I have loads of Chinese restaurant stories. They are definitely worth a book, as the Chinese restaurant is the surest window into Chinese culture you will ever find, with different social classes thrown together in a confined space and forced to deal with one another and get along. My latest only-in-China saga took place at the Library, a spacious establishment in the fashionable Jianwai Soho neighborhood in Beijing’s CBD. A trendy place, all three floors stocked with bookshelves and traditional hardwood tables and chairs and upholstered sofas as well for those who don’t like hard furniture. I have to say for a Chinese-run café the coffee is pretty good, along with the generous servings; even the medium-size mug is too large and heavy for comfort.
I was with Jiejie, a female friend. We had each ordered a set lunch and had just started at our meal. What I will describe next may sound incomprehensible to Westerners unfamiliar with China. I dropped one of my chopsticks on the floor. This was not because I am clumsy with chopsticks; I’ve been using them for years. I just happened to drop one, as we might a knife or a fork. Of course, I was not going to pick it up and use it again, but asked the waiter nearby to fetch me a new one. We were on the second floor, and as the wait station didn’t appear to have any extra chopsticks, he yelled a request from the top of the stairs to the staff down on the first floor.
Normally I would receive a new pair immediately, but several minutes passed I still hadn’t received any chopsticks. I reminded the waiter that I wanted to eat and was waiting. I mean, it wasn’t like they were really busy and overwhelmed. The place was fairly crowded, but a big difference from restaurants abroad is the much larger staff on hand in Chinese restaurants due to the cheap labor, with a resulting degradation in service. With responsibility dispersed among so many servers, they often stand around with nothing to do.
More minutes passed. It became clear that no one was taking action on my chopsticks. I found this absurd. I had been careful not to snap at the waiter in a rude way, even when the norm in Chinese restaurants is to be quite brusque toward the staff, which is not deemed rude by natives. I asked him once again. He said the chopsticks were on their way—as he stepped back to his place and did nothing.
Fearing the wait could drag on indefinitely while my food got cold, I went down to the first floor myself to request chopsticks directly at the main counter. The staff behind the counter told me to wait a few minutes; the chopsticks were coming, they said. The six waitpersons present remained immobile. I was being ignored.
“Where are my chopsticks? I want them now.”
A waitress yanked open a drawer and thrust a pair at me.
The mystery was why they had declined to bring me the chopsticks in the first place. Of all my countless unbelievable restaurant encounters in China, nothing as mystifying as this. It was the most routine and inoffensive of requests. Even in the worst restaurants I would immediately be handed new chopsticks before I even had the chance to request a new pair. What could I possibly have done to complicate things? It must be management: bad boss, working conditions, low staff morale. But again, no matter how low the morale at a restaurant, they will never downgrade your service unless you are personally rude to them.
Consider the typical waitperson job in Beijing or other top-tier cities, where they have it the best. Service wages have risen considerably over the years, from 500 to 2,000 Yuan ($325) or more per month these days. This includes free room and board in a crowded sex-segregated dormitory; better than nothing, but they get to take home all of that salary as non-taxed gross income. The workday is still rigorous, however, occupying the whole day and evening (restaurants close not at fixed hours but whenever the last customers leave).
China is a class-based society. The servers see all these people with their money and designer clothes and iPads who barely acknowledge their existence and yell at them on a whim. And they get back at rude customers with service slow-downs. With such a large staff on hand, the customer doesn’t know whom to blame. If you ask for the manager or boss, they will inevitably say, “The boss isn’t here today.” The boss is there all right, hiding in the back office, or you may even be speaking with the manager without realizing it, disguised in a waitperson’s uniform. Nobody at the restaurant including the owner wants to deal with complaining customers. So most customers don’t bother complaining, knowing it doesn’t do any good. They just don’t come back.
I have long experience at Chinese restaurants. I know how to deal politely with staff who provide bad service so as to avoid a further deterioration in service. The service slow-down at the Library wasn’t due to my being rude. It had nothing to do with me. It was being directed towards all customers. It was very subtle. The staff was polite, yet hostile. They may have taken great pride and amusement in flustering us and leaving us without any recourse. Except not to go back. Of course, they don’t care if we come back, since they don’t stand to benefit (with tips or raises). But I wonder if I will see the same at more and more establishments until changes occur across the board and service workers start getting treated with greater equality and respect. In short, they don’t much enjoy picking customers’ chopsticks off the floor anymore.
After lunch I had an errand to do at a B&Q (the UK version of Home Depot). In big American department stores and supermarkets, the male clerks stocking the shelves routinely ignore you whenever you need help, unless you happen to be a hot female. In China, this tactic doesn’t work: you are still ignored, no matter how big your boobs are. It was all the more surprising that this happened at an international chain rather than some local shop where classic Chinese store-clerk apathy would be on full display. Great strides have indeed been made in the emotional labor department—at no point was any clerk ever rude. They were always friendly, but very emphatic in denying that they had what I was looking for: wooden dowels to replace the cheap aluminum tubing supporting the glass shelves of my bookcases.
“They must have wooden dowels!” I exclaimed in exasperation to Jiejie, whom I had brought along to help out with the finer points of my request. So I can’t blame any misunderstanding on a language problem.
After ruling out the idea of such a thing as a wooden dowel, as though my eccentric foreigner request was intended to flummox him and waste his time, our first gentleman clerk suggested we go up to the north end of the second floor. There in the drapery department we found gorgeously finished sets of curtain rods, which could potentially be cut up in the right sizes to serve my purpose but which were rather pricey. We asked the girl if she knew where we could get the same wooden rods in a raw state. She didn’t know. “How about the supplying factory?” She gave us a blank stare.
I decided to have another look back down in the lumber department. We found long rectangular wooden sticks used for building fences and various types of grating, which might be cut to the right lengths to function as dowels, but I was worried the wood was too soft. In any case, the man said they couldn’t cut it because the cutting machine was broken. When would it be fixed? Sorry, but he didn’t know.
“You work at B&Q, which is a big corporation, and you can’t tell me when they will be able to fix the saw?”
“No,” he said with a polite smile.
Then we saw a stairway display with round wooden balusters. I wondered if we could track down the factory that made them. We asked a clerk in a nearby decorating department sectioned off living-room style with tables and chairs. He didn’t know. But he led us over to the lumber area again where he found an old scruffy guy who might. The guy brought us back to a lumber station not far from the broken-saw. We espied high up on the display wall a variety of unfinished wooden balusters and other shapes and sizes, but not the same ones as the previous balusters, which happened to be just the right diameter and quality of wood I was looking for.
The lady working this station happened to have the number of the supplying factory and made a phone call. She put Jiejie on the line. The factory person turned out to be a nice sort of guy. He seemed to think my request to bore a one-centimeter diameter hole through the dowels to allow in attaching cables was technically difficult but doable. He was even willing to come over to my apartment and see exactly what it was I wanted. But before he resorted to that he suggested we head over to the south end of the second floor of B&Q just in case the wooden dowels they sold there were what I needed.
So after talking to six B&Q workers in different departments, it took a guy who didn’t even work there to direct us to the right place over the phone. There they were, stocked in this department, what every clerk had denied existed and exactly what I was looking for. My aluminum dowels were 28.3mm long by 3.3mm thick. Here were hard, elegantly finished wooden dowels of precisely the same dimensions (must be a standard size) and designed for the same purpose, to be screwed together for building shelves.
I needed 160 of them. Apart from the ten on display, the clerk said there were no more in stock.
“No problem,” I said, “let’s order them.”
“We can’t do that,” she said.
“Because B&Q doesn’t have good relations with the supplier right now.”
“Well, when will they get better?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know. That’s the business of B&Q and the supplier.”
“So I can’t order them?”
“I will never be able to order them?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Not even ten years from now?”
“I really can’t say.”
You know by now that it never does any good in China to summon the manager, but even Jiejie was a bit flummoxed and did just that. A male clerk arrived who didn’t look much like a manager and gave us the same story.
At least we could go back to the friendly guy on the phone and see if he could reproduce the same wooden dowels at his factory. But then I noticed a telephone number on the packaging, and we gave the company a call. We encountered no relations problems and ordered the dowels on the spot at 60% of B&Q’s cost. They were promptly delivered to my apartment a few days later.
The moral of the story has something to do with the notion of flow. In China, everything is available and not available at the same time. The easiest way to make the not available available is through guanxi, or connections. Barring connections, you need to have a certain flair for patience. Or not exactly patience, nor hard-headed persistence, but a kind of haphazard perseverance which may or may not get you there, but it’s the only way of getting there and often does get you there.
Wiles can help as well. This is a refined skill, and foreigners in China have a steep learning curve. I’ll give a mundane example.
The bed provided by my landlord in Beijing had been recently purchased but was so cheap and shoddy, the two plywood supports underneath weren’t large enough for the metal frame and kept slipping out, putting great stress on the frame. It’s impossible to buy so flimsy a bed in the U.S. or anywhere else, since there is no country as adept at cutting production costs as China. Not long before the lease was up, the frame’s soft metal buckled and collapsed one day as I was having sex. I informed the landlord, not that I was having sex at the time of course (though any bed should be able to survive sex), but that the bed had unaccountably collapsed. He promptly came over to see the bed. “No problem!” he assured me, and agreed that a bed is not supposed to collapse.
When it was time to move out, however, he demanded I replace the bed. To avoid a protracted dispute, I decided to replace the bed myself and hunted around the city for the crappiest possible bed products. As expected, I found the exact same bed frame down to the brand and model for a mere 260 Yuan at a local downscale B&Q-type market called Jinwuxing. Meanwhile the landlord informed my employer (who had secured the apartment for me) that the broken bed had originally cost 3,000 Yuan.
“He can produce the receipt as proof,” said my employer, taking the landlord’s side.
“But he can show any receipt. He can create a fake receipt,” I said.
In fact, the landlord was rather upset to hear that I had replaced the identical bed frame, for that threatened the 3,000 he was hoping to wrest from me. He was caught off guard. I won, but only because I played my hand better on this occasion.
The day’s adventures continued. I stopped off at a local Beijing bakery chain known as Wedomé. A neighborhood bakery in the US would typically have two people on hand, one manning the counter and a baker in the kitchen. Here I counted a manager, three servers, four bakers and cake makers, and a janitor, all except the latter in their twenties, and all certainly out-of-towners from rural areas trying to get a foothold in the big city. The huge service industry keeps much of the Chinese population busy—literally so. These nine workers were already quite occupied with tasks when I entered (not looking busy would get them fired). But did the shop really need so many workers?
My made-to-order Black Forest cake—a housewarming present for another friend I was visiting that evening—was ready in only twenty minutes. The cake was a disaster. I mean I did have reasonable grounds for expecting it to conform somewhat to expectations. There was no possible linguistic confusion over the name, heisenlin, being a literal translation of “black forest” in Chinese, accompanied by a cross-section photo of the cake showing the signature layers of chocolate and cherry.
“Buhao yisi,” announced the female baker before starting on my cake. “Sorry, but we’re out of chocolate layers. Will plain vanilla cake do?”
“Okay, go ahead,” I said, unwilling to cancel the order.
I was tired and it took a minute for her words sink in. Then it hit me. What did she just say? She’s making a Black Forest Cake without chocolate cake on the inside? But it was too late.
“I sincerely apologize, but this is not a Black Forest Cake,” I confessed to my friend, once we had it out of the box and sliced open.
It looked okay on the outside, smothered in chocolate shavings, but what I got for a pricey 198 Yuan ($30) was indeed a plain yellow layer cake. Not only did it not even remotely resemble the rich dark German invention, it didn’t even taste good. Sweet and cakey but without even a hint of vanilla, and no proper voluptuously textured icing but thin whipped cream dividing the layers. Nor were there any cherries to be found.
I began to suspect they never had any chocolate layers and every time someone ordered a Black Forest they went through the same apology. Perhaps all of the cakes they sold were identical on the inside and differed only on the outside. Not that it would make much difference if they had used chocolate. I have yet to find a chocolate cake produced in a Chinese bakery that tastes like chocolate. If you were blindfolded you would not be able to identify the flavor. It’s just cake, the idea of cake, a jokester’s cake for flinging in the customer’s face, a symbolic “cake.” If they had filled the inside with jello or rice instead of cake, or simply left it hollow, with icing covering the surface of a cardboard shell, it would have been more honest. It was a classic example of a floating signifier, detached from the thing it is meant to signify. A negative cake. It was a “Black Forest” cake not by virtue of what it was but what it was not: any one of the other cakes on display. It filled the “Black Forest” slot that is obligatory in any bakery, a Chinese one included, regardless of what the thing was.
I couldn’t help seeing a connection between my Black Forest cake and the Chinese service industry. As long as this jokester’s cake is what the Chinese regard as a Black Forest cake, Wedomé will do good business. But what happens when local customers start becoming educated about cake? When the legions of service workers suddenly see through the pasteboard prop and realize that there’s more to life than waking up, making fake cake all day, and going back to bed? When they realize that everything they’ve been brought up to believe, the whole structure of expectations that gets them through the day, is nothing but a jokester’s cake?
* * *
Like this post? Buy the book (see contents):
At the Teahouse Café – Essays from the Middle Kingdom
The classic coffeehouse: Ten essentials
The Chinese-Japanese cultural chasm on display at Starbucks
From struggle sessions to public dressing-downs: China’s continuity of psychological control
The many faces of Chinese “face”
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