China: Learning to Love Inefficiency

“If you are in China for a week, you think you can write a book about it. If you are in China for a month, you think you can write an article about it. If you are in China for a year, you don’t think you can write anything at all.” — folk saying, date unknown

“What about blogging? Where does that fit in? Hello?” — me, June 2014, about to write a blog post

The reason I chose to come to China is precisely because it is big, complicated, and confusing. In other words, it is a place where I can, and will, learn more than I can imagine. (And also because I love Chinese food, but I assure you that’s secondary.) If you ask people what the most interesting thing happening in China is right now — which I do to every person who is willing to talk to me and/or speaks English — you will get a different answer.

From pollution (a poster standing in the large shopping district of Wangfujing showed a guy wearing a hazmat suit, “If we don’t clean up the environment, soon we will have to dress like astronauts”) to urbanization to corruption (it is not uncommon to find Bentleys parked between Hyundais and rickshaws on the street) to the rapid rise of religion (from Christianity to Islam to Ba’hai) to new territorial disputes to international FDI to internal ethnic tensions, everyone can give a different answer. There are probably even more, but I haven’t spoken to those people yet and/or they don’t speak English. What’s more, it is impossible to isolate any of these fundamental issues as the economic, political, international, and social pictures are all tied together.

When you ask me what I think after five days in China, I’d probably say it’s the Chinese food. But I swear that’s secondary, right?

Yet even if there is still much to digest on the grand scale and humility is the order of the day, from just a short time here it is easy to pick up on a few very micro patterns that give me sufficient reason to write a blog post. One in particular: the incredible inefficiency that pervades everything.

I don’t mean this pejoratively; in fact, if anything it’s the opposite. Chinese people take their time: even for a bustling and crowded metropolis like Beijing, very few people seem to be in a rush. Beijing’s downtown makes Times Square or Wall Street look like a breeding ground of Energizer bunnies and wind-up toys.

Case in point: When we went to go set up our phones and get new Chinese SIM cards, we walked into the store and were handed a menu of options. We quickly identified which one we wanted and how much it cost. And since we were accompanied to by two fluent Chinese speakers, there was no language barrier — all we had to do was buy the phone.

In more efficient places, the whole process would have taken 15-30 minutes at most. We would go to the salesman, he would plug in our information, and give us the SIM card. But not in China. First, we sat down with the salesman and bantered for a few minutes. Then he offered us every possible other option on the menu. Then another salesman came over to talk to him, and then to us, and there was a long back-and-forth three-way conversation between all parties. Then the salesman decided to try to practice English with us. “Thank you, sir.” “Passport, please.” Then both salespeople together started to challenge the language ability of one of our colleagues who speaks Chinese but does not look Chinese, and they began quizzing her with Chinese slang to see if she knew what they were talking about. Then they spent ten minutes trying to figure out how to say “pre-paid phone card” in English. Then he took our information and started to process it, all while bantering with us in broken English, making jokes, and explaining the phone plan in the most roundabout manner possible. Then he started trying to converse with us more in English and pretty much forgetting about actually entering our information. Finally, he finished one of the two SIM cards — and we had to start the process all over again. One and a half hours later, we exited the store with phones and SIM cards in hand.

If I were in a rush, I would have gone insane. If you don’t learn to love inefficiency, it seems, you will face a world of unrelenting frustration. But inefficiency is not the right word in many ways — it’s not a lack of efficiency as much as it the presence of an different, more time-consuming process. Simple things are not merely transactions that can be done as quickly as possible, but are instead processes between people that occupy a different notion of how relationships between people play out. You have to build a structure around the simple transaction for it to work. It should be noted that this has been a huge boon for my ordering of Chinese food: never has indecisiveness between 8 different types of tofu been so warmly tolerated.

The inefficiency extends beyond small interactions. There are also very few schedules of when things need to get done. Buildings will sit half-finished for days, months, or years until all of a sudden they need to be finished and then they are magically taken care of. (Don’t ask me about the structural integrity; I don’t do science.) People walk incredibly slowly on the streets, and I’ve seen fewer than two people walk up an escalator rather than stand. As a friend described it to me, everything occurs on China time — if it’s not meant to happen yet, it won’t happen until the time is right.

Luckily, I’m in no rush — they serve the food so fast anyways, might as well take forever to order it.