My old teaching colleague 'Big Frank' was fond of telling his Chinese students about the uses of this phrase, an archetype of the lazy student's dumb excuse for not having done work - almost an urban legend - the kind of story that's clearly wildly improbable but just within the bounds of possibility and conveniently undisprovable.
My favourite - disturbing - excuse for not being paid in China, the weasly employer's handy equivalent of the essay-chewing dog, is: "The accountant has left town."
I encountered this so often in my first few years in China that I started getting used to it; and I started to appreciate that it probably was very often true - or at least, like the dog that eats homework, it had a necessary veneer of plausibility about it.
In China, you see, access to a company's money is usually granted only by access to the company's 'chop', its official stamp of business (rather than being one of a list of authorised signatories; this, of course, is not terribly secure, because anyone might get hold of the chop, and there's rarely if ever any backup method of authenticating someone's authority to dispense company money). And often the company's accountant is one of the only people - or the only one - who has such authority and access. Moreover, accounting is such a relatively unimportant matter in China that only very large companies employ their own full-time accounting staff; most small or medium-sized companies - like fly-by-night English schools, for example - use freelance accountants, who may have many other clients, some of them perhaps in other cities. Thus, accountants really do travel around a lot, and may only be available on a limited number of days of the month; and it may indeed be problematical to make any payments when they're not on hand. (I thought I had spoken of this on Froogville before, but the only reference to Chinese accountants I can find now is this.) It's just unfortunate that to a 'Westerner', telling him that that "the accountant has left town" tends to suggest that he may have left town permanently, as like as not on the run from justice after embezzling most of the company's funds. This does not have a very calming effect on someone who's agitated about - yet again - not having been paid on time.
This morning I encountered a new and even lamer excuse for not being paid when I was supposed to have been paid. Apparently, the university faculty had not received its payroll delivery because the security company did not have any armoured vans with odd-numbered license plates (Beijing a year or so ago introduced an odds-and-evens system for attempting to halve the amount of traffic on the roads during the week).
Really? The company doesn't have any vans that are available for use on a Tuesday? And they couldn't deliver on a Monday instead? (Oh well, perhaps not - yesterday was a holiday here.) And the faculty doesn't keep any petty cash in the safe for emergencies? (It's not as though they're paying me huge sums of money!) And it wouldn't be possible to go to the bank and withdraw some money in person?
When I put it to them like that, they discovered that - amazingly - it was possible to pay me last month's salary today after all. What do you know?! In China, I'm sorry to say, again and again it is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. I wish we didn't have to do this; I wish it wasn't so bloody hard just to get paid on time and in full.
I have been through this rigmarole countless times during my years in China. It seems as though every employer I've ever worked for here, every single one, has been either incompetent or dishonest, usually both. Often I feel I would prefer dishonesty: I could cope with it better if I were just being straightforwardly ripped off; but the elaborate gormlessness that is visited upon us here just drives me crazy sometimes.