culture where you actually have to scream at a waitress in order to get service in most restaurants.
The impetus is on the consumer to meet a business or institution on their terms – not the other way around. As a consumer, you become subject to the nefarious whims and various internal politics that typify massive organizations, often resulting in nightmares where you didn’t “get the memo,” as it were, and you end up not carrying a critical form or piece of identification which is necessary to complete whatever transaction you wanted to carry out. One could argue that this system is a byproduct of the political system – if you view your own relationship with the government as inherently unidirectional and top-town, why should you expect your relationship with a large company to be any different?
The man at the counter stared at me for a moment, then turned around and called over his boss. I already sensed that something about this transaction was different than the one endured by the sputtering Brit in Abrahamsen’s story. If getting a ticket was truly impossible, then the cashier would have just told me “没戏” (basically, that it was a lost cause) and send me on my way. His decision to summon the boss gave me a glimmer of hope.
The cashier explained the situation to his boss, who laughed, gave me a once over, and walked away. I wasn’t sure what was happening. The cashier then sold a few dozen more tickets to all the people who had been waiting in line behind me. Then the boss returned, with a mysterious purple card in her hand. The cashier asked to see the picture of my passport, which I showed him by sliding my phone through the slot under the glass. He keyed some data into the computer, his boss wrote my passport number on the purple card, then the cashier took my cash and printed the ticket. He picked up said ticket, the purple card, and my phone, and slid them back to me. I picked them up, amazed, incredulous. “Thank you so much!” I stammered. “You’re blocking the window,” he said, waving me along.
Shortly thereafter, when passing through security, I had to show my ticket again, and they asked to see my passport. In absence of that, I showed them the purple card the cashier had given me. The security clearance people waved me through. I walked through the train station, got on my train, and 30 minutes later arrived in Beijing. The purple card had my passport number and a contact number on it — my guess is that if one of the security people doubted my credentials, they could call the number, which would connect them to the boss of the cashier who had sold me the ticket. Of course this verification check would never actually happen – too much hassle — but the purple card seemed to be a sort of get-out-of-jail free card to whisk me through security. Long story short, the seller did me a huge favor. It would have been much quicker and simpler for him to tell me it was impossible and leave me to fend for myself.
This situation is perhaps only remarkable because of the fact that I feel like it almost never happens to me in Beijing. My interaction with the ticket seller in Tianjin changed my entire perspective – presenting a vision of kindness, of empathy, and a willingness to help and engage even if it presents a bit of an inconvenience.
I’m reminded of this speech by David Foster Wallace, which he gave at Kenyon College three years before his suicide. One of the sections has always stuck with me, where he discusses finding a new way to look at the people around you:
Most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.
Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
I think we could all gain from internalizing a bit of DFW’s perspective here in Beijing. Lord knows that life here presents infinite, confounding challenges to the psychic (and physical) health of even the happiest expat. Abrahamsen’s notion that “peace only comes to those who abandon hope” is an attractive option for anybody in the throes of a “bad China day,” but hope is what led me to the ticket counter, and hope is what keeps me here today. So the next time you time you find yourself in “consumer-hell,” as it were, maintain some hope — things may not be as grim as they seem.