life in the danwei (work unit)

3.26.05 (dubyruby)

Since it’s been nearly eight years since I last took a class in spoken Chinese, I’ve forgotten the everyday politenesses that they teach you at first. The result is that, although I can converse comfortably with people on any number of topics, from history to politics to the nitty-gritty of making a living in America, some of the most basic interactions leave me feeling uneasy or unprepared. Much of the routine friendly language in Chinese amounts to stating the obvious, and it’s hard to know how to respond. “You’re going out,” they’ll say when you leave (and you’re supposed to say, “I’m leaving first,” when you go), and “You’ve come back,” they’ll say when you return. “You’ve come,” they’ll say the first time you appear on a given day. Around lunch and dinner time, one person will greet another by saying, “Have you eaten yet?” And the other person will respond either yes or no, presumably corresponding to the fact of the matter. But it’s not a real question—it’s a dummy question, a place-holder, like Americans’ “How you doin’?” Nobody really wants to know how you doin’. It’s just a greeting.

This might be (I reassure myself) why the bicycle guard-cum-gardener here at the Chinese Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine (CACTM) so underestimated the amount of time I’ve been learning Chinese. The other day I was chatting with him at the bike lot that he oversees (and where, incidentally, he also lives, in a tiny one-room guard booth), and he wanted to know how long I’d been studying Chinese.
“Guess,” I replied.
“Two years.” TWO years? Ouch, buddy, would you mind taking your foot off what’s left of my ego before we continue this conversation?
“Um, no…much longer than that.”
“Really? Well, there was another foreigner here before—an American, like you, and s/he [there is only one pronoun in Chinese, so gender is ambiguous] spoke such amazing Chinese, it was just like a Chinese person. S/he had only been taking it for two years, and s/he spoke to me so politely I could hardly believe it! ‘Shifu, mafan nin…’ S/he told me s/he was only here for a few weeks to study.”
“Was s/he huayi (of Chinese descent)?” I asked, suspicious.
“Oh, no, s/he was chun (pure), like you.” Oh well.

Anyway, I like talking with the gardener-guard, funny old fellow that he is. He must see just about everybody at the Academy as they drop off and pick up their bicycles, and people often come to him with their bike problems. He’s the guy who sold me (through Zhou Libo) the bike I have now. We kind of tricked him—at the first bicycle repair stand ZLB and I went to together, we were offered a bike for some outrageous foreigner price. So at the next place ZLB turned to me about a block away and said, “Wait here. It’s better if I go by myself.” Finally she got the gardener-guard to offer her the bike I have now for 80 RMB, about 10 bucks. When we came back together to finalize the deal, he said, “Oh, your friend is a foreigner,” in a voice that mixed frustration with admiration—as though acknowledging that he’d been bested in the game this time.

There’s an identifiable type for most kinds of jobs in China, just as there is in the US. The occupants of guard booths are almost invariably like the bike lot guard: older men, smokers (but who isn’t?), generally much more cranky than my cheerful ego-crushing friend. Of course, the guards I’ve met in the past probably were cranky because they had just been roused from slumber by American students returning at midnight or later from a night on the town, knocking to be let back in to the dormitory.

It used to be that they locked the doors of residential buildings like dormitories and hotels at 10 pm or so and if you wanted to get back in you had to wake up the night watchman—this may still be the case, for all I know. I returned last Sunday night a little later than 10 pm to find the nightwatchman sitting in the foyer reading a newspaper and smoking. I asked him, “What time should I come back to the hotel at night?”
“Whenever you want,” he said. “It’s none of our business when you come and go.”
“But I guess I should let you know when I’m going to be late?”
“No, it’s your own business when you come and go.”
“Oh.” I said, surprised, and turned to walk up the stairs.
“It’s just that…” Ah, yes.
“…you are a foreign guest here, and of course when you don’t come back, we all feel uncomfortable. Like tonight, I asked the others if they had seen you. And nobody had seen you. We thought, That’s strange. So we knocked on your door and no one answered. Naturally we wondered if something had happened to you. No, we don’t care when you come or go. That’s your own business. But you are a foreign guest. Shi zheyang (It’s like that, see?).”
Mental note: tell somebody next time you’re going to be late.

Little guard booths are tucked away in every corner of the campus, most of the time doubling as one-room homes with makeshift curtains tacked up in the windows. The guard who occupies the booth nearest the hotel where I live has a dirty white kitten he lets in and out every now and then. It’s the only case I’ve seen so far of someone caring for a cat in China. Most people who have an animal have a dog (as a friend was saying last night, “Before gaige kaifang (reform and opening, the Deng Xiaoping era starting in 1978), everybody raised pigs; since gaige kaifang, everybody raises dogs. Before gaige kaifang, everybody stayed married; since gaige kaifang, everybody gets divorced”). Or a bird—old men, especially, like to raise little birds. They bring their pets out on sunny afternoons and hang the compact bamboo cages on the branches of trees (in a sort of simulation of nature?) while the owners sit nearby and chat or play cards. And some people like to raise pigeons, too. It’s easy to spot where they live, because theirs are the apartments with weird, elaborate cages built around the windows. If you walk around in the morning or after dinner, you can often see the pigeon-tamer waving a long stick out of the window, like a fishing pole with a wind sock attached to the end. And usually at the same time you will see a small flock of a dozen or so pigeons flying around in circles. The wind sock, I’m told, brings them back home.

Living in a work unit (like the CATCM) in Beijing kind of feels like living in college in Cambridge. Everyday life—eating in the cafeteria, socializing, sleeping, takes place inside the walls of the compound and you all live together, all the time. Outside the walls of the compound is the craziness of the city, the honking horns, the gawking hillbillies, the deranged man shouting at passersby, the hundreds upon hundreds of shops. But inside is a kind of quiet, ordinary intimacy that can be both delightful and suffocating. It’s a 1960s model that is on its way out, I believe. Nowadays, new apartment buildings go up all the time in Beijing, and already, the faculty and those students and employees who can afford it rent or own houses in another part of town. Soon Beijing will be more like an American city, with everybody living in one place and working in another. But Cambridge? Its tradition of life in a work unit is a little older than China’s—by about 800 years. So I imagine they’ll live in college for a while longer.