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.

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