方便: China’s obsession with convenience

The first foodstuff I learned the name for in Chinese (and successfully remembered) was instant noodles.

方便面

Fangbianmian: convenient noodles – not instant, convenient.

Funny way to describe the feeling of precariousness that is walking down the aisle of a packed train, clutching a cardboard packet full of msg, spices and boiling water, a plastic fork jammed onto one edge of the flimsy rim to keep the plastic lid from curling up with the heat. Because train food is the primary use of convenient noodles, and that is all I can picture when I hear the word: that walk from the hot water machine in the gap between the carriages crowded by standing smokers and desperate passengers waiting for the bathroom, pushing between the standing tickets and stepping over those who brought a tiny stool to sit on.

This blissful convenience follows hours of queuing on the platform, queuing to be allowed onto the platform, queuing for the security check to enter the station, queuing for tickets at the windows outside the station – this is tough for everyone, not just foreigners (though the language barrier tends to confound the problem). Unless you are a Hukou / ID card holder AND able to book your tickets online AND happen to be travelling from a station that happens to have an automated ticket machine (many smaller stations do not), you’ll be in that queue before you travel. Whether you are taking the slow train or the gaotie (literally: tall metal or high weapon), independent of where / when you’re going and how much you will spend, buying a ticket means queuing. Most people go to the station days or weeks in advance to buy and/or collect their tickets. Foreigners cannot use the automated machines and therefore must always queue, because an international passport cannot be used like a Chinese ID card. Even if you booked online, you’ll be queuing. Now that’s my idea of convenience.

“It’s really convenient to get here.”

My student-now-boss says this to me as we step into the rain of Langfang and out of a vast, empty station 40 miles south of Beijing in Hebei province at 9.05am. Well yes, it is marginally more convenient than simply driving (and certainly cheaper, if you don’t own a car), but it is not convenient to wake up to a 6.30 alarm, leave the house at 7.15, and board a train at 8.45 to get to a 10.30am class on my only day off this week. Right now, nothing seems convenient.

That certainly got me thinking. Despite assertions of convenience, very little in China is actually convenient. Whether at the bank, the hospital, the post office, or the train station, organised queues will plague your every move. Take the post office for example: there is a queue for the stand selling envelopes and boxes where your purchase will be a decision made by the worker, who gives out her opinion gratis, then another queue to pay for said purchase. Next a queue for the man who packs your parcel the way he likes, and will offer a mianfei explanation on how to write an address properly (particularly if you’ve chosen to send your dongxi in a plastic burlap sack). Finally, a queue to post the damn thing, if you haven’t already broken down in tears of frustration and left, resigned to return when you have hours to waste.

Going to the bank is worse. All kinds of restrictions stare a foreigner in the face. Only some services are available, only certain quantities of foreign cash can be granted per day, every consultation requires several forms of ID, and all these joys await at the other end of a very long, well-organised queue. A visit to the bank in China can make or break the day. If you can successfully jump through the hoops, you might well be rewarded with the service you showed up for. I have been lucky enough, on several occasions, to come away with the $500 USD I went in for, earlier in the day when it was still light out. Otherwise, you might reach the bank and be turned away because the existing queue is too long just now, or you may sit and wait for a while only to be told by a more accomplished English-speaker that they cannot help you today – someone else cleared them out earlier today – or you might get half way through the long awaited meeting only to be refused the new bank card you desperately need because the banker has decided not to believe the problem you’ve been living for weeks.

And the hospital? There’s a queue for the reception, where you will be invoiced for a consultation in whichever department you’ve chosen. There is a queue to pay the invoice at a separate window. There is a queue for the lift. There is a queue for the consultation, provided the doctor showed up that day. There is a queue for the lift, again. There is a queue at a third window where you pay for your prescription, and a queue at a fourth where you collect your medicine. There is no possible way you are going to make it to whatever it is you have to do that day.

From my limited experience, there seems to be no such thing as a clinic for specific medical issues, just departments in hospitals. There are, however, telephone queues if you want to book an appointment. You can book a week ahead of your desired date, at the earliest, but all the appointments will have been allocated by 8am on the day you call.

Convenience is a myth for the majority of Chinese people. A myth lived out only by the elite, those rich enough to consider time more important than money. For everyone else, it is a long perpetuated lie cast by the shadow of capitalism hanging over the lives of 1.4 billion people. A lie many no longer believe will ever come true.

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