Archetype #2: Lifeguards with Cigarettes

Low-level authority figures in China come in two types. The first resent being low-level rather than high-level authority figures, and so take out their frustrations on the nameless rabble teeming about them. I once got chewed out by the man in charge of a bike-parking area because I asked him a question. It went something like this:

Me: Excuse me, but does this area stay open. . .

Him (shouting like I’d just personally insulted his mother and snubbed out a cigarette on his dog): Look at the sign! Look at it! Can’t you see what it says? Read it!!!

I yelled back at him (I don’t remember what, but it might at that point have been the personal insult which he’d assumed I said in the first place), then moved on, wanting to punch someone, anyone, in retaliation. This kind of thing happens all the time here. There are innumerable social reasons for it, but this isn’t the time to go into them.

The second type of low-level authority figure is more like a cool class monitor, the kind who only took up the post because it meant they’d be able to line up first for lunch and get free chocolate milk. They don’t care one way or the other about responsibility, or keeping the system running smoothly; they’re just glad to have a few extra perks, and as long as no one does anything really stupid, they’re content to live and let live. The lifeguards at the pool are like this. Most of the time they sit in their chairs and survey their watery realm with a kind of laissez-faire detachment, a bit like sheriffs in a particularly tiny backwater where the worst crime is something along the lines of paint theft or running a stop sign at 25 mph. Occasionally they’ll blow their whistles and stop someone from swimming the wrong direction in a swim lane, but then sometimes they don’t. I’ve seen two lifeguards calmly watch while a complete dingbat swam against the flow of traffic for several hundred meters, running into four or five different swimmers in the process (How did he not notice he was going the wrong way after running into four people? Don’t ask the question. If there’s an answer, it won’t make sense.), and say nothing at all. And then I’ve seen them go bananas because someone was about to get in the pool without a swim cap. There’s no particular order to their responses.

In essence, a lifeguard chair at the Nankai pool is not a mark of responsibility; it’s just a tall chair. Lifeguards sit up there and listen to music, eat sunflower seeds, doze (!), and in a few cases. . .smoke.

You have no idea how disturbing it is to come up for air in the middle of a swim and breathe in cigarette smoke. Not a thick cloud, I’ll grant you, but when you’re doing an aerobic activity, particularly one where your face is submerged in water about 2/3 of the time, making air all the more precious, breathing in any cigarette smoke at all is unacceptable. If you were running a half-marathon, would you want to round a corner and have someone spray you in the face with a garden hose? It’s not too dissimilar, really. You have your face in the water, you’ve got your breathing rhythm set, you’re rolling out of the water on your up stroke, take a breath. . .and feel like you’re in the first 15 minutes of The Hustler. Most of the time the lifeguards smoke in a back room, which would be nice if they closed the door after them; they don’t, so the smoke still filters into the rest of the pool area. It’s wrong on every level, and even more wrong when the occasional lifeguard doesn’t feel like going into the back room, but just has a quick smoke in his chair. It brings to mind the famous quote from George Carlin about smoking sections in restaurants: “Having a smoking section in a restaurant is like having a peeing section in a pool.” Only when you have a smoking section at the pool, it’s like having a peeing section in a restaurant. It’s just that nasty and incongruous.

I should point out that for the most part the lifeguards themselves are very nice. When I’m stretching before a swim, one or two of them typically saunter over and shoot the breeze for a bit. They almost always want to talk about studying in America, presumably because that’s where I’m planning to go next and they want to be accommodating. Too, it’s not as though when they smoke, they look about at the swimmers, laugh derisively, then light up in a conscious attempt to befoul the lungs of everyone nearby. One of the things I have yet to understand about China is how the average Chinese person perceives things about him/her. It isn’t that everyone here believes other people are annoying or useless, nor is it that they’re consciously trying to get what they can when they can get it. It isn’t even a conscious thing at all. I don’t know what it is, really.

This kind of approach, the “yes, it’s my job, but only sort of” outlook, occurs in lots of different places. The local cops who are supposed to chase off all the unlicensed streetside kebab sellers, for example. One of the funniest things you’ll ever see is several dozen sidewalk merchants rapidly packing up their wares and racing away down the street before a slowly-moving cop car, out the window of which one person is yelling something through a megaphone. It’s funny because the fleeing vendors only ever run about fifty meters, duck into an alley, and wait until the cops have driven by, then return to their original positions and carry on as usual. It’s REALLY funny because once this is over, the cops typically pull out stools and sit right next to the vendors they were supposed to have chased off, sometimes even having a kebab or two.

For the record, although the cigarette smoke is highly annoying, this particular archetype can be fun to be around. Once you decide not to flip out because an authority figure isn’t following all the rules, you realize that the vast majority, if not the sum total, of Chinese society at this level functions with a wink and a smile. “Get off the grass!” (wink) Which means, “Just let my boss see you slinking away sheepishly from my stern warning, and when he’s gone, we’ll both take a seat on the grass and chat for a while.” In a sense, even the authority figures don’t really take themselves that seriously. Maybe it’s because they’re aware it can be taken away in about ten seconds.


1 Responses to Archetype #2: Lifeguards with Cigarettes

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