Imagine if you will, an everyday shopping mall early some Saturday morning. The mall opens up at 10am, but there is an unguarded service door which can let you in as early as 9:30. You sneak in at about 9:50 and head to the Starbucks for your morning fix (it’s all about that chocolate chip muffin). When you get to the Starbucks, the staff is mostly ready to work, but it bears repeating that there is no one else anywhere in the mall. You are all alone in the Starbucks, and this bears repeating for the purposes of illustrating what happens next. You order, you pay, and then the ‘barista’ (I’d use air quotes at any Starbucks, not just a Chinese one) grabs a paper cup and scribbles your order on it with a felt-tipped pen. Then, and I should note that the cup has literally never left this person’s hand, he slides over to the coffee machine and makes you your drink.
So, the questions is ‘why in the ever loving hell did he write your order on the cup?’
In any other Starbucks during any other circumstances I would get it. They are busy, and they work via assembly line. The person at the register takes your order, writes it on a cup, then someone else will pick up the cup, take it over to the coffee machine and make your order. Communication between the employees may be limited, so they actually need to write the order onto the cup. It makes sense. Had they not done so and merely shouted the order to their colleagues, all manner of things could go wrong. I get it. But why would they need to do it in the circumstances outlined above? There is only one employee, there is only one customer, and there is only one order.
Cargo cult capitalism. This has become my best description and explanation of modern China.
The name come from Richard Feynman, sort of. Feynman describes certain peoples living in the Pacific who, when they noticed that the islands that had airplane landing strips and flight control towers seemed to received more ‘gifts from the gods’ (cargo), they built fake landing strips and fake airplane control towers in hopes to be gifted with the same bounty.
It doesn’t work. But Feynman uses this to criticize those who would don the dressings of scientific legitimacy to give themselves a falsified veneer of respectability. Feynman’s notion of ‘cargo cult science are those who dress up in white smocks and tell you that their snake oil is 100% garunteed to work. China has done something very similar. They are constantly copying things from the west in the expectation that the West’s success will magically follow. The truly odd thing is that these copies are often poorly done, and with no understanding about what actually makes them work elsewhere. Or, and this is the one that truly bothers me, with absolutely no conception of why they are doing. The initial anecdote is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Why did the barista right the order on the cup? Because that is what is done, end of story.
There is another example of this that severely chaps my ass. As any reader of this blog knows from my constant complaining, China is polluted to high hell. It is bad enough that I once went to a restaurant I knew to have air purifiers just so I could smoke a cigarette. I am not alone in knowing/understanding this. Many Chinese citizens walk around wearing pollution masks to keep themselves somewhat safe. But in terms of knowing what the hell they are doing, looking at breathing masks is one sure way of separating the wheat from the chaff.
(On that note, I once saw a Chinese person I instantly respected. He pulled up to me at an intersection, he was riding a bike and was wearing a helmet. On his face a proper pollution mask clung snugly to his face.) The Chinese must be informed that they need masks on some polluted days. Much of the population don’t get the message, because you often see guys outside having a cigarette with their friends on the most polluted of days. Actually, I am fine with the pollution deniers or those who hate their own lungs. What gets me are the people who wear masks that don’t cover their faces completely. Some people, in lieu of a proper masks that work, wear those dainty masks doctors wear in order to not get their patients germs into their mouths. In that these masks are designed to prevent the bloody saliva particles of some ebola victim’s sneeze from getting in your mouth, they do pretty much nothing for pollution. When can tell this just by looking at them, as they have no seal whatsoever and air can just get in from the sides, unfiltered (bodily fluids, however, cannot. Some idiots where a kind of mask that can best be described as a face curtain, and you can tell that the efficacy of such a mask is a nice flat 0%. Other do not form around the face. Some masks don’t even cover the fucking nose, which is just slightly better than the people who have proper masks and wear them in a way so that their god damn nose remains (intentionally, I have no idea why) exposed!
The annoying thing here is the amount of common sense that is actively ignored. It’s air pollution, one would think a person could establish that they are trying to keep the air out from their damn lungs, and that a mask that doesn’t form to the face can’t do this. One would damn well think it evident. Not here. They just see other people wearing masks and think that a mask helps, as if by magic.