Inflatable Recreation: A Government Policy

Let’s do this: I’ll tell you what I saw outside my bedroom window this morning, and you tell me what facility you think my apartment overlooks. Ready? Here goes: a large blue plastic tarp (probably fifty feet long and twenty wide) divided up into three lanes by some kind of colored tape; three rows of large metal rings (ten in each row) anchored to the tarp within the lanes; two huge inflatable pencils; a giant inflatable globe; an equally giant yellow balloon-ball. Your guess would be. . .the city’s civil administration bureau? Exactly! Well done.

Or perhaps that wouldn’t have been your guess. Perhaps you, like me, would have guessed anything from “primary school playground” to “set of a new Nickelodeon game show”. We’d both have been wrong. As it turns out, the whole setup was in place for a special company field day. It said so on a large banner draped just beneath the first-floor overhang. No, “yun dong hui” can’t be translated directly to “field day,” but neither am I willing to grant it legitimate status as an “exercise” or “sports” (both better translations of “yun dong”) event. When I hear those English terms, I think of actual sports or forms of exercise: basketball, football, yoga, swimming, whatever. I don’t think of relay races where local government employees run stooped through rows of metal hoops, or race back and forth trying to carry two large rubber balls simultaneously, or work in teams of four to tip up and over a pair of giant, and apparently somewhat heavy, inflatable rubber pencils on their ends, all to the raucous sounds of their colleagues cheering them on. Maybe you do, but I don’t. And before I move on, this also demonstrates why Chinese is so hard to translate, because the same term for today’s company jamboree (that’s actually better, come to think of it) was used for the recent nationwide University Games held in Tianjin, which actually did feature thinks like football (European, not American), basketball, track-and-field, and badminton. So how would you translate that?

Now let’s imagine for a second that right outside the window of your apartment (if you live in a house, just pretend for the moment that you actually live in an apartment) was your city’s civil administration bureau. If you looked out at 9:30 in the morning and saw them having a relay race with inflatable pencils, what would you think? “My, it certainly is gratifying to see that the managers of my city’s civil affairs are able to relax and let their hair down.” Possible, but not likely. Far more likely would be if you said: “What in the name of all that is holy are they doing with my tax dollars over there?” But things are different here. And not just because the Chinese are clearly worlds ahead of the United States in the quality of their inflatable recreation products.

In China, the professional environment is highly unrewarding. Even brutal at times. Overtime is a foreign concept, authority figures treat their subordinates either as petulant children who have to be constantly criticized or hounded or else as low-level apprentices whos primary responsibility is to carry out the commands of those above them, and innovation is squelched in the name of maintaining a rigid structure which keeps power concentrated at the top in the name of “harmony.” Because Chinese culture has been, for upwards of two thousand years, run in an entirely top-down fashion, with those at the time commanding unswerving loyalty from those beneath them, there’s a general idea that as an employee, or even a student, your job is to do exactly what your boss (or professor) says, and in most cases also make him or her look good. One of the reasons China is horribly lacking in any kind of innovation or progressive change is that those at the top expect their subordinates to obey them completely and not alter the course of the department, even if that alteration is a good idea.

How does this relate to inflatable pencils? In the same way a big company dinner with rivers of booze does. It’s the one time when everyone’s allowed to let down their hair and go crazy for a bit. There will never be performance-related job bonuses, or the chance to innovate within departments, but there will always be chances to laugh at your boss as he or she tries to balance two giant rubber balls while running fifty feet in work clothes. Does it work? Do people feel more relaxed and rewarded afterward? If my Chinese friends are any indication, then no. Oh, everyone finds the sight of the branch manager drunkenly singing a patriotic war hymn hilarious, and for the moment that’s nice, but ultimately it’s a distraction, the same “bread and circuses” with which the Roman emperors used to momentarily pacify their unhappy subjects. See your boss drinking and singing, and you’re likely to shake your head and think, if only for a moment, “Ha! I guess Manager Yang isn’t any different from us, really.” Until the next day, of course.

Now here’s the thing I find profound, and it might not seem profound right away. The people attending the field day outside my apartment weren’t going through the motions in their respective events. They were seriously into them. The four-man teams doing the inflatable pencil event were practicing a good hour or so off to the side before their turns came. Those who were supposed to roll a small metal ring across the ground with the help of a stick were practicing even longer than that. You see the same attitude among students playing some kind of ridiculous duck-duck-goose sort of game with their classmates on nice spring evenings. Within Chinese sociey there are few outlets for frustration, anger, or even competitive intensity. When an officially-sanctioned opportunity does arise, people throw themselves into it. If you think I’m overstating the level of catharsis that emerges in recreation in China, just watch a few guys playing cards on the side of the road. Cards aren’t placed on the table; they’re slammed down with enough force to buckle a standard card-table. It might not be consciously-channeled catharsis, but I’d bet a lot of money it’s still cathartic.

So what happens when people get so angry about something that company jamborees, KTV excursions, hard drinking, and card-slamming just don’t cut it any more? Keeping just on the other side of that line, you can bet, forms the vast majority of the Central Government’s domestic policy agenda.

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