China is the birthplace of many things, gun powder, fireworks, paper, the list goes on and on. But in all the millennia of Chinese innovation, there is one advancement that has completely eluded them, the fine art of standing in line. I’ve been here a month, and I’m still having trouble understanding that “wait your turn” is actually more of a western construct, and has little meaning in a culture driven by an underlying desperation to wedge yourself into any possible space, push ahead by any means you can, then stand as close as a lover to the people around you, and hope with all your heart everyone in front of you does the same. Turn order is determined by creeping into the cracks, rather than arrival time. In fairness, the first words I learned in Mandarin were meiyou, meaning “out of” or “don’t have,” don’t have ice at the slushy store, don’t have cones at the ice cream shop, don’t have mud crab curry, which put Porter out of countenance because it was the first thing in China he wanted badly enough to override his dad and frantically blurt out his first Chinese sentence, “Duoshao Qian,” How much is it?
Of all the stores in Suzhou I fear Auchan the most because it is Walmart on speed, oozing discount slippers, earmuffs, and live eels in a massive room the length and breadth of a shopping mall, with a year round Christmas rush of customers scurrying thick as ants on a carcass. Actually I would prefer to pretend the whole store had fallen into a black hole, but at this point it is one of the few store names I can pronounce perfectly clearly, and all the cab drivers know where it is, so yesterday I thought I’d take a risk and go early. I did not understand that in the land of meiyou, everyone goes early.
The food in that store is piled far higher than any human being could reach, so there was absolutely no risk that a single breathing creature would have to leave empty handed. On my first visit I didn’t understand why the wheels on the carts were made to turn any direction, so the perpetually off balance carts roll irritatingly sideways as well as back and forth. Yesterday that mystery was solved as even little old ladies elbowed their way through, shoving my cart this way and that. Wedging, spinning, maneuvering in tight spaces, weigh the fruit, grab the oranges, snatch that meat, and ABOVE ALL GET TWO HEADS OF CABBAGE! All I wanted was a plentiful leafy green vegetable bunny seems to love more that life itself, a ten minute errand transformed into a two hour ordeal involving a short refuge in the chip aisle, which smells like pee and serves as home to the infamous tomato Pringles. Pee smell/open space, pee smell/open space. Sometimes pee can be a valuable commodity.
Last weekend we were standing in the line to enter Hong Kong from Shenzhen, and for various reasons the whole place was totally choc-a-block with people walking over the border that day, pushing and jostling, zooming past the few greenhorn westerners who stood fuming and unprepared for such shocking rudeness. After ages of standing in what amounted to cattle pens, my ten-year-old son Chase began to complain of feeling sick. We fanned him, told him to put his head down and nudged him forward, but we were stuck between countries and the Chinese don’t care about a queasy boy—that is until he puked a giant firework on the floor and the red sea magically parted, four square feet of space appearing out of what had appeared to be a solid wall of humanity only seconds before. They let my husband and Chase shove through then, but stunningly, not the rest of us. One man and his wife took a moment of confusion to jump in front of me, knowingly separating me from Abby and Porter, even after seeing Chase was sick and couldn’t leave the premises without me. He was very nasty when I tried to get back around him, snarling and holding out his bag to block the way when I tried to explain I could not leave my children alone. Finally I quit arguing and just shoved past, enduring his hateful comments behind my back, clear even with my limited language. Being the paragon of maturity that I am, I dearly wanted to turn around and tell him exactly what I thought of him, but right behind him stood a young man and his mother who had been kind to me, who had the chance to jump in front of me and did not take it. Even in my anger l knew that, as a foreigner, saying what I wanted to say would probably sound as though it stood for all Chinese people, stinging the kind couple with the slash of my invective. I kept quiet, and as soon as I could, I herded off my son, who continued to throw up all over Hong Kong for the rest of the day.
There are moments in China when it’s tempting to look through my opera glasses and sneer in a nasal tenor, “The ability to stand in line is what separates us from the animals.” But then I run into people like that young man and his mother who disregarded their cultural norms to be kind to a stranger they will probably never see again, and I think–maybe I don’t know so much.
By the way, I saw something in the frozen foods aisle called “Beef Balls Urinating.” If you need me, I’ll be standing in line for that.