Introduction: Embracing Your Inner Lazy Bastard

Excerpt from The Lazy Bastard Guide to Mandarin

Several years ago, on the last day of my second trip to Fujian Province, I was standing in line to board a plane at Xiamen International Airport (IATA code: XIA). Someone at the front of the line had lost their boarding pass. The line crawled to a halt. The guy behind me wouldn’t stop pushing. With every baby step forward, he drove his chest into my backpack with no sign of backing off. He leaned in to me with purpose, as if it were my fault the line wasn’t moving. Even more irritating was the fact that we were the last two people in line.

Coming soon in digital and print-on-demand formats.

The guy was so close I could smell mothballs on his clothing and cigarettes on his breath. Meanwhile, I kept a healthy and respectful “airport distance” from the person in front of me, which only made things worse. The guy continued to press into my backpack, which for reference was modestly-sized, meaning not one of those obnoxious backpacker contraptions with tents and sleeping bags and cookware, however the physical contact gave me reasonable cause for concern that the guy might be trying to steal something from the outer pockets of the backpack—that is, if I were stupid enough to keep anything of value in one of the outer pockets, which I wasn’t.

At any rate, vaguely annoyed, I turned slightly and scowled over my shoulder, making peripheral eye contact with the guy. Blank stare. I stepped slightly to the right. I felt him shift and shadow my position. The guy was not oblivious to his intrusion of my personal space, he was purposefully disturbing it. What should I do? What should I say?

Most people say nothing. They tolerate it. The “line” scenario is one of the more exasperating aspects of traveling in China, aside from the fact that you’re traveling in China. Squat toilets, smoking in elevators, appalling pollution, horrific environmental destruction, and spitting in public are common sights, however in the grand scheme of things, tolerable. In my experience, the Chinese are inherently averse to waiting in line; they generally don’t form lines as we recognize them except when forced to in airports and places where armed soldiers are found.[1] Otherwise, they disregard the whole waiting-your-turn thing. The Chinese (and generally Asian) idea of a line is an agitated swarm which could break into violence at any moment. However, in the more cosmopolitan cities, the courtesy is extended as a show of ‘civilization’ among the middle and upper-classes.

In Taipei, Taiwan, a thoroughly modern and sophisticated city of 2.3 million people, the majority of adults will stand in line while waiting to board the MRT, respectfully mindful of personal space. On the other hand, spend any amount of time in a Taiwan convenience store[2] and you will encounter the odd old-timer who simply grabs his bottle of distilled sorghum liquor (gaoliang [gah-ow lee-angh] 高粱) and makes a bee-line for the cash register, ignoring the five-deep queue waiting to purchase their snacks. No one bats an eye. There’s no sassy kid who pipes up, “Hey Mister, the line is back here.” There may be a period of acclimation but the line scenario is where your inner lazy bastard is free to shine. When in China, do as the Chinese. So unless I’m in one of those places where a line is enforced, I don’t care how many people are milling around, I walk straight to the counter and make my transaction. Nobody is going to say shit to a foreigner, you can count on that.[3]

Minor inconveniences are superficial and you can’t dwell on them. On the surface, some Chinese—particularly men—may appear to be willfully ignorant of the inconvenience and discomfort they may be causing others. This is due largely to Western sensibilities about public decorum and the concept of personal space, which the Chinese, generally speaking, have yet to embrace. I’ll say this: their apparent “rudeness” is not limited to foreigners. They treat their neighbors and comrades the same way, too. Passive-aggressive behavior and intrusion of personal space aren’t just minor irritations in Chinese society, they’re dueling national obsessions.

Over time, I developed the opinion that the guy pushing from behind is like a single sperm cell in the ejaculation of life, and getting on that plane, or that bus, or that train, is the egg. The sperm is single-minded. It doesn’t regard me (or waiting patiently in line) as anything more than an obstacle in its path. The Chinese urge to swarm is instinctual. To try and stop it would be like trying to stop rednecks from saying “Show us your tits!”

***

Patience in Chinese society seems to be reserved for other, intangible things, most of which I’ve yet to identify. In situations where money is exchanged, if you know what you want, there’s not much to stop you from getting it. The main reason you absolutely must be able to say “I want” (wo yao [whoa-yow] 我要) in Mandarin is that once you muscle to the ticket counter at the bus station, you have exactly one second to make your point. In Chinese society, there is absolutely nothing impolite about jostling to the front of a crowded ticket counter in a bus station, raising your index finger, and saying to the woman behind the counter, “I want to go to Shanghai” (wo yao qu Shanghai), even better if you can say “first-class ticket.” The only words out of your mouth she will understand are “want” “go” and “Shanghai.” What more do you need? Even though she may only understand “Shanghai,” the context is clear. Then all you have to do is point to “sleeper bus” in your trusty Mandarin phrasebook.

The Chinese love decisiveness and generally speaking give foreigners a wide berth when they see you coming. If you stumble, if you pause for one moment, forget it. Someone else will squeeze in and what’s worse, you’ll be marked as a fool. No one is going to let you get past them again. You will be given the benefit of the doubt unless you prove yourself incompetent. Once marked as a fool, you’ll be saddled with a lack of empathy from the ticket agent, not being able to speak Mandarin, and not knowing what the hell you want. In other words, you couldn’t be any more fucked.

Make no mistake. There was a way to stop the guy in the airport from pushing. Two syllables in Mandarin will do the trick. But to say them, you gotta know what they are. And you gotta have some balls. You gotta be a bit of a bastard.

***

The more culturally-sensitive readers are going to howl when they hear this but, Lazy Bastards shouldn’t have to make an effort to learn 2,500 characters of a foreign language—2,500 being the approximate number of characters one would need to know to read a Chinese newspaper. Never mind the fact this number represents a little more than 5% of some 47,000 mostly archaic characters to choose from.

The laziest of bastards doesn’t need to master the five tones which modify each and every Mandarin particle, preposition, noun and verb. Forget dealing with semantics and grammar. Here’s why: English is the lingua franca of the modern world. Learning Chinese—specifically Mandarin—is only a matter of circumstantial convenience. Relax, the Chinese are learning English. The Chinese and especially the Taiwanese are crazy about language schools. You can’t go 500 meters in Taipei without crossing a language institute of some sort. [4]

Therefore, there is little reason to learn Mandarin unless you happen to find yourself in a place where it is the only language spoken. In which case, you need to know a little bit of Mandarin—no shit. Lazy Bastards all over the world can expectorate a simultaneous, “Rats!”  You know what? Fuck it, you could simply stay home. But then you’d be depriving the world of your bastardness and frankly, you’re not so lazy as to do that. Besides, it’s no fun being a bastard at home all alone.

***

Going back to the pushy guy at the airport in Xiamen. I felt like I was being culturally sensitive by giving him the benefit of a direct yet non-verbal clue. That didn’t work. I tried playing his passive-aggressive game by leaving space between me and the person ahead. That plan backfired. Now, I had a choice. I could shrug it off or I could “go bastard.”

They found the boarding pass. The line started moving. I took the next step forward and waited. I felt the push. Then I said it.

Bu yao! 不要

What I said was the Mandarin catch-all phrase for “Stop it!”, “No thanks”, “I don’t want it”, “Leave me alone”, and but the way I said it—with anger and force—meant, “Hey, motherfucker, stop pushing.” Just about anything else you would need a negative to express yourself can be done with bu yao [boo as in “boo”: scary, and yow, as in Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets]. In this case, the pushy guy knew exactly what I meant. And I’m not going to lie to you: he was pretty fucking surprised to hear it coming out of my mouth. But he did stop pushing. For about two goddamn minutes. Then he went back to being my 60-kilogram shadow until we actually boarded the plane and I was reminded why it pays to fly business class.


[1]                I have a theory that all human stampede events actually get started in China and reverberate across the globe until they hit perfect pitch or critical mass, take your pick.

[2]                 See Glossary of Terms:  bianlidian.

[3]                There are two reasons for this. (1) They assume you don’t know the commercial transaction pecking order, therefore you must be totally lost and confused and the last thing anybody is going to do is try and set you straight [See Glossary of Terms: bangzhu]. (2) They further assume you don’t speak Chinese and they are most likely terrified to speak English, so even if they had the chutzpah to politely inform you that in fact, they were next in line, it ain’t going to happen—ahem, unless by some odd chance there’s an ABC nearby (See Glossary of Terms: dianti) and don’t worry, they’ll pipe up. Vaguely Related Anecdote: You gotta be careful not to get too used this since you may at some point return to visit your home country, where it is not acceptable public behavior, and habits are hard to break, as I have learned the hard way.

[4]               OK, for the sake of argument, imagine that you’re over here for the long haul, if not The Long Haul, maybe just a longer haul, and you think, “I gotta learn how to speak some fucking Chinese, man.” Some folks go to Mandarin classes, which are super cheap by Western standards. Should you choose to go that route then I suppose you are truly not Lazy Bastard material and are now reading this purely for entertainment, in which case I would like to remind you: the time and money spent in that classroom—or reading this—would be much better spent getting real-time experience.

Read another excerpt from the book, Axioms of Ease and the Ten Sacred Phrases

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