Saturday, April 28, 2012

Here's how to piss off the top bosses of the Chinese Ministry of Finance and Dongbei University of Finance and Economics, without even knowing you're doing it.

Earlier today, I noticed that the long wall of poster board which is typical filled with photos of students in tee shirts with fairly bad English, along with stories in Chinese which (as far as I can tell) seem to describe them doing impressive-sounding things, had been replaced by a wall of Communist Party stories — Long March stuff, Mao stuff, Lei Fang stuff, etc. One of my students this morning told me that the Beijing Ministry of Finance was having a big-big-BIG-wig meeting in our department this afternoon, but I'd quite forgotten it. I am sometimes a ben dan — dumb egg.

Our campus has pretty frequent meetings of black-Audi-driving People More Important Than Me, but this time the PMITM's were a lot more important than average.

At an American university, if you had a giant PMITM meeting it would be discussed, perhaps debated (because there would surely be  dissenters), and at the very least announced. Here, the only announcement came the night before: "Please don't use the West Gate of the building [Chinese uses the same word for gate and door], because it will be closed for maintenance." Maintenance — yeah, right.

So in all ignorance, this afternoon I rode my bike in to meet with a student who's interested in studying in America for grad school. I'd volunteered to help her and other people, so my afternoon off of teaching was to spent helping her make study plans.

As the small, little announcement had indicated, in anticipation of the arrival of the PMITM's, the main door to our department was closed off. It was festooned with a thick red carpet and gargantuan, expensive cones of flowers paid for by The People and intended to warn dumb eggs like me that Here There Be PMITMs. PMITM's love such things, but I tend not to pay enough attention to them. I just walked around to the other side of the building, uttering curses at the PMITM's.

I came in the back side, carrying my bike because I don't have a lock anymore. A Person Less Important Than Me cut halfway through it in the attempt to steal my bike during the winter holiday. In 39 years in America, no one EVER attempted to steal my bike, so I love when my Chinese students lecture me about the high crime rate in America.

When I reached the second floor, I found a huge gaggle of perhaps 20 Chinese boss-men, chatting with each other, all smoking cigarettes right in the middle of a no-smoking building. They were accompanied by a small band of beautiful college students dressed in long and body-hugging traditional-style cheongsam dresses. 

I recognized one of my former students, a girl called Jessie, who is legendarily tall, elegant, and beautiful. Whenever our university has dignitaries visiting, Jessie is guaranteed to be there, wearing the requisite cheongsam and wide, friendly smile. Someone in our administration hopes she will never graduate.

I was happy to see Jessie again, but I wasn't looking for friendly conversation. 

My parents instilled in me a lifelong contempt for cigarette smoke, to which was recently added a major dose of adult-onset asthma. I literally cannot safely be in a smoke-filled room anymore, or I could wind up in a hospital. So when I came to the second floor, intending to do my job, and met with a wall of cigarette smoke — in an area clearly marked NO SMOKING — I was miffed.

I asked Jessie if she could please inform these men that they aren't allowed to smoke in the hallways of our college, as is clearly marked on all the entrances. She didn't exactly say yes or no, she just… shrank. She tried hopelessly to avoid my eyes, but just before terror overtook her I felt a hand clap down on my shoulder.

This was Ming Zhao (name changed to protect the guilty) a nasty, smiling little ball of inhumanity who comes to my mid-chest in height, intellect, integrity, and all other manly qualities except for Communist Party influence. In that regard, he is a boss whom even our Chinese Dean has to fear.

Ming Zhao said, with a giant smile on his face, "It's nice to see you. Now please go out." He literally pushed me down the hall, through the pall of cigarette smoke, toward where I'd propped my bike against my office door. He didn't even make an attempt at respect or propriety, didn't give me a hint of dignity, just threw me away like the yangguizi I am. I coughed a bit, but kept my lungs mostly inside my chest as I sped down the hall like a cat flung out a window who tries to pretend "that's exactly what I wanted to do." 

Ming Zhao sent a student minion after me, ostensibly to inquire after my health, but mostly to make sure that I didn't return. The student, being young and therefore not too skilled in the art of being Chinese, didn't make a very good fake at caring whether my lungs were okay. He only managed to convey that My Presence Is Not Welcome among the PMITM's.

I found my student, cleared my lungs enough that I could talk, and then found a place near a window where I could breathe outside air. You can believe I was massively motivated to help her find an opportunity to go to America for graduate studies — or for anything else, for that matter. At that moment, I would have helped anyone escape this country.

This small incident was entirely my fault. Ming Zhao shouldn't have needed to remind me that in China, the leadership doesn't have to follow the rules that everyone else follows. It's only my foolishly reflexive American perspective that makes me expect consistency, integrity, and the rule of law. Such notions lead only to disaster here in the People's Republic of China.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

As it turns out, female bosses in China can suck, too, they just suck differently. And not all male bosses suck, either.

The district manager for Ma Lei's company is a man who sounds very professional. He's the one who, first week she was at work in the store, hinted to her that she's a future manager at a store with higher sales than this one, if she wants to be. The current store manager, though, is a female ben dan. "Ben dan" means literally "dumb egg," which is Chinese for dumb-ass. This particular ben dan has always been a manager, never actually worked the floor, yet she thinks she knows how to boss Ma Lei around — in short, her head is way up her eggs.

It's a long story not worth telling in detail, but yesterday the manager ordered three hefty boxes shipped, and when the delivery guy came he had Ma Lei pay him 12 yuan apiece (about $1.80). The manager-egg somehow had the idea that it was supposed to be 12 yuan for all three boxes — a preposterously low price — and she demanded that Ma Lei pay the extra $3.60. Ma Lei was incensed!

Now, I grant you that $3.60 is small change, arguably worth just sloughing off. But a) we're talking about a $225 a month job, so $3.60 isn't such small change, and much more importantly, b) this is Ma Lei, who will apologize to an ant for stepping on it inadvertently, but won't take shit for something she didn't do wrong.

This happened late in the day, just before Ma Lei was coming home. I'd been working all day, and my head was still in the computer when she came home at 6:00. I still hadn't prepared for today's class, nor had I broached my day's writing assignment, but I could see that she was in about as high a dudgeon as I've seen her in.

She kept apologizing to me for interrupting my work, but I wasn't the least bit upset. I told her I didn't fall in love with a noodle, nor did I want to. (That's the only way I knew how to explain it in Chinese.) She told me I was on my own for dinner, and then she disappeared into the bedroom to phone up her network of friends and coworkers she knew who had worked with courier companies in the past. 

She wanted moral support from her friends, but more than that she was checking the facts: was there any way the manager-egg had been right, all three boxes should have been shipped for $1.80? Of course they all said "no way." I could have told her that, but she wanted to be rock-solid certain rather than do anything rash. (I love this girl!)

After a little more than hour of combined venting and fact-checking, she hit the phone to call the district manager at 7:30 at night. She'd warned me about this, and she gave me an opportunity to dissuade her, but I didn't do it: she called him, with my full blessing. If I hadn't been raised with a mom who got work-related phone calls at hours well past 7:30 at night, I might have told her to wait till the next morning, but I was, and I didn't. I wanted that district manager to hear what Ma Lei had to say.

Her friend had told her not to speak to the district manager in a loud or harsh or proud voice, but Ma Lei told her friend "why should I be a noodle? He's not Mao Ze Deng, he's not Obama, why should I be afraid?" And indeed there was pride in her voice, though also respect.

Have I mentioned that I love this girl?

I think that what she told him is the most amazing part. I understood a good bit of it, then she gave me a simplified version afterward. After explaining the facts to him, she made it clear that her problem was not the money. It was very important to her that he think well of her, and if she walked away from her job over this $3.60, he not think that she had failed or done something wrong.

He asked if she wanted some sort of payment from him, and she said no, I don't want your money. He might have been a little perplexed by that, and he asked why she wanted the job at all, if she doesn't need money. She told him. "I don't want to be a lazy bug, staying home all day. I want something to do." If, however, the job conditions are such that she doesn't feel respected, she will "say gubai" — i.e., "goodbye."

She emerged from the bedroom proud, excited, confident, yet exhausted. She apologized for not having made me dinner, which (she said) is a wife's job. "I am a bad wife," she said. I couldn't disagree more.

About an hour later, Ma Lei's phone started registering calls from her ben-dan boss, every fifteen minutes or so. This was a mistake, on the boss's part, because Ma Lei was in no state of mind to speak with this woman, but the woman nevertheless tried for a couple of hours. Then she sent an apologetic text message saying "I misunderstood," and "you didn't understand me." Ma Lei saw it, but did not respond.

It was at once an act of cruelty and of charity for Ma Lei to ignore her boss's attempts to communicate. 

Of course, the manager-egg had heard from the district manager, and she must have been filled with fear and shame. 

If man is indeed a rational animal, and communication is best done in clear and reasoned tones — and if the store manager wished to hear anything that might soothe her abashment — last night was not the time for her to attempt to apologize to my dear, feisty wife. As Ma Lei herself said, you can push her around a lot, as long as it's reasonable, but once you've crossed a line her tongue is like a sword that will cut you in half. (That was her exact metaphor.)

I must confess that Ma Lei took some pleasure in her boss's apparent discomfiture. Whereas the first half of the night had been spent in anger, the second half was spent in slightly choumei gloating. Neither way was she going to sleep, and indeed she kept me up an hour after I needed to be asleep before my 12-hour Tuesday marathon, but I couldn't begrudge her a minute of her little triumph. Realizing that her desire to stay up was going to kill my workday, she took a Benadryl and collapsed.

Her job doesn't matter a jot, in the grand scheme of our lives. She could quit it, and we wouldn't notice the financial difference. But she wants to work, and I want a wife who wants to work. There's freedom in work, and there's pride, and there's independence. I don't want her to have to ask me for every penny — not because I can't afford it, but because I don't want her to have to ask it — and she doesn't want to have to ask.

She's off now, at work. I've not heard a thing from her about today's experience. The boss-egg-woman is seldom in the store, so it's likely that Ma Lei didn't see her all day. Nor did Ma Lei particularly want to talk to her. I think she just wants to continue doing her job and ignore that there was ever a conflict. And in the process, let the boss-egg-lady know who's really boss.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Glad I'm not a woman in China!

Ma Lei was in line for a really good job at a financial services company. She passed two tests, and was one of two people (out of more than 100) under consideration. The job didn't pay much to begin with, only about $225 a month, but there was a steep career curve available after the first two months.

Then she got a call: for only $7500, she could have the job. That is to say — if she gives the manager $7500, he'll choose her for the job. Apparently it's not that uncommon in China to demand about half a year's salary, up-front, as a bribe to get a good job. (I imagine Rod Blagojevich would be quite jealous.)

Then a day or two later, she was headed for another job interview. She climbed on to a hyper-crowded bus, squished in front of a late-50s man. After a while, she started to feel a little "stirring" behind her at waist level. She moved out of the way, but the man followed to press his "stirring" into her again. She moved again, and again he followed her. Finally, she shouted to the bus driver to stop, saying in full voice exactly why. The old dirty old man turned red and fled the bus.

Her job interview went a lot better than the ride to get there. She was hired immediately, without having to go through the usual multiple layers of interviews. Ma Lei's friend who works at the company told her that rarely happens, so the manager who interviewed her must have been quite impressed with her.

First day of work, Ma Lei's new boss said he would like to take her out for lunch. Great. At lunch, after a little talk about the job, the people in the office, etc., he leaned forward told her she's very beautiful. Next, he asked her to go to a hotel with him. Now she's looking for Job #3. 

First boss asked for money, second boss asked for sex. What's left for the third one to ask for? First-born child?