Elevators as metaphor….
Is my company elevator a microcosm of all China? Often I think so. You would be surprised at the number of expatriates who, when describing the unique way of doing things in China, put riding on elevators at the top of their lists of cultural anomalies.
First, there is getting into the elevator. I was at first rather startled in Hong Kong when some of the people barged into elevators without waiting for others to exit, and I have to admit I never fully got used to it. As is so often the case, you can take this Hong Kong tendency and multiply it several times to arrive at the scenario in China. I have literally pushed people, sometimes as hard as I could, because they simply refuse to let me out of the elevator here. They feel an odd compulsion to charge in, which only slows down the process for everyone, including themselves. After all, people still have to get out, only now they have to squeeze and push and slither in order to do so.
But that’s just the beginning. Then there is the way people here interact with those little buttons you press for the desired floor. As always, the button lights up after you touch it, indicating the floor has been selected. And yet, for reasons that remain unclear to me, many people here feel they must push the same button again and again, often with extreme vigor. At first I thought it was a fluke, then I realized I was seeing it all the time. As though hitting it again and again would guarantee a faster ride.
Many elevators (if not most) in the US don’t have a Door Close button, only Door Open. This would be inconceivable to the Chinese, for whom the Door Close button is sacred, an integral part of their elevator-riding experience. I can state as a categorical truth that I have never ridden an elevator in China in which other riders have not insisted on pushing the Door Close button repeatedly. Usually one person in every elevator has the unspoken task of pushing the Door Close button. As the elevator stops at different floors to let people on and off, it is this person’s task to keep his or her finger pushed firmly against the Door Close button at all times. It appears to be an extension of the tendency here to do everything as quickly as possible. You barge into the elevator. You hit your floor button again and again because maybe, just maybe that will help get you there faster. And you constantly hit the Door Close button because you might shave a few fractions of a second off of your ascent/descent time.
On a rare occasion when I was alone in my company elevator I had a unique opportunity to test whether these actions, performed with such zeal, truly made a difference. I hit the button for my floor five or six times, but oddly enough it seemed to move at the exact same speed as when I hit it only once. Then I pressed the button for the floor before mine, and after the elevator stopped I did something that few if any Chinese have ever dared to do: I just stood there and I did not touch the Door Close button. Know what? The door still closed, after exactly the same time that it does when you are slamming mercilessly on the Door Close button. Since then I have wanted to share my discovery with others in my building, to tell them that they were only wasting energy and fooling themselves. But they’d laugh at me and say I was crazy. This is just the way they do it here. Standing up in the airplane and grabbing your hand luggage before the plane even touches the ground doesn’t get you off the plane any faster (nor is it very safe). But that’s how they do it.
I was recently delighted to learn that I am not the only foreigner who has made observations like these. My colleague sent me to this site, which had me laughing for days (though if you haven’t lived in China, it might not be so funny).
Almost 3 p.m. Time for me to barge into the elevator, push the Door Close button and get some coffee. I swear it’s rubbing off on me.
NOTE: I just discussed this piece with my Chinese colleague Amy, because I was afraid some might misinterpret it as an “attack” as opposed to what I intend it to be, i.e., an observation. Amy said I wasn’t strong-worded enough. “If you ever went to the bus station here and saw the kicking and the shoving when people are fighting for a seat you would not believe it,” she lectured me. She told me it would take a few more generations before the process of getting on a bus or an elevator becomes kinder and gentler. I don’t know; the fact that she is so aware of it, as are so many of the young people I work with, gives me a lot of hope that China may emerge as a class act sooner than one might suspect.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.