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

3. Brick wall conversations

Most conversations with a low-level authority figure, if the topic has something to do with a rule, are maddening in the true sense of the word, as in, they will quite literally drive sense from your mind and, if carried on long enough, reduce you to a slobbering half-wit. Fortunately I’ve always just been able to avoid that point of no return, though it’s sometimes a close thing. At the pool yesterday I was stretching prior to diving in, and one of the lifeguards came over and told me to put my sandals over against the wall. That’s the rule, and I knew it. What I also knew, though, was that the other swimmers, despite the many signs on the wall warning against this behavior, regularly spit on the ground. I wasn’t eager to walk barefoot across a minefield of other people’s phlegm. Or even my own phlegm. Phlegm generally is not a substance you want in contact with your feet. So here’s the conversation I had with the lifeguard:

Lifeguard: Put your sandals over there.

Me (annoyed): But the ground is incredibly dirty.

Lifeguard: You have to put your sandals over there.

Me: Look, everyone spits on the ground here. I don’t want to walk here without my sandals.

Lifeguard: Your sandals belong over there.

Me: But the ground is really dirty!

Lifeguard: We wash it off. Put your sandals over there.

A few things. First, “washing off” the ground at a Chinese pool consists entirely of dumping out a bucket of water, thereby merely creating a viscous surface on which the nastiness that was once rooted in place can float freely about, like little snot-bergs. Second, in any conversation of this nature you’re faced with a choice: comply and do what you’re told, or refuse and your interlocutor will just do it anyway. What I wanted to say in response was, “How about this: you start enforcing the rule on your wall about not spitting on the ground, and I’ll obey the rule about placing your sandals against the wall?” But the lower-level functionary in China has almost no clout, and no real desire to do anything with the little clout he or she has because any such action will earn the ire of those around him or her, so ultimately you cave in because it just isn’t worth the frustration.

And that, campers, is how the system works here. Authority doesn’t need reasons or logic or plans; it just needs perseverance and a refusal to listen. Eventually people just do what they’re told because it’s too tiring otherwise. The lower-level functionary–swimming pool lifeguard, ticket officer at the train station, traffic cop–is not given any power to change anything, so after a while he or she just does the bare minimum because that’s the only thing that’s very clear, and in most cases that consists of commanding a swimmer to move his sandals, or telling a fruit vendor to move his cart out of a no-parking zone. The mid-level functionary has marginally more power, but he or she only uses it to bully or control the lower-level functionary, because it’s always easier to keep your peons in line than actually pursue an active course of change yourself. The high-level functionary is too scared of the five or six people at the top to do anything that might be a step outside the accepted orthodoxy, so he or she just delegates to the mid-level people, and makes sure to yell at them regularly in order to look decisive. And, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, so it goes.

4. Michael Jackson – Not the man himself, but rather the sad state of affairs whereby the Chinese didn’t really get into Michael Jackson until sometime in the 1990’s, which would have been roughly when he’d been taken over by pod people, or sold his soul to Sun Ra, or something like that. I really would have no problem walking into a department store and hearing “Billie Jean,” that being one of the few songs which will make just about ANYONE dance. (If you don’t believe me, watch what happens when you make the DJ at a wedding reception, who has been playing top-40 hip-hop, put on “Billie Jean.”) I also wouldn’t mind if a store dipped back into his Jackson Five material. Rather than that, though, we get “The Doggone Girl is Mine” or “Heal the World” or “You are Not Alone,” which are wondrously ironic in that in most social situations they will cause the exact opposite response to the title and message of the song: singing a woman “The Doggone Girl is Mine” will likely cause said doggone girl to leave you; singing “Heal the World” in a social gathering is likely to cause violence; and singing “You are Not Alone” is likely to cause everyone to leave you alone. It’s enough to make you long for John Denver.

5. Made-Up Exercises – Personally, I love made-up exercises because they make me laugh, but I’m putting them in the “bad” category because ultimately they’re going to kill, or at least cripple, the people doing them. Like the guy who’s been walking laps around the little grassy area located between my dorm and the foreign-teacher housing. He’s been at it for probably five hours today. He walked this morning, then took a break for lunch, and now he’s back. “But Rob, walking’s good for you!” I’m aware of that, but typically when you walk you don’t wave your arms around spastically for hours at a time, pushing the tensile strength of your shoulder ligaments to its absolute limit. That’s what this guy does. He windmills his arms back and forth HARD, the way you might when stretching before a swim, for probably ten straight minutes, then pumps one arm up and back equally hard with a water bottle in his hand, presumably for resistance, then does the same thing with the other arm. And on and on. I’ll leave you to imagine what possible good that might be doing his body. Then of course in addition to this guy you have still-active members of the pantheon: the people who slam themselves against trees, the people who shout as a way of releasing negative energy, the ladies in workout clothes who walk slowly but pump their arms as though they’re running a marathon, etc. The list just goes on and on. I predict at least one of the tree-slammers will have a major back injury, one of the shouters will blow a blood vessel in his/her head, and one of the walk-runners will, well, I don’t know what exactly, but surely any exercise that looks so ridiculous will have negative repercussions.

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