Blessed to be a witness

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Sunday, 27th February

I am an idiot

I shouldn't really proceed without recounting for your amusement a couple of idiotic things that I did in the few days before we left Beijing.

There used to be an attitude in China that defied all and any attempts at customer service. The first time I encountered this was in 1992 when I went to Shenzhen. Me and a couple of friends, one of whom was Chinese and fluent in Mandarin, went for lunch on our first day. We walked into a restaurant to find nothing but a waiter asleep on one of the tables. My Chinese friend woke him up and asked for lunch. "No," said the waiter. "Can't you find somewhere else to eat?" My friend explained that it was a government-run restaurant and the waiter would get paid no matter what. So he didn't have to entertain our wishes whatsoever. This attitude contributes to my opinion that communism, far from being "a good idea that has never been applied properly" - the lefty line I used to believe before I started fulfilling the cliché of getting more right-wing as one gets older - is just a dumb idea full stop. Most people are naturally acquisitive and their priorities are first providing for themselves and their loved ones; altruism, particularly lack of any personal ownership, comes a while down the list. Communism creates a situation that leads the natural human condition down the roads of apathy or corruption. Therefore to provide motivation, the state has to substitute cult-like status to the party and its figurehead(s), and back it up with something nasty as a punishment for not doing it, which in turn leads to some horrendous abuses of power.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that this "mei yo" ("we don't have any"- the former answer to most questions about services or supply) unhelpful attitude has been mercifully absent so far this trip. A long way from my second example, in a hotel in 1993, when I checked out at 11.30am and was told I would have to pay for two nights, because checkout was at 11. When I protested that almost every other hotel in the world had a noon checkout and there was no indication that this one was any different, the woman barked "It is in the rules!" So I checked the rule card on the wall, and though it forbade the lighting of fires and storage of livestock in the rooms, didn't mention the unusual checkout time. I pointed this out and the lady helpfully pointed out: "if you don't know the rules, ask!" Anyway, at our last hostel we had our first encounter with someone who displayed these old-school attitudes.

We dubbed him "mouthbreather", and unlike the other six or seven staff we met at the place, he was neither cheerful nor helpful. Any request was greeted with a "no", and a blank stare.

"Do you have any coffee?"

"No." Silence, mouth hanging open.

"The washing machine isn't working."

"Maybe it is broken." Silence, mouth hanging open.

"Is there any water?"

"No water."

"Where can I get some then?

"Maybe kitchen."

"OK, but are there any cups?"

"No cups." Silence, mouth hanging open.

No suggestions as to how things might be worked around, or when they might be rectified. If he'd have given a Gallic shrug, it would have been more bearable, but he would just sit there catching flies.

So on the night of the rugby, when we knew we would be back after the 1am curfew, we informed the duty manager that we'd be back after the door was locked. "No problem," he said with a smile, "just ring the doorbell, someone will open it."

Unfortunately that night Mouthbreather was on duty. Some time after 2 we got back, and rang the doorbell. Nothing. Eventually I shook the door and the Chinese bell hanging on the inside started to rattle, and eventually Mouthbreather appeared. Very angry.

"You should be back before one!" he shouted.

"Yes," I replied, "but we told the manager and he said it would be OK."

"But you should be back before one!"

"We told the manager."

"But you should have told ME," he whined.

"How could we?" I said, getting rather annoyed. "You weren't there."

"But you must tell me!"

"Look, if your manager didn't tell you, then it's really not my problem," I shouted back, and stormed off. In retrospect, I quite enjoyed taking out my frustration on him.

Then I realised there was no drinking water in the room, and the hostel had run out of bottles. I went down to the kitchen to fill a couple of empty plastic bottles with boiling water from the samovar, and returned to the room. They were blisteringly hot, so I had the bright idea of putting one out on the windowsill in the freezing Beijing night to cool.

It rolled off.

It fell three storeys onto the flat roof below and made the most almighty smashing sound. I dived into bed, defeated, and drifted off to sleep, expecting the PSB to break the door down at any minute, and arrest me for destroying a glass roof. The next day I looked out of the window and realized, with relief, that the bottle had merely hit a tin can on the flat roof, and hadn't actually destroyed anything.

The other stupid thing I did was a little less long in the telling: at the John Bull English pub, I was jokingly miffed when other tables got complimentary peanuts but we didn't. So when I was settling up at the bar, and I espied a bag of peanuts, I surreptitiously nicked a handful and jammed it into my mouth as the bargirl was approaching. Except they weren't peanuts: they were dried beans, and as I bit down they nearly broke my teeth. My mouth was crammed with dried beans and shards of bean shell, which I had to gob out quickly and stuff into my pocket to avoid detection.

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