The Chinese may not have embraced capitalism as an economic system (not openly that I know of) but consumerism is in full bloom. A google search (oops, no google here), an internet search of luxury malls in Shanghai will surprise you. It did me. Not in a negative way. The heavens know how little choice the general population had experienced in previous times. Not that they weren’t content. (You can’t miss what you’ve never known). My sense is that, given the longevity of their country and culture, the Chinese simply have a way of making do. Currently, they are “making do” with options galore. Not crass, garish or trashy options. High end options. Tasteful options. Well made options. This is one genie that’s not going back into the bottle any time soon.
I watched as the concierge rewrote my English letters into Chinese characters. Water into wine. Scribblings into art. His fingers moved rapidly, precisely and, to my eye, with finesse. For the whole of the thirty seconds it took him, I was mesmerized. Then the American in me took over and I said, “Do that again, will ya?” He looked at me, sincere and confused. I told him that I was only kidding, but I wasn’t really. I could’ve watched him write the weather forecast with as much appreciation. I’ve been told that written Chinese characters have subtle variations in their construction that communicate to the reader specific inflections and shifts in meaning. My theory is that long ago their rulers and writers had discovered how often and easily something in writing could be read differently than the writer had intended. (We’ve all experienced that in modern times with our emails and texts). So, their characters developed nuance…additional marks that more clearly indicated the precise intention behind the word. Presently, we’ve resorted to emoticons as our solution to this problem. 🙂 They’re a work in progress.
Our first meal in China came after we had checked into the room. We were rather wiped out by the travel yet wanted some real food before attempting to sleep. The casual restaurant adjacent to the hotel lobby was our choice. We were its sole diners at 8:30pm on a Saturday night. We were outnumbered by the staff standing around 4 to 1. That was just fine by us and we were well attended to. So much so that, when the check came, we wanted to be sure to leave a good tip. Neither of us knew what the custom or norm for a gratuity was. My wife, on her way back from the ladies room, asked the bartender our question. There was a flurry of activity that involved the summoning of several other employees and an animated discussion ensued. I watched this all from the safety of our table. Soon enough, my wife came back and reported that they had no idea of what a tip was. It was a foreign concept with no point of reference. It was a simple matter for us to calculate a percentage amount as a token of our appreciation. My wife wanted to give it to our server personally. She walked back to the bar and gave the money to the server with her thanks. The server laughed delightedly, as if my wife had told her a clever but dirty little joke, and turned to her coworkers who also laughed and seemed genuinely appreciative of the colleague’s good fortune. As we exited the restaurant, we stepped up to the check in desk. Curiosity had gotten the better of us. We asked our question again and the three clerks on duty, each speaking relatively good English, did not know the word ‘tip’ nor were they familiar with the concept of giving a gratuity. We were too tired to pursue the issue and shuffled off to the elevator.