How strange that, even in the absence of any public holidays, I should still be experiencing something of that characteristic bloated lethargy which descends in the immediate aftermath of Christmas. It must be an automatic seasonal response, which has been hard-wired into my system. Still, let’s rewind and recap the last few days, here in sunny/smoggy Hangzhou (delete as appropriate).
Saturday morning saw me back in the office, interviewing a candidate who had come over from Shanghai especially to see me. A personable young chap, who gave me my favourite answer to date.
Me: Could you tell me about your outside interests?
Him: Yes! I like watching movies – English movies. I watch between seven and ten English movies a week!
Me: What kind of movies do you like best?
Him: I like Hugh Grant… Nicholas Cage… and Brad Pitt. Because they are all very handsome! And very good!
At which point he flashed me his biggest and brightest smile, while I tried not to flush too violent a shade of puce. My God, am I that obvious?
This is what we call “taking a calculated risk”.
Bouncing out of the office an hour later, still with a smile on my face, I head over to 5th Avenue for lunch. This is a large, comfortably appointed restaurant on the same block, with an English language version of the menu, much favoured by our genial English office manager – and by JP, who bequeathed me his VIP discount card on his return to the UK.
Not that discounts are really here or there; provided our expenses don’t exceed a hundred quid a week (and believe me, you’d struggle to spend more), we can claim back all of our living costs on production of the all-important fa piao tax receipts. (Simple bills and till receipts aren’t enough; you have to make a special request for a fa piao when you pay.)
This lunchtime, 5th Avenue decide to add a soup and a simple salad to my order. Mine not to question why. I simply accept and enjoy them without further quibble. OK, so I’m charged extra for them at the end – but it’s only pennies, and I’m not about to waste my energies in attempting to dispute the bill. Especially since none of the staff speak English. It could be a rip-off – but it could just as easily be a cock-up, or even a whim. Frankly, as in so many situations over here, further speculation is fruitless. Try and seek a rational answer for all the seemingly illogical weirdnesses that beset you every day, and you may well go mad.
Does this make me think less of the Chinese? No, it doesn’t. To European eyes, the lack of so much of what we consider to be basic common sense can be baffling – to say nothing of the staggering lack of efficiency, and extraordinary levels of over-staffing.
(Sometimes it feels as if, at any given point, half of the working population is engaged in nothing more than standing around, silently waiting for something to happen. Especially in shops and restaurants. Perhaps it helps to have a richly developed inner life to fall back upon. Or then again, perhaps the opposite is preferable.)
However, there is much that the Chinese must find extraordinary about Western behaviour. The impatience; the manic drive to fill each moment of the day with purposeful activity; the emotional incontinence (*); the public drunkenness; the crime; the aggression; the cynicism; the inability to feel happy with one’s lot. So I’m not going to embark on any typically ex-pat “Ooh them crazy Chinks!” rants.
Well, maybe only occasionally.
I rush back to the flat, where my new flatmate J is expected at 14:00. He’s already there when I arrive, and a complicated pantomime ensues as both of us struggle with the tricky double locks on either side of the door. Finally, we meet. He’s spaced out with the jetlag, having had precious little sleep on the way over; I remember all too well what that feels like. However, the best solution is to keep going – and so, not much more than an hour after J’s arrival, we’re boarding the 81 bus for Hangzhou’s famous West Lake.
To be continued.
(*) Which reminds me: I’ve been told that the Chinese staff in our office receive special training in How To Deal With Stressed And Snappy Europeans Who Are Having Difficulty Settling In And Might Come Across As A Little Bit Rude. Which is a good job, considering my extended battle to get the heating in the flat sorted out last week…