Upbeat Cynicism

what do you mean i lost my mind?

In the throneroom

with 9 comments

One of the two aspects of Chinese culture that continually surprises me (because it runs counter to my experience with the Chinese in the US and with me reading of Chinese history) is how shabby and imprecise the great vast majority of them are, in just about everything. This is the land of what an old acquaintance called “bubblegum fixing”. If it can be built or fixed with bubblegum or tinfoil, it will be, even if the fix will fall apart in a day or two. (No, I’ve never seen literal bubblegum used as a fix. When I do, I’ll not be shocked.)

For a culture that, directly and indirectly, gives ours so many of our top scientists, architects, accountants, doctors, and engineers, this is nearly unbelievable. Last spring I showed an Aussie engineer around for a day, a guy who often does work in China (usually Manchuria or Mongolia, IIRC), and he mentioned over a Guinness how he was less than impressed with the construction in Shanghai. He’d visited the Jinmao Tower, one of the two tallest structures in Shanghai, and got to look at some of the support structure for the building. “The welds,” he said with a grimace, “they weren’t good welds.” His tone made it clear that this was understatement of a great degree.

That said, there is at least one area in which, I hold, Chinese engineers far outstrip Americans. Whoever designs public bathroom stalls here, they are the foremost defenders of privacy in China. Even the stalls that have a porcelein hole in the floor instead of a proper toilet. When the door is closed and latched — there’s no crack! The gap under the door is usually less than six inches, and always well under a foot. The walls between stalls often are floor-to-ceiling, or floor-almost-to-ceiling. When there is a floor gap, it’s two to six inches, never more.

Of course, I recently discovered why this is the case…

There was a stall in a cafe (an actual coffee-serving cafe, but more on that distinction another time), and it had gaps between the door and the walls. Minimal gaps, 5mm or maybe less. Someone tried to open the door while I was doing my business (they never take a closed door for an answer, they must pull or push on the door to make absolutely sure, so this didn’t bug me). Then, he tried it again. And one more time.

I said, in English, “Yeees, there is someone in here!”

So, of course, he stepped closer and stared through the gap. Not “peeked”, “stared”. Probably “gaped”. And he kept staring, or trying to — he kept shifting, as if he couldn’t get a view. I raised and deepened my voice and said what was supposed to be “Go away, idiot!” in Mandarin. I was flustered, so my tones might have been incorrect, but I’m absolutely positive that “idiot” was spoken correctly.

Of course, he not only kept staring, he pressed right up against the door trying to see better. He jumped back a little when I pounded against the door, but kept looking, not going away until I pounded and yelled (in English) enough that the restroom attendant came in and led the jackass away. He had to have it explained to him that there was a laowai in there — he couldn’t tell from my English, apparently. Idiot!

(For the record, the other constant surprise is how appallingly unsanitary the average Chinese individual is. Nobody, it seems, is disgusted by anything. But that’s another post.)


Written by [IMH]

12 January 2006 at 1:19 pm

Posted in Shanghai Stories

9 Responses

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  1. The “Tofu Dregs Projects” (Dou Fu Zha Gong Cheng) were first met with public outcry and disbelief, and then just became a fact of life. The average Chinese, in general, feels little of the burden of social or environmental responsibilities. He may complain constantly about the corruption, the pollution, the widening income disparity, and everything else that’s going wrong in China, but it’s all talk and no action. The sweeping apathy to everything except his immediate well-being is saddening, but perhaps a subconscious effect of self-preservation…


    13 January 2006 at 2:55 am

  2. And the world wonders why China seems to be the epicenter for nearly all new viru strains (SARS, Avian Flu)??

    GZ Expat

    13 January 2006 at 5:56 am

  3. Viola — Every time I think you’ve stopped reading, there you are! 🙂 The apathy is, in context of the repressive government (Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, Tianenmen Square, etc.) understandable, and I’m willing to grant that it’s self-preservation. All the more reason for others to speak out, though. Things are getting better here, just not quickly enough. 😉

    GZ Expat — I didn’t wonder, having been warned ahead of time how dirty things could get here… but it is still shocking sometimes, to my delicate sensibilities, if nothing else. 🙂


    13 January 2006 at 3:51 pm

  4. On a lighter note, which Madarin word for “idiot” did you use?

    Just watched “A State of Mind” the other day. I won’t be surprised if, in twenty years, North Korea starts to look a lot like China today.


    14 January 2006 at 12:49 am

  5. I think the pinyin is sagua, but in Shanghai it’s pronounced “shagua”. Anyway, everyone understands me anytime I use it. 🙂

    NK’s improvement will have much to do with what happens once Kim dies. Until then, impossible to tell.


    14 January 2006 at 2:09 pm

  6. I think the pinyin is sagua, but in Shanghai it’s pronounced “shagua”. Anyway, everyone understands me anytime I use it. 🙂

    NK’s improvement will have much to do with what happens once Kim dies. Until then, impossible to tell.


    14 January 2006 at 2:09 pm

  7. It is indeed “shagua”, in SH or elsewhere.
    Should you find yourself in a similar situation again, say “you(3) bing(4) a”. The literal translation is “are you sick”; the implied – “you’re mentally ill”.


    17 January 2006 at 3:19 am

  8. Catching up

    Big Apologies to ALL…. As I have been away for a long time. Away from writing this stuff, that I think few, probably read… but a few of you do I know…..And Thanks! So I saw this on Banana Oil

    GZ Tai-Tai

    18 January 2006 at 8:48 pm

  9. Tangentally,

    On PBS there’s a pseudo-Chinese cartoon called Sagwa, about a kitty-cat whose parents named her “stupid melon head” to celebrate their love for one another.

    Speaking of bad construction, that Pearl Tower in Shanghai and the underground train going under the river to get there must be among the most idiotic major tourist attractions in the world.


    20 January 2006 at 5:52 am

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