Saturday, September 01, 2012

List of the Month - My favourite Chinese worker moments

My experience at the start of the week with a telecoms engineer who came to fit a socket for me without bringing either a socket or an appropriately sized screwdriver got me to thinking about some of the similarly hilarious screw-ups I've encountered in this country over the years.

Some of them I may have mentioned on this blog before, but a few, I think, will be completely new to some readers here.

For instance, there were the maintenance men at the college where I first taught, who made a six-day job out of tapping all the radiators with a big monkey-wrench when the winter central heating was switched on. [There is a theory that this activity can be used to check for and/or dislodge airlocks in the system, but these chaps just seemed to relish the very pointlessness and repetitiveness of it; and the fact that the dreadful racket it made was so annoying for everyone else.]

It was these same guys (they were nicknamed Larry, Curly, and Moe) who managed to make it a three-person job to read the electricity meters in each of the teachers' apartments. All of them had terrible eyesight, and it was not apparent that any of them was significantly literate or numerate; so it must have been a challenge for them to decide on an appropriate division of labour. One of them held the (not really necessary) step-ladder, one peered confusedly at the meter and called out some numbers, and the third attempted to scrawl them down in a log-book, his brows furrowed in intense concentration.

Then there was the chap I saw up an electricity pole, pausing to consult a fat instruction manual before beginning work, and quite literally scratching his head in bemusement at it (which required him to remove his hard hat). I could see from 30 yards away that he was holding it upside down. [I saw a TV news item on the building of one of China's new high-speed railway lines a few years ago, in which the project supervisor boasted of how his workers were required to follow a manual for any and every procedure, even the most basic bolt tightening. After witnessing this alarming dumbshow on a high-voltage electricity line, I no longer have much confidence in the value of Chinese workers seeking to 'follow the manual'.]

And then there were the waiters I found cleaning their restaurant's meat-grinder outside on the street one summer's night, picking out loose pieces of meat with their fingers and depositing them in a bowl for future use, but leaving the more dried-on pieces in place... forever.

And the driver in a Guangdong factory who didn't think to visit the repair shop to get a leaky tyre on his golf-cart (an executive runabout for factory tours) fixed... until somebody stole the bicycle pump he'd been using to reinflate it three or four times a day.

The last time I moved apartments, a young Chinese friend of mine offered to find me a cleaner to give my old place a thorough sprucing up before I handed back the keys. The one she procured was a chap she'd worked with in a foreign-owned and well-regarded restaurant in my neighbourhood. He didn't do any more than slop dirty water around the floor with a mop for an hour or so. Surprisingly, this did actually make the tiled floor look much cleaner - all except for the black circle under his mop bucket, which of course he had never moved. I spent a frantic 5 or 6 hours cleaning the rest of the apartment myself.

On that same moving day (very fraught!), my front door started sagging on its hinges and refused to close. It was a two-piece door, quite a common arrangement in China: a narrow side-panel is usually bolted in place, and is intended to be opened only to allow moving large pieces of furniture through the door. My landlord had warned me when I moved in that if I were ever to open this side-panel the door would jam... but this had slipped my mind. And my movers had opened it without asking me, anyway. I had to leave the apartment open while I moved my things to my new home, but hurried back a few hours later (to begin my cleaning marathon) and summoned the building's maintenance chappie to come and effect a repair. It soon became apparent to me that the reason the main door so easily shifted its weight and became stuck was that its upper hinge was designed to be supported by three screws, but only two were in place. I pointed this out to the maintenance chappie, but he just shrugged... and said something about having had to remove one of my screws to fix another door somewhere.

Ah, but the absolute winner must surely be the minibus driver I suffered on a holiday in Xi'an some years ago. He was driving so fast and recklessly over rutted and potholed roads that it seemed inevitable that his bus - and perhaps its passengers - would meet with a nasty fate. We somehow survived a long day of sightseeing which included several terrifying near-misses of head-on collisions with approaching trucks during wild overtaking manoeuvres, but on the way back to the city the vehicle finally broke down. I didn't actually get under the vehicle to check the damage, but I'm fairly certain the front axle was broken, or at least cracked; the front left wheel was hanging off at a crazy angle. But our undaunted driver was determined that he could effect a repair by lashing up the damaged axle with lengths of rag and duct tape. I kid you not. The passengers all rebelled, and flagged down passing coaches to hitch rides back into Xi'an (ugly haggling ensued with the drivers on a case-by-case basis: none of them would offer a ride as a favour, and most were not even content to set a single price for everyone attempting to board, but would demand more from anyone who looked more affluent - which of course includes us laowai, unfortunately).

Oh, I could go on. But 8's a lucky number in China!

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