You Only Think You Hate Waiting

Again: something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while. Recently I’ve had to go to one of the local notary publics to get some documents translated and notarized. It was quite an experience, and I would say if you want to understand anything about China or Chinese people, you pretty much have to have spent several hours sitting in a tiny government office waiting to get something done. Or if you want to broaden your net, make sure you wait several hours anywhere. The grocery store will do, too, and if you don’t think it’s possible to wait several hours in a grocery store, you’ve never had to buy groceries the week before the Spring Festival. I had to, and I experienced something I would have previously said was impossible: a traffic jam inside a store. Not with cars, obviously, but with shopping carts. I eventually had to abandon my cart and get a hand-basket, because there was literally no way you could get through the store with a cart. It was gridlock. That kind of thing is educational. I’ll explain why, with a quick trip to the notary.

Quick being, of course, the absolute opposite of what it was. The office itself was really nothing more than a glorified shed. There was a series of service windows, and separated from them by not even two meters was a row of chairs where you could wait. The entire building (such as it was) was probably 10 meters long altogether. People, that’s SMALL. And when you think about this same place being crammed full of people, you’ll get some idea of what it might have been like to wait there. I had brought along a good book, knowing ahead of time that I’d probably be there all afternoon. China teaches you to be pessimistic that way. Assume something’s going to take all day, plan appropriately, and you’ll always be good to go. Most of the other people there, however, didn’t bring anything. And everyone was involved in what seemed to be the most complex business known to humanity. When I got there, an older man and what appeared to be his son were at window three, and when I got up to finally get to my business two hours later, they were still there. I have no idea what they were doing. Registering land rights for a plantation on Mars, I guess. Most other people were at the window for a good twenty or thirty minutes at the very least. Those not at the window were clustered around one harried employee whose job was to explain to each customer what paperwork they needed and what they needed to do with the paperwork.

A sidebar here. In the pantheon of all-time worst jobs, this guy has to rank somewhere in the top ten. Imagine working in an office where no customer has a clue what to do, every affair is life-alteringly important, and no one knows how to wait in line. It would be like working as the postmaster general for the Mongolian Horde. Only with less patient customers. God bless him, this particular public servant did his job about as well as you could ever hope: he had seemingly infinite stores of patience, and spun from one customer to another every few seconds, each time with a different piece of information, and only raised his voice when the din required it. I have no idea why they didn’t have another four or five people stationed outside in the courtyard working with other customers so as to lessen the load, but then there are approximately eight million other things I don’t understand about organization in China, so whatever.

And what of the customers themselves? During my first year in China, in Shandong province, I used to think Chinese people didn’t mind waiting in huge lines because every time I was in a huge line people just stood (for the most part; this wouldn’t be during national holiday time) patiently and calmly. Nobody yelled, nobody snapped at anyone else, nobody fidgeted or seemed to be the slightest bit impatient. Wouldn’t you think that was patience? I did. But here’s what I’ve learned: Chinese people LOATHE long waits in lines. They hate waiting with the burning heat of a thousand suns. They hate waiting more than you’ll ever hate waiting, even if you visit the DMV every day for  the foreseeable future. You can’t imagine it unless, as I said before, you’ve spent an entire afternoon just waiting to do something like notarize a document. At some point in my second hour in the notary public office, it occurred to me that although I was definitely tired of waiting, I only had to wait like this once in a while. I grew up in countries where you generally just don’t wait very long. (A “crowded” American mall deserves the qualifying quotation marks around the adjective. An American mall is to a Chinese train station what the Gobi Desert is to downtown Hong Kong. People in China wait longer in lines for cheap cabbage at the grocery store than Americans do at the most crowded mall in the country.) If you’re Chinese, you grew up waiting. At grocery stores, at the post office, at restaurants, outside your classroom, everywhere. I mean every. . .where. Waiting in an overcrowded country is just a necessary evil.

And again, don’t kid yourself into thinking people get used to it, or at least not in the sense that they no longer mind it. If someone smacks you in the face with a fresh mackerel every morning, after a while you’ll adapt such that it doesn’t catch you off guard, and in that sense you’ll have gotten used to it, but you’d have to be off your nut to enjoy getting smacked in the face with a fresh mackerel every morning. Chinese people react violently or at least impatiently in crowded places only when there’s a lot at stake. So, for example, if you try to buy a bus ticket to a different province during the Spring Festival, get ready to throw some elbows, because people don’t have a lot of time off during the year, and if you lose 12 hours because you weren’t able to get a ticket in time, that’s too much. Otherwise people will mostly just mutter under their breath or vent their feelings to a friend nearby. There’s nothing else you can do, and in China that’s the guiding principle: react only in such a way that you’ll benefit from the reaction. If you freak out in a post office, it’s because the employees are sitting around not doing anything (which happens pretty frequently) and if you don’t go nuts, no one will do their jobs. If you complain to an official, it’s because your business is so important that you can’t wait any longer. Nobody rebels on principle in China. Nobody would ever say, “It’s extremely unprofessional to have only one person helping us with our business. I’m going to complain to the manager.” Nope. You cut in line or elbow someone or yell at a cop because that’s literally the only option left to you.

I have to give a shout-out to the people at the notary public, too. They were thorough and professional and even, dare I say it, pleasant. I got my stuff down and I was out the door a mere three hours after I got there, but then the wait really wasn’t their fault. It was largely due to the guy buying land on Mars or whatever, and even then, if you’re Chinese and you finally get your turn at the window, you don’t give a crap WHO else is waiting; you waited a billion years, and you’re going to take care of every single jot and tittle on your contract. Period. I can appreciate that.



1 Responses to You Only Think You Hate Waiting

  1. James says:

    I can relate. My first Spring Festival in China, I too had to abandon my shopping cart and use a hand basket. It still took me 3 hours from entering the store to leaving it.

    I ALWAYS finished my shopping before 9 a.m. after that.

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