Thursday, December 29, 2011

Culture Corner: The Queue

There are two kinds of queue in China, and the following describes them more than accurately.

The first is kind of hairstyle. Not worn anymore but in theater and in movies, it was not so long ago that Chinese men kept the front half of their scalp shaved (like drawing a line from ear to ear) and allowed the back half to grow the remainder of their lives braided in a long tail. If any of you have seen the movie "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon", the men in this film sport a queue. Not particularly attractive, it is like a  prehistoric ancestor to the mullet - short in front, long in back.

Speaking of mullets, I have seen a handful here in Nanjing, but they always seemed unintentional, like the bearer hadn't gotten around to getting a haircut. This is surely a sign their culture is still developing into the pinnacle of mullet infestation our society represents.

The second type of queue is indeed a group of people waiting for something, but it does not resemble a queue in the western world. Rather than being linear in shape, it is instead roughly crescent shaped and seething.  Filled with a jostling, shouldering rabble, the common idea is to thrust elbows and fists in the direction of the attendant behind a counter while pushing forward with your body.  The attendant, by contrast, remains calm and serene, picking and choosing at random from whatever sweaty hand is wildly waving in their face. 

As you can imagine, it is frustrating standing with this lot, waiting patiently your turn, only to have a man walk up and wriggle himself into the single millimeter between you and the person in front of you, having no thoughts other than the hope his thrusting hand is chosen next. And indeed there have been a few occasions when "Chinese culture" became too much for me, and I waited in "line" too long and been frustrated to the point that I put my “size advantage” to use, and, using both hands, physically moved people out of my way. I'd feel bad if they cared, but they don't notice.  Rather than being an unimportant person behind them, I become a wall to blindly reach through hoping the attendant's roll of the dice comes up with their hand next in front of them.

I tell my students that while Chinese food is better than Western food, they will enjoy standing in a queue when they reach the Western university of their choice, that is, versus re-enacting scenes from Gladiator to simply get school papers processed. Who would have thought I'd ever tell anyone they'd enjoy standing in line?

I blame the second queue on overpopulation, but that is certainly the subject of several more culture corners.

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