The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Bad #3, #4, and #5

3. The post office

The post office is generally the one place in China you can count on to drive you completely insane. There are new regulations every four or five seconds, the staff are generally surly and unhelpful, and you really need to see the goop they give you to seal your envelopes. It’s kept in a green plastic box by the door and has a small paintbrush jammed inside which over the weeks and months has begun to get crusty and dark. Unless you’re an artist or have psychokinetic powers, when the dust has settled your envelopes will all look like kindergarten art projects. But it’s the regulations and staff which have afflicted my friend Daniel, and I’m going to share his story now because I love it. It has now taken him three different trips to the post office to mail his Christmas cards. The first time, he got them all sealed up and addressed, and the guy behind the counter, who had been watching him the whole time, asked him, “Do you want stamps?” A fairly stupid question, really, given that society has yet to agree on a way to mail letters for free. Daniel said yes, he needed stamps, and the guy behind the counter said: “Oh, I’m sorry, we don’t have stamps today.” I love that. No stamps today, implying of course that there might be stamps tomorrow. Go ahead: try to think of a reason why. Was the stamp harvest low this year? Did the stamp pickers’ union call a strike? Daniel said a few colorful English words in response, and said he’d come back another day.

When he did, he thought he had everything ready to go. He put down his stack of envelopes, requested stamps, then a post office employee said, “You can’t use those envelopes.” “Why?!” “Because they’re the wrong color.” “What are you talking about?” “Some of those envelopes are red. You can’t send red envelopes here.” The irony in this situation is the deepest, richest kind, just dripping with fudgy goodness. Here’s an entire country whose dominant political ethos (communism, for those who have been living in a tree for the past seventy years), ostensibly-speaking anyway, is the only one I know of which is actually DEFINED by a color. And what is that color, boys and girls? Say it with me now: RED. Mao himself said it in the 60’s: “The East is red.” (For the tree-dwellers, he was implying Communism was going to dominate Asia.) Daniel pointed out to the person behind the counter that everything in this country is red, from the national flag to the lapel pins on soldiers’ dress greens to the quadrillion propaganda posters draped everywhere. The person behind the counter, in true person-behind-the-counter fashion, shrugged and said nothing. (Isn’t it great how this is true all over the world? If you made a similarly vehement statement in the Houston DMV about something, how do you think they’d respond? Probably the same way.) Daniel expanded the post-office employees’ English vocabulary a little more, and walked out.

SO. . .Daniel went back a third time, with all white envelopes. This time the employees said, “You can’t use these envelopes. You have to buy ours.” Ha! Daniel, beginning to believe it might be worth getting kicked out of the country just to vent some of his frustration on the post-office underlings, asked, “When did this happen?” “There was a big meeting four days ago and it was decided then.” Of course it did. Presumably the stamp-pickers’ union put pressure on the post office to come to this decision, thus breaking the seemingly impassable colored-envelope/stamp-shortage blockade.

So campers, the moral of this story is: never ever ever ever ever EVER expect things in China. You’re way better off showing up at a post office, for example, with nothing but words in your head, then asking them for pen, paper, envelopes, and stamps, and writing your letter on the spot.

4. Christmas Music

Christmas is a funny of time year, musically-speaking. As I mentioned earlier, there is some wonderfully beautiful music, but in addition to that you also have some of the most egregious musical sins ever committed, and people insist on committing them in newer and more horrible ways every year, for reasons that entirely escape me. With no other event could you get away with millions of covers of the same song. If every single year, to celebrate the release of Led Zeppelin IV, hundreds of artists all recorded their own take on “Stairway to Heaven,” there would be federal action taken against it in under three years. But with Christmas? Only during the Christmas season could you get away with covering, for the millionth time, a song like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” which is one of the creepiest things ever put to music. Substitute any other name for “Santa Claus” and you’ve got the soundtrack for a serial killer. “He sees you when you’re sleeping / he knows when you’re awake. . .Peter Jones is coming to town.” See? And it really doesn’t matter how soulfully you sing, “Little Drummer Boy” is punishingly stupid. I yield to none in my love of Ray Charles, but hearing him sing “Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum” in a soulful croon, as though it were a line from Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” instead of a song about a grubby little vagrant kid waking up the newborn son of God with a toy drum, made me long for government censorship. (I’d have to side with my Dad in finding the premise of this song one of the most ludicrous in the history of music. A woman goes through the agony of childbirth, in the abject poverty of an animal shed no less, wraps the baby up in tattered rags and places him in a food trough, Joseph has to be worrying about the fate of his family and perhaps all of humanity, and a random kid shows up whacking a drum. I think for it to be realistic you’d have to add a few more lines, like this: “Please stop hitting me, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum / I didn’t know he was asleep, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum. . .”) Then there’s “Jingle Bells,” which is probably still a fun song in the West, but in China, where it’s played year-round in every department store in every city with a population greater than 12, it’s the aural equivalent of a root canal. I’ve decided that the only non-religious Christmas music I can handle is the stuff that intends to sound goofy and ridiculous. Hate Hanson if you want, but at least their Christmas album really does sound like a bunch of kids messing around. A straight-faced R&B rendering of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” will make you want to ram your head through a plate glass window.

5. Tour bus horns

When I think about the Day of Judgment, I don’t imagine the angel Gabriel blowing some elaborate brass instrument; I imagine him sitting in a Chinese tour bus, pounding on the horn. You only think I’m kidding. There have been many times in Tianjin where I’ve heard a tour bus sounding its horn, thought it was way too loud, then realized the bus wasn’t anywhere near me. If something is too loud at a distance so great you can’t see it, then my friends, it’s just too loud.

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