Thursday, September 25, 2008

Keeping my seethe to myself

Yet another reason why I don't learn Chinese.....

The other day I had to pay a visit to my local branch of the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China to pay my monthly phone bill.

Trying to accomplish anything in a Chinese bank can be an exhausting gumption test, particularly in a small neighbourhood branch where no-one speaks any English. But my little branch has been getting a lot better over the past year or so. They've taken on quite a few new staff - mostly girls - who do seem friendly and helpful, and even fairly brisk and efficient. And just lately, they have appointed a middle-aged lady as a supervisor (and she does speak a little bit of English), and she seems to have got all the service points working much more efficiently.

Well, all but one. Dumb-as-a-Post is still there. He's a surly young man of about thirty, and, I think, the only member of staff who's been there ever since I moved here about 4 years ago. He is just unbelievably sour, slow-moving, obtuse, and obstructive - a real old school China service professional!

I hadn't seen him in there for a while, and was hoping he might have left. But yesterday, he was back - and his was the only window that was free. I was so dreading the encounter that I considered joining one of the other lines (none of them had more than one or two people in them, but some transactions in Chinese banks can take a very long time indeed). Instead, I decided to face up to my nemesis.

I think he must have smelled my fear. I passed him a scrap of paper with my number on it and told him I wanted to pay my telephone fee. This is what I always do. For the past 18 months or so, nobody has given me any shit about this. One of the nice young girls has keyed the number into the computer, printed off my bill, taken my money and given me my change with a minimum of fuss - and even, of late, with a breezy smile. Dumb-as-a-Post is looking at me with a mixture of contempt and incomprehension. He decides - as he usually does - that I really ought to fill out a 'request slip' detailing the nature of my transaction, in full, in Chinese. Lately, the other staff seem to have been quite happy to dispense with this otiose piece of paper entirely. If they do feel that it is somehow a 'necessary procedure', they will be quite happy to fill out the chit for me, using the information from the bill printout - it only takes 15 seconds. It should be pretty obvious to anyone, I would have thought, that, since I can hardly speak two words of Chinese, it is highly unlikely that I can read or write even one word. But Dumb-as-a-Post doesn't get this concept; he keeps waving the shitty little form in my face. And, unfortunately, the angelic supervisor lady is not around just at the moment.

I don't think it's just me. I think there's a reason why there's never much of a line at Dumb-as-a-Post's window. The other clerks were all looking at him as if he were a complete dickhead. So were some of the other customers. Soon, one of them came to my aid and filled out the form for me.

I mentioned this incident to a laowai friend that evening, and he said, "Don't you think you'd be able to deal better with situations like this if you spoke a bit more Chinese?"

"No," I replied quite emphatically. "First of all, if I'd shown any sign of being able to cope with things myself, that nice chap in the next line wouldn't have come over to help me. And second, I probably would have just called the clerk a dickhead in a language he could understand, and that probably wouldn't have helped."

We all suffer these vexing incidents from time to time. We all go through spells when we are particularly vulnerable to them, particularly low on patience and forebearance. We all - no matter how saintly and pacific our temperaments (and mine's not very) - experience the occasional bout of 'China rage'. And when this happens, and you get tempted to vent a bit, it's really much better to do it in an incomprehensible foreign language (although best to avoid the F-word, since almost everyone understands that these days!). Succumbing to the urge to swear at people in Chinese would be a very, very bad thing. And some of my foreign friends who speak good Chinese get themselves into bother because of this occasionally. I'd rather not expose myself to that risk, thank you. Ignorance of Chinese can be a kind of protective insulation. (Also, of course, you don't really know when they're insulting you..... except that you can usually deduce it from body language and so on; and I do in fact know most of the choicer swear words. Nevertheless, on balance, I maintain that not being able to swear at people in their own language does help to avoid unpleasantness sometimes.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

hey froogie .. how do you say this in concise English:

"他是你第几个孩子?" or something similar,like "Washington 是美国第几代总统?“