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Chinese Culture Walks Fast

The time was 8:31 AM when the doorbell rang. My English student was to arrive at half past eight. “Sorry I’m late,” she apologized. She was one minute late, an amount of time that would not even be noticed by most of the world, but it China it is considered tardy. I have never been [...]

The time was 8:31 AM when the doorbell rang. My English student was to arrive at half past eight. “Sorry I’m late,” she apologized. She was one minute late, an amount of time that would not even be noticed by most of the world, but it China it is considered tardy. I have never been in a more punctual society than China, when someone here says they’re going to be somewhere at a certain time, they’re there to the minute.

My drain was clogged the other day and I had to call a plumber. Within five minutes of hanging up the phone he was knocking at my door. The same goes for the internet tech guys. When I had my internet installed the process was virtually immediate: a call on the phone produced a knock on the door almost instantly. When there is a problem with the connection I know that I’d better be ready for someone to come in and fix it as soon as I pick up the phone.

The Chinese often tell each other to walk slow as an informal departure salutation, but they usually yell this out to people who are virtually running out the door. It seems as if they need the reminder: this is a culture that walks fast.

This punctuality seems to work hand in hand with another Chinese cultural tendency: plans are often not solidified until right before an event. This is a society that expects people to mobilize at a moment’s notice. If you work in China, you’re expected to live hand in hand with your cell phone and receive orders from above as to when and where you’re expected to be immediately before you’re suppose to be there. Like the plumber or internet tech, my wife is often not told where or when she is working for the day until she is about ready to step out the door in the morning. There is not a societal demand to plan ahead because it’s taken for granted that people can be be mobilized without much advanced notice. This is a society of Minute Men.

China has a society that does now, not one that plans ahead for later. The duration of time between a plan being formed and an event taking place is incredibly slight. This is a country where workers are perpetually “on demand.” Like dispatch calling cops to a crime scene, an employer calls up and employee and tells them where they have to be ASAP.

The cellphone makes this possible. The cell phone makes everyone perpetually “on call.” Around six years ago I tried to find work in China as an English teacher without having a cell phone. A couple of employers were interested in hiring me up until the point that they asked for my cell phone number. When I revealed that I did not have one and had no intention of getting one, they pretty much said that it would not be possible for me to work there sans cellphone. I did not understand at that time why I could not just have a regular schedule, but I now know that this is not really how things are done here: for jobs in the service sector an employee needs to be perpetually at their employers disposal, and they need a cellphone to make this possible.

Chinese culture plans things now, does them now, and then moves on to the next task. People here walk fast, they move through the streets quickly, get to where they’re going, do what they set out to do, and move on to the next venture. This is great for the people requesting service, this is great for the traveler. Things work in China: the trains generally run on time, the bus stations function like assembly lines churning out bus after bus of human product on schedule, the hostels and hotels are straight forward affairs. Somehow, the apparent chaos of China works. This is one of the most punctual societies that I’ve ever been in.

Filed under: China, Uncategorized

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3546 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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