Mapping and navigating cultures is part of the intrigue of travel. But what happens when complete BS no longer fazes you?
XIAMEN, China- I went into the post office today, a very un-fun thing to do in any country. Though in China a post office visit is often about as sensually soothing as a proctal exam administered by a cadaver. It’s not really the box toting mob moshing in front of the counters, the staff that couldn’t be more disinterested if your mail arrives at its destination or not, or the convoluted mail system in general, but the fact that you know you’re going to have to waste your time with unnecessary actions as a prerequisite to getting what you want. This is the case with almost everything in China: you’re going to get to where you want to go in the end, but you’re going to have to take a ridiculously roundabout way to get there.
So I did no cringe when the lady behind the counter gave me the incorrect form to fill out. “I just want to send this letter to Hong Kong as cheap as possible, I don’t need this,” I pleaded in very understandable Mandarin. I knew that the only thing I needed to do was get an envelop, fill it out, and have the lady stamp it “par avion.”
It was to no avail, she reconfirmed her error with a grunt and a twitch of her head which meant “f’ck off,” and then helped the next customer. There is no correcting people in China — trying to do so is a faux pas of incomparable proportions that will unequivocally leave you far worse off than you’d otherwise be — especially when these people occupy such petty authoritative posts as postal clerks. You need to somehow make them realize that they made a mistake on their own, seemingly without you even noticing it. So there was no other recourse than to go through the motions and rest assured that everything would eventually be set right some other point downstream.
I filled out the wrong form. It was in Chinese when I was mailing a letter to an address in Hong Kong that was written in the Latin alphabet. I filled it out anyway and handed it back. The clerk looked at the form, focused on what I wrote, and then promptly wrinkled it up and chucked it in the garbage at her feet. She then gave me another form to try again. This one was at least in the proper language. I filled it out, went over to another counter, and passed it over, still strongly assuming that it wasn’t what I wanted. The clerk took my letter and stuffed it into a big cardboard envelope.
She then asked me to pay 74 RMB.
“What? I only want to send it to Hong Kong. It’s only a letter. Why is it so expensive?”
74 RMB — $12.50 is more than enough to send a package to the other side of the world from here.
“I just want to send this the cheapest way. There is a cheaper way, right? Please just give me an . . . ”
She said alright and held up an envelope.
“Yes, I want that.”
“But you won’t be able to track it.”
“I don’t care.”
“You don’t care?”
“No, I don’t care.”
“But it won’t get there fast.”
“I still don’t care.”
She then took my letter out of the big cardboard envelop, and for the second time wrinkled up a form that I so arduously filled out and chucked it in the trash. I filled out the address for the third time, paid the 7 RMB to mail the letter, handed it over, and walked out the door.
Then it hit me: I wasn’t angry, upset, or annoyed. I’d just spent 45 minutes in a post office filling out forms for no reason but yet I remained perfectly emotionally buoyant. It then became apparent how much I’ve gotten used to this place. I expected things to be convoluted, and when they were there were no surprises — so how could I be angry? I’ve been in and out of China since 2005, and the past three years I’ve been primarily based here — traveling to all corners of the country. It then started to bother me that even the severely idiotic here seems so normal as to not even warrant a comment anymore.
It’s these games that make travel fun and interesting. Mapping a culture and figuring out how to navigate it is part of the intrigue of this occupation. You travel for the Other experience, for the stimulation of decoding patterns of behavior and developing strategies to coalesce with them. If everyone was as logical and did things as well as I do (or you do) then travel would be an overwhelmingly mundane affair. The stimulation of life is often found in conflict, as this is where you can test potential solutions to problems — and, unsurprisingly, this is the root of all human games.
Being in China is like riding an inner tube down a river: you just go with it. No matter how many turns and rapids impede your path you just go with it, because you know that in the end it’s going to take you where you want to be. It takes years to realize things like this about a culture, but the irony is that when you do it’s clear that you’ve been somewhere for far too long. It may be time to start looking for another country to set up in.