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along with stories in Chinese which (as far as I can tell) seem to describe them doing impressive-sounding things, had been replaced by a wall of Communist Party stories — Long March stuff, Mao stuff, Lei Fang stuff, etc.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.