Well, it's been a while.
So I thought I'd post some more random thoughts about my life in China.
First up let's revisit smoking. I've mentioned before that taxi drivers smoke in taxis, doctors during consultations, schoolteachers in corridors, offices and even – though they aren't supposed to – classrooms and pretty much every male Chinese smokes more or less constantly. This, as you may imagine, is deeply uncomfortable for a lifelong non-smoker like me. Last night was an example of where it is at its worst – restaurants. I went out for a meal with a friend at a small restaurant across the street from my apartment. It has about ten tables of varying sizes and three private rooms. We normally go for a room but they were all busy so we took one of the two unoccupied tables in the main room. It wasn't too bad at first, though on one table a Chinese man was busy puffing away with his left hand while plucking food from a bubbling hot pot with chopsticks in his right hand. At a table near the wholly inadequate air-con another man was waving his cigarette around like a laser pointer. Then the problem got decidedly worse. At the nearest table were a group of six men, all eating a variety of hotpot meats and vegetables. One of them handed round a pack of cigarettes and all six lit up – as they were eating! It was horrible and I'm afraid I started complaining. I was ready to leave but we had already ordered. They finished their smokes and within a minute had lit up again. I alternated between holding a cloth to my face and taking it away to eat. It got funny looks but by then the food had come. Then they finished that one and immediately lit up a third. The room was beginning to resemble a foggy November day. My friend had several times asked if we could move but there was nowhere to move to. Then one of the private rooms came free and the staff said we could move there. All our food was taken in and we relocated. At last I could breathe and eat at the same time.
This is absolutely normal here. Any restaurant at any time will have hordes of smokers simultaneously smoking and eating and filling the place with smoke and the fact that the concept of ventilation is almost unknown in buildings here doesn't help. I have now, for this very reason, almost completely, given up going out for a drink.
Anyway, moving on, albeit slowly, we come to Chinese buses. I have often used the buses here to get around because they are so cheap – 10p flat fare anywhere in the city – but only recently have I had to use them to commute to work. The daily journeys have highlighted some questions that had been floating in the back of my mind for a while. Chiefly there is this – are the problems due to mechanical failures of the vehicles or human failures of the drivers?
I ask primarily because of the way they stop and start. They stop as if they have hit a wall. All passengers not braced by holding onto seat backs or overhead rails are pitched forward violently. Those who are braced risk broken wrists or dislocated shoulders. Then they start as if someone has attached a rocket to the back and everyone is pitched to the back of the bus with similar force. Inadequate clutch or inadequate clutch control?
The argument that perhaps the vehicle is mechanically unsound and the driver has no control is supported by something that is clearly a mechanical issue – they way they deal with inclines. When the bus has to go uphill it slows to less than a walking pace and the engine roars like a jet taking off and the whole vehicle shudders and judders until you think it must surely fall apart. And I am talking about the slightest of slight inclines, slopes so slight that I had never even noticed them on foot. Slopes that would not trouble a ninety-five year old with a walking frame.In fact a ninety-five year old with a walking frame would probably outpace the bus on those sections.
Set against that, and supporting the driver hypothesis, is the observed behaviour with regard to lane discipline and lane changes. Put simply there is no lane discipline and lane changes are sudden, unexpected and mostly random. The bus simply swerves without warning into the next lane regardless of the traffic already there. The reasons for this remain a mystery as it will often swerve back with equal suddenness mere metres later.
There is another issue with bus design and it has to do with the seating. Chinese people can do something that most westerners can't. They can crouch, they are masters of crouching. They can have their feet flat on the ground and their backside also touching the ground as they lean their shoulders forward and remain completely stable. This position is almost impossible for us without toppling backwards. Try it if you don't believe me. This means that they don't mind the peculiarity of seating design where the seats at the front, or over the wheels, or immediately behind the wheels have nowhere to put your legs. The simply hop up and pull their knees up under their chins and show no signs of discomfort. I, on the other hand, am forced to stand. If I attempted that position I'd need a month in traction to fix my spine.
Of course I mustn't forget to mention the roads. Like many things in China they appear, at first glance to be fine, well-tarmacced surfaces. They aren't. There are many places where the fact that the surface has collapsed reveals that it is an inch thick veneer of tarmac laid directly onto sand, which of course is the reason that it collapsed! This renders every journey a bumpy adventure in which the base of the spine impacts with great frequency onto the hard plastic seats. Maybe having to stand is more of a blessing than a curse. And at least buses are one of the very few places where people don't generally smoke.