Working in Beijing is like being in a classroom where the teacher couldn’t be bothered passing on actual life skills and lessons, and has assigned pointless busywork instead. As she reads her teacher’s manual and counts down the minutes to smoke break, the class sits baffled while trying to figure out how colouring in-between the lines will give them the answer to e=Mc2. I never passed high school math but I bet I can colour inside the lines better than Einstein ever could. However, even in high school, my skills with a crayon were kept under strict control so as not to cause anarchy. I won’t tell you what happened in geography after I coloured Australia’s landmass blue and the surrounding seas green. Let’s just say my genius was not appreciated.
When I first came to this city, I had an intellectual understanding that the workforce was designed based not on actual need but on sheer population. I estimate that there are only 5 million actual jobs in this town — when I say “actual” I mean the paper pushing, red stamping variety. But when you have a population of 22 million and rising, you’d be surprised what gets classified as a job. To stop rampages of bored unemployed people roaming the streets looking for waitressing gigs and internships, Beijing took a proactive step and classified all pointless tasks as jobs. Which seemed to keep the masses at bay.
My absolute favourite of these bizarre occupations are the concrete cleaners. One day while sipping my Chinese coffee; before I progress I must note that a Chinese coffee is kind of like a European coffee except the only people who drink it are those who either have a disgusting caffeine habit or have an amazing imagination. So, there I am sipping my coffee and imagining real coffee as hard as I can when I noticed two middle-aged women squatting outside the entrance of an underground car park. Always a fan of odd Chinese middle-aged goings on, I put my cappuccino down and gazed intently out the window, prepared for the pair to start singing opera (I have actually seen this happen before). Instead, they pulled out a plastic bucket filled with soapy water and began scrubbing the concrete in earnest. Though I was a tad upset that singing wasn’t on today’s repertoire, my knowledge of Chinese employment strategies suddenly crossed over from the realm of intellectual to actual. Every five minutes or so a giant Land Rover would come roaring out of it’s underground cage and basically shit all over the work these women had just done. You don’t need to be the brightest button in the sewing kit to get that this is a demoralizing waste of time.
It was as if a giant light bulb had been placed above my head, turned on, smashed into a thousand pieces and presented to me as evidence of my newfound understanding. Everything became crystal clear: Beijing is just one giant unemployment agency where the only jobs left are those normally doled out to people on parole. You know you’re stretching the limits of reasonable when it’s acceptable for a carpet-cleaning machine to be used on sidewalks. I don’t know why I didn’t clue to this earlier on; after all I did work for a year at a dubious Chinese company that was the white-collar equivalent of concrete cleaning.
A few years ago I was stuck in the worst job of my life thus far. It was so bad that no matter how many wiser and older people tell me that worse things are yet to come in my lifetime, I feel confident that only a long and painful stint in hospital has the ability to trump this experience. My first “real” job (I take that to mean a job where I can’t show up in flip-flops and have a email account that doesn’t end in gmail.com) was as a communications manager in a Chinese company. Considering I didn’t speak any Chinese I thought this was hilarious. My job description told me that I had to produce newsletters and PR reports for our English-speaking clients. However, the reality was that I was supposed to convince our clients to spend house-deposit sized chunks of money on advertising. I felt somewhere along the line I’d missed something. Perhaps they didn’t read my resume properly. Perhaps they thought “arts graduate” actually meant business savvy and sales oriented. I had no business doing business, of any kind.
After trying and failing miserably to convince people that I was a businesswoman who knew what she was talking about; the kind of woman who didn’t bat an eyelid at the thought of their client spending 25 thousand Australian dollars on a Chinese representative they knew did nothing aside from play an online vegetable planting game, I was given a wake-up call. I was being played. Totally and comprehensively played.
Just like my concrete cleaning, middle-aged women light bulb moment, I realized I was being forced into pointless busywork simply so that I’d be on-hand for group appearances. In China, one white person is worth ten of any other race, even their own. The politically correct part of me feels the need to state that this is changing, and it’s now Chinese-speaking white people who hold the most currency in Chinese office cubicles. I was, for lack of a better term, the stupid white person they could parade in front of clients for cheap thrills. It helped their cause that I am painfully blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Even my mother refers to me as “Aryan-looking.”
A perfect example of the sheer time-wasting nature of my job was the first time I was dragged into a finance meeting — in Chinese I may add. Firstly, Chinese meetings are on par with marathons in terms of length and endurance capabilities. Secondly, I feel the need to reiterate that I know nothing about math and therefore zero about the financial situation of a company. This was inconsequential to every single person in the room: They just wanted to look at me when they got bored of looking at the power point presentation. I was Chinese businessman eye candy, not unlike a pencil skirt-wearing receptionist circa 1954.
I couldn’t help but feel I should have actually been doing real work while all this was going on; like figuring out how to con my next Western client out of their hard earned cash. But my place, it seemed, was here. Every now and then, someone would say in English, “We should slow down so that Imogen understands what’s going on.” At that point of my Chinese-language acquisition, the only way I could have understood what they were saying was if they slowed down to the point of picking up tenses and a distinctly Latin-based vocabulary. I just smiled shyly and said, “No problem” (the only Chinese I could use confidently at the time). If you’re a white woman in trouble in China, this line combined with a coy smile will melt the heart of even the most violent psycho-killer. The room of men made a collective “awww” sound, like I was a puppy trying to lick the last of the peanut butter out of the jar, and went back to their meeting.
In short, my first real job in China (and anywhere for that matter), consisted of me correcting Chinglish and sitting crossed legged during three-hour-long meetings. In that sense, it’s not unlike cleaning concrete. You’re constantly trying to do a good job, but at the end of the day the only thing that matters is that you show up, let people ride all over you and try not to say anything rude.