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Trying to stop a pickpocket – or – How to look foolish on the bus

Yesterday at the bus stop, I noticed a man wearing all black waiting by the back of the mass of people getting on the bus. He would get pushed forward, and then purposefully work his way towards the back; it seemed suspicious. I know from friends that pickpockets like to use the moment of climbing on the bus to snatch wallets and mp3 players as people crowd onboard, so I kept my eye on him.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Just as the woman in front of him took her first step on, he reached up and placed his hand on her purse. At that moment everything we’d discussed here on the blog about apathy and the evil of “minding our own business” flashed through my mind. You would never have known if I had chosen to stay out of it, but I wouldn’t have been able to face you today if I had remained silent like those around me.

So I pulled his hand off her purse and loudly said, “Gan ma?” (What are you doing?) He took a few steps back and barked something at me that I didn’t quite catch. Sensing the crowd starting to turn against me I pointed at the man and said, “Xiaotou” (pickpocket), and then explained to the woman, who was now looking through her purse, that I had seen him reaching towards it.

I had stopped a thief before in Guangxi, and knew that his buddies could show up at any moment to threaten me. I felt a surge of adrenaline, and my hands were shaking as I beeped my bus card.

At this point I realized my nerves were for nothing as the woman yelled at me for grabbing her husband. Apparently, he holds her bag for stability as he climbs the steps instead of the railing on the door.

Perhaps I was a bit overzealous; a friend had just told me a few days earlier that he had been on a bus when someone noticed their phone was stolen. The victim ordered the bus driver to keep the doors shut while another passenger attempted to call his phone. For a minute everyone froze and listened, but the thief had already turned it off. “Of course he turned it off,” an old woman growled as she pushed towards the door.

Giggles spread through the bus as I moved down the aisle, and one person even took a picture of me with their phone. I felt like a complete idiot and desperately wanted to get off the bus. I decided to ride it the rest of the way home (about 30 minutes), I told myself that I had just been trying to help a stranger so there was really nothing to be embarrassed about. Maybe it would give courage to someone else to take action the next time they saw something suspicious.

When I retold the story to co-workers this morning, they agreed that this kind of behavior should be promoted (people actually talk like this). They also reassured me that there were too many people like this woman, who complain when someone is just trying to help.

But then the conversation quickly switched to how I should be more careful in confronting thieves on the street. *sigh* Should I mind my own business next time?

Lessons from a traffic jam

I ride the bus almost everyday here in Nanjing. From home to work, the journey is just about 2.5 km, down a single straight road. In ideal traffic conditions it takes about 15 minutes by bus, during rush hour it’s closer to 30 minutes (which is the same amount of time it would take to walk), last night it took me nearly an hour.

About 15 minutes was spent just waiting for a bus, which isn’t entirely unusual. Even though the stop is next to a subway station, and leads to a major residential area, there is only one bus route connecting the two. To me it seems to be a combination of rapid development and poor planning.

China changes so quickly that 5-10 years worth of change at US speeds often happens in just one or two years. In the last ten years private car ownership has exploded, and most cities simply do not have the roads to handle them. I don’t fault Chinese leaders for not being able to keep up with this growth, and as we saw earlier this week, rushing infrastructure projects is not a viable option.

Car ownership is both a status symbol and an object of convenience. If the buses in Nanjing were as regular and comfortable as the ones found in Hong Kong, more people would be willing to take them. As it stands I often have to wait 20 minutes or more for a bus, making it an unreliable hassle.

So when you combine inefficient public transportation (~10% of the problem), narrow roads (70%), and tens of thousands of new drivers driving with Chinese characteristics (20%), traffic can rapidly spiral out of control. When packed on a bus with more than 50 other passengers, the traffic seems that much worse.

So yesterday once I finally boarded the bus and saw that we were hardly moving, I realized I should have walked home. For the first 10 minutes, I was mildly annoyed at the boy grabbing the rail directly over my head in a way that made me hunch over. The next 10 minutes was spent trying to enjoy some music in an effort to remain calm on the now steamy bus. After 30 minutes, I was pretty angry that I still had 3 of the 6 stops left to go.

Then I saw something so ridiculous that I started laughing and looking around to see if anyone else had seen the same thing. In front of the provincial gov’t offices, there were nearly 50 black cars (mostly Audi’s and other high end brands) all with gov’t license plates parked along the already narrow street, each manned by a driver waiting to whisk some bureaucrat home for the evening.  The gov’t employees had created a massive bottleneck with their fleet of chauffeured sedans.

Never had I seen gov’t waste so clearly with my own eyes. Not only is it foolish to have so many cars displayed openly, but when their excess actually forces the rest of us to sit in a traffic jam for nearly an hour, it seems like the perfect way to foment dissent.

Chinese citizens have been pushing for years to get local governments to open up their books and show exactly how much is spent on vehicles, banquets and trips abroad (with little progress). Yesterday it seemed like we just needed a Blue Book and a calculator.

Four Jobs That Highlight China’s Inefficiency

Yesterday we started to look very generally at China’s efficiency problems. Today I would like to introduce you to a few of the most pointless jobs in China that highlight the practices inspired by low wages.

Bus Line Monitor

I see these people standing at each of the bus stops on my way to work each morning. They stand around with their yellow or red arm bands and watch the masses cram in to buses. While their title might imply that these people are in some way responsible for making sure getting on the bus is an orderly process, I have yet to see them do anything to improve the situation.

Receipt Stamper

A common sight throughout China, the receipt stamper is the bored looking man or woman standing at the exit of every supermarket. At first I assumed that they were there to check and make sure I hadn’t tossed any extra items into my bag, but realized that they really didn’t care what I had bought. In many places the store doesn’t even care if you get your receipt stamped or not, I think it is another superfluous step for making a regular receipt an official one. Here in Nanjing it seems to be a method for validating your parking, but it sure seems like something that could be easily handled by the cashier.

Ticket Takers and Ticket Sellers

Even at the most boring of museums in China (or any place that requires a ticket) they have made the work of one person, selling and taking tickets, into two separate jobs. Often there are 4 or 5 people in the sales office, but only one person is actually doing any work, the others are usually drinking tea or napping (the office usually has a cot or comfortable chairs for this purpose).

Perhaps the most perplexing example of this I’ve seen was in Chengdu at the Sichuan Museum. The museum was free to enter but it employed 3 people to hand out tickets, and two more to check them.

Train Crossing Guards

I’ve seen this in small towns throughout China, manual crossing barriers. Usually it is two men who spend the day napping in front of the train crossing office. When a train is coming someone calls them and tells them to lower the gate. At that point the men stop traffic and move the barriers into place and wait for the train to pass. It may be hard to believe but this system was still being used in Beijing in 2006, and is still used throughout the country.

These are just a few examples of the dozens of extra workers throughout China. The reasoning behind this I think are two-fold: 1) Labor is cheap, and 2) Low unemployment is good for stability (as I mentioned before the gov’t loves stability).