Monday, January 30, 2012

How to catch a killer

A month or so ago, a boss and his assistant went to the bank to withdraw 200, 000 RMB (roughly 32, 000 USD) for year end bonuses. A man walked up to them and shot the assistant point blank. He stuffed all the cash into his black duffel bag and took off.

The bank robber took public transport for his getaway. That's frugality at its extreme. And it's amazing that the policemen still weren't able to apprehend him on the bus.

And now this killer is thought to be running loose in my city. At least, that's what all the WANTED posters tell me.

While I haven't seen too many wanted posters, except in old cowboy movies, I cannot help but judge whoever made the ones that are posted on every lamp post.

This is how the posters describe the man:

Male / Medium height / Has a slight tan / Facial features are evenly spaced / Speaks Mandarin with an accent / Looks mean / Wears hats and gloves / Doesn't socialize much / Walks with his toes pointed outwards

Um. I just want to point out that everybody in China has some sort of an accent, unless you're a broadcaster or a (very good) foreigner learning Chinese. As for facial features, I guess they're saying that he's not ugly. You can judge for yourself.

Even though these photos are all over town, camouflage will be easy: Just don't wear a hat, walk properly, talk once in a while, and smile.

I think he kind of looks like Bruce Lee from the side. Don't you?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

China doesn't breed pushovers

1 am. Doha airport. Waiting to board a flight back to Shanghai.

Around 80 travelers, mostly Chinese people who escaped obligatory family reunions during Chinese New Year by exporting themselves out of the affordable long-distance calling range, stood in a small glass room. There were two sliding doors, each on opposite ends. An airport bus pulled up on the right side, as if ready to pick up the people in the room and send them to their planes. The people hurried over, dragging carry on bags and crying children, determined to get in front. Competitive elbowing followed. After five minutes, the door still remained shut. The bus drove away, empty.

A few minutes later, another bus pulled up next to the door, but this time on the left side of the room. The crowd swarmed to the other side, showing even less restraint in their aggressive edging. Once again, the bus taunted the jet lagged bunch and drove away.

This scene happened four times, with the crowd rushing from one door to the other, all desperate to be the front of the line. 

4 observations:

1. There is no overt advantage in being in the front of the line. Instead, you get stuck at the back of the bus and end up being the last one to board.

2. There are enough buses to take everybody to the planes.

3. The travelers look well-educated, well-off, and well-coiffed. It is understandable to rush over to the door the first time, and maybe even the second. But the third and the fourth? Somebody must have seen the pattern of the faithless buses and hesitated. But instead, the people became more and more determined in vying for the first spot in front of the doors.

4. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. I was really hoping that the lady with the red sparkly boots would win.


I see this behavior in China every day. People push, shove, elbow, bulldoze their way through everything. The concept of lining up is hazy at best. My friend, Andrew Woo, thinks that it's because the people, having lived through the Communist periods of scarcity, are conditioned to think that there is never enough supply. That's partly true. But that doesn't explain equally competitive scrambling in situations where the desired item is guaranteed and no advantage is conferred upon the most aggressive (i.e. Rushing to get through the gate first even when there is assigned seating on trains).

I think the people here are socialized to be pushers. Because the society maintains an ambivalent relationship with the rule of law, people are used to relying on themselves, and not an existing order, to obtain what they want. There is a subconscious lack of trust in rules and what adherence can deliver, so even if they know they should line up and that there is no self-interest in shoving, they do it, just because they see little merit in not pushing.


Two summers ago, when I first arrived in China as an intern, my wai po moved in with me for a little while to teach me "how things were done here." In a suffocating metro station, with hundreds vying for standing room on the trains, my 78 year old, 4 ft 11 wai po pulled me towards the front of the line. I tugged at her shirt and motioned to the back of the line, shy about blatantly cutting in.

She jerked me forward once more and stared me down, "Don't be such a pushover, Sisi."