Random China generalisations

People in China are terrible queuers. Or maybe they are good at it. I guess it depends on your perspective. Now normally I am not a person to indulge in sweeping generalisations about an entire nation. Well, at least not when I care to speak the truth.

But it is everywhere in China. Chinese people here, unlike those in Singapore or the Russians, say, never queue in an orderly straight line (one of the virtues of British colonial policy perhaps, he says to be provocative). Like Mongolians, they horde around the ticket desk. When one ticket is issued, they shout at the clerk and hold out their money to be served next.

There don’t seem to have any sense of shame if they manage to get in front of you; there is no “oh sorry” if you get shoved in the face with their bag. Life is a struggle to get served first, at the supermarket, for tickets at the bus station, crossing borders, getting bags searched at the train station, or leaving the train once you arrive somewhere.

Mostly I just let them push past me. I am happy to be last and slow. I am in no hurry. Of course, most of the time neither are they really. Hurrying at the door of the train station just means more time spent sitting in the blue plastic seats of the waiting area. But that logic does not seem to register so well.

Every now and again (as I did with the first Albanians I met, all those months ago in Greece) I say to one “hey, don’t push in, you are behind me”. And they happily move in behind me. No apology or attempt to explain why they thought they should be in front (as you would get in Russia). I guess if my country had almost one and a half billion people in it struggling to get served before me I might learn to push a little too.

And there is an obsession with receipts. Every time you pay money for something, you get a receipt. If the something is a hotel room or a hire bike, you must produce that receipt again later on. Failure to do so means that you are not the person who paid originally and you must pay again. The receipt is the only proof of your identity. If the receipt is not found, nothing can be done. This is extremely bizarre.

In Beijing I paid for two nights when I checked in to the hostel. When I came back two days later to pay for another, I was told I had not paid for the second night yet. I insisted that I had. Well then, where was my receipt?

Of course, from my point of view it seemed totally unreasonable to expect me to have the receipt. It was, after all, a receipt for the convenience of the hotel, not for me. It would be their responsibility to show that I had not paid, not vice versa, and their problem if they could not.

But no, it does not work this way. If you have no receipt, there is no proof that you have paid at all. Searching through receipt books generated no new information. My receipt was not there. How could I be in the hotel without a receipt? Call security. This man must be disciplined.

Eventually of course we found the receipt (in a receipt book that was not properly searched the first time) and all was well. Nevertheless, a curious obsession. So a tip for travelling in China – keep your receipts. You will need them.

If you want to check out of the Camelia Hotel in Kunming (and I highly recommend that you stay here should you come this way), they will want to see your receipt. No ifs, no buts, no maybes. No receipt, no key deposit returned. Even if you return the key.
If you want to return your rented bike to the bike rental place you will need your receipt. Perhaps you are a person who has stolen the bike (along with the bike lock key) and figured out where to return it to despite the complete absence of any distinguishing marks. Perhaps the real renter will return in a little while, sans bike, and rail against an official who has returned the deposit to the wrong person. The only proof is the receipt. Without the receipt, the bike or the bike lock key or the fact that you are the only person who has rented a bike that day and the guy remembers you are to no avail. No receipt? You do not exist.

Some people here also lead their lives on the streets. I like this. It gives them life. Not for Kunmingers to retreat behind fences and pull curtains when they turn on the light. Lots of them cook, eat, play, bring up children, fight, plan, and entertain themselves in the patch of ground in front of their little restaurant or their bicycle repair business. Amazing to see real life lived right in front of you all the time. Part of the energy I guess.

It also means that everyone knows what is going on with everyone. Why have secrets from your neighbours? They don’t have any from you.

That is not to say Kunming has no sophistication. Not everyone lives outside. There are bars with imported drinks with fancy names, little patio tables and indoor/outdoor flow, there are pool halls and club and quaint restaurants by the shores of the lake in the park, there are people in expensive cars with darkended windows and well-dressed women in high-heels and cellphones, there are women walking prams in the dusk at the park. And then there is Carrefour.

Carrefour is everything a supermarket should be. It has everything. It is cheap, easy to get around and open all the time. It is staffed by young people in military fatigues (go figure) and girls in hot pants and rollerblades (if you think you have the fatigues sorted, try that one on for size).

The fresh food section is unbelievable. Like a combination of every Chinese market (fresh fish, fresh meat, fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, fresh anything) all put together, killed in front of you and fresh-packed into plastic, squeezed into a few hundred feet of floor space. Energy, bustle, atmosphere, noise. The fish in the tank spill water on the floor as they rush about their last prison. The men cutting up roast duck shout to each other as they check the size of their cuts with the customer. More weird foods than I have ever seen in a single place. Chicken feet, pigs trotters, sheeps heads, beef heats. And more. Many of them are completely unidentifiable to my untrained (and un-Chinese reading) eye; even the animal they come from is a mystery. Worth it just to have a look around.

And people stand outside their shops here and clap to attract custom. I am talking clothes shops. Shoe shops. Not sure if it works, but it definitely happens. Clap, clap, clap. As if the raucous noise of beeping horns and ringing bells and cars and buses and trucks was not enough bedlam. And as if you could compete with all that noise and find a person who thinks “oh yes, the clapping has convinced me, I will just pop in here and buy some shoes”. Maybe it serves some other purpose. Hey, this is China. Who can say?