I didn’t bring much in the way of clothes for a year in China. About five changes of necessaries, two pairs of pants, a jacket and a hoodie.
On top of it all, there is one item of clothing that I never leave home without, even though, curiously enough, I don’t remember putting it on. My laowai cloak. My laowai cloak is invisible to me, but it says on the back in big Chinese characters: “Please Cut In Front Of Me.”
It is so lightweight that I often forget I’m wearing it, until I find myself in line at a bus station, airport, food counter or major tourist attraction.
I was checking in at the airport the other day, and there was a tour group ahead of me. At first I assumed these people going in front of me were other members of the group. After a while I realized, there were now several groups in front of me. They would send one member in with all the IDs and then the rest of the group would follow with their luggage. When I reached the front, the flow of cutters finally stopped. When I looked behind me I figured out why.
I was only one left.
Even though I was now first in line, the group at the counter was taking a long time. Eventually the line behind me grew again and the agent motioned for me to go to the next counter opening up. By the time I moved two feet to the next agent, the woman behind me had already jumped over the rope and was handing her family’s four ID cards to the agent.
“I believe I was next,” I said. Nothing. “I have been in this line a long, long time.” Nothing. “People keep cutting in front of me. All I want to do is check in!”
This was the most disruptive outburst I have made since arriving in China. The agent felt my frustration and checked me in simultaneously with the family of four.
In some parts of the world, people look at a line and by default stand behind the last person in it. But in China that is the last place you would stand. You want to stand as close to the front of that line as possible. For the person at the end of the line is a sucker, probably a laowai.
My fellow laowai and I have discussed behaviors we’ve adopted to avoid being victims:
- Stand touching the person in front of you. (I often feel like there’s someone going through my backpack, but no. They’re just marking their territory. In fact, in China it’s considered rude not to make bodily contact with the person ahead of you in a line/mob.)
- Put your arms out to the side and pretend to be an airplane
- With feet apart, be prepared to shift in either direction when the inevitable ambush comes.
I once asked a woman in Xiamen, as a man cut in front of us at the ferry to Gu Lang Yu, why cutting is so common in China. “Uneducated people cut,” she corrected me. It opened my eyes to a whole new social stratification, to which I was previously, and still am, oblivious. It could be only ten percent of the population do this, but they are the ones I notice. (Okay, more likely the percentage is 90%, but still…)
In Shanghai, Alison mentioned that to prepare for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai Expo there were widespread media campaigns teaching people to queue. That it was in fact worse beforehand. So perhaps there was a Learn-to-Queue Day and those who ditched are henceforth deemed uneducated.
Either way, I’ve always thought of China as a place where the rules are rigorously enforced, and maybe that’s why in arenas where the rules aren’t enforced, anything goes.
An expat friend had a different theory. For much of the 20th century, life was pretty rough in mainland China. We’re not talking “can’t afford basic cable” rough, but real rough. Not-enough-food rough. Though things are better now, you’re still one in a billion over here, and if you want to make it in the New China—getting a good education, landing that job, earning that promotion—it’s not enough to be smarter and stronger and braver. There are ten other peers as smart and strong and brave as you. So you better get to the front of that line any way possible.
The transportation system, for example, always errs on the side of selling out. Buses, trains, planes are booked to capacity, and an empty seat next to you is a rare novelty. If you cut in line, you may be chewed out by the clerk (Actually, you won’t be. Never. Not in a million years.) but if the Bus of Opportunity leaves without you, who knows when the next one’s scheduled to depart?
On the plane ride to China in February I watched a scifi movie called In Time about a world in which currency has been replaced by time. In other words, minutes taken off or added to your life. Justin Timberlake plays a poor guy posing as a member of the wealthy elite. A rich woman points out to him that she can tell he’s poor because he moves too quickly. He’s always in a hurry. Rich people, she explains, take their time. They have decades, even centuries of extra life stockpiled.
Sometimes I feel like an elephant over here in a crowd, a member of the calmly-sauntering ‘In Time’ elite. Rich, if not in money, then in patience. Although to others I must appear more like just another a slow-moving, dim-witted foreigner, protected by a thin veil of perceived security and weighed down by that ever-present laowai cloak.
I queue; therefore I am (a laowai).