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May 25, 2012

May 26, 2012By Beth Green, eChinacities.com   

What Do You Do? “Strange” Jobs in China
Photo: worldnomads.com

One of the things that has always amazed me about China's mega-cities is that there are enough jobs to go around. Not only are the country's top-tier cities populous in their own right, but a continuous flood of migrant workers from far flung provinces means that there is a constant need for new positions to fill.

Like anywhere in the world, China has its share of doctors, chefs, street sweepers, drivers, etc.  But with 1.3 billion people to employ, China also has some unusual jobs that help keep official joblessness statistics to about 4 percent.

Some of these jobs may seem superfluous to foreign observers (do you really need three people to bow and say "welcome" when you arrive at the restaurant?) while others are plain odd (professional drinkers to help foster business relationships after hours) or antiquated (street-side tinkers, anyone?).

Other jobs may have been created in the adaptation of a traditional family-based culture into a success-driven economy. Employers might just tailor-make a position for a good friend's daughter or a poor nephew from the countryside—in other words, nepotism. Another factor is that numerous employees can equal more face for the boss or the company image. This is the rationale for keeping lines of greeters on the payroll at supermarkets or luxury restaurants.

Many of these odd professions may have at one time been important in the West as well, but as labour prices rose in the last century, employers there cut payrolls to increase profits. The automation or mechanisation of some processes have eliminated the human element there as well—for example, using a street-sweeping car instead of a phalanx of city employees with brooms.

Here are examples of five "odd" jobs found in China:

1) Store-front clappers
In congested Chinese shopping streets, businesses pull out all the stops trying to attract customers. One common marketing idea holds that the loudest shop will get the most customers. To that end, shops often blare pop music while megaphone-wielding barkers shout the shop's special offers at the top of their lungs. Barkers, also referred to as touts, are not unique to China, but the co-workers paid to clap their hands in unison to get the attention of passers-by probably are.

2) Free ticket seller
Every attraction in China requires a small army of employees to assist in the ticketing process: A few people sitting in the ticket booth to take the money and issue the ticket (sometimes these tasks are done separately by two people at the same window), a few people sitting inside the gate to take the ticket, examine it, and punch it. Another guard or two, often standing only a few feet inside the gate, have the job of double-checking the ticket they just watched you buy and have punched.

I recognise the necessity of regulating entrance to national monuments, however even museums in China which have waived the entrance fee have retained this ticketing army. So now, museum-goers wait in line to get a free ticket, which they then give to someone to validate, and then that validation is duly checked. As if tourists might be sneaking in – for free?

3) Fake significant other
Not necessarily as seedy as it sounds, at Spring Festival you can find ads for "hired boyfriends" that young professional women may contract to represent her fiancé when she visits her hometown. In traditional thinking, young women should get married early, and constant and vehement reminders of this from family members can drive some women who are unlucky in real love to hire a stand-in boyfriend for a family dinner. The opposite also holds true, as some men ‘lease' a girlfriend for a week or two to avoid the mother's nagging.

4) Receipt stamper
This is one of the first "strange" jobs expatriates encounter upon moving to China. At many department stores and supermarkets, a (usually, very bored) man or woman lurks by the checkout counters, putting a red chop on shoppers' receipts as they exit. While in theory this could be an anti-shoplifting procedure, in reality the stamper rarely checks the contents of your shopping bag against the receipt, and usually they stand just by the security sensors that should, in theory, make their job redundant.

5) Porter
The job of a porter is not, in itself, remarkable. But what makes the Chinese job odd is the fact you can hire a porter for anything. Need your broken washing machine carried down eight flights of stairs in your elevator-less building? There's a guy out there whose job is to pack it down those stairs, bungee-cord it to the back of his patched motorbike and whiz it away to a back-alley repair shop. In rural places with higher unemployment, for-hire porters wait outside markets and shopping malls and offer to follow behind you and carry your daily shopping. At parks that feature mountains (or at least, steep hills) you can even find porters to carry you if you're not up to the hike. Halfway between a servant and a deliveryman, porters provide services most people could do for themselves, but at such low rate it becomes attractive to higher-paid, white-collar workers.

Of course, the diversity of "strange" jobs is as vast as the nation of China. Readers, what other jobs in China have struck you as being odd?

May 23, 2012

May 24, 2012By Andrea Scarlatelli, eChinacities.com   

Same Name, Different Game: 5 Ugly Facets of the Chinese Workplace
Photo: ministryoftofu.com

It doesn't take sharp observational skills to notice that China is a very, very different place from whence you came. It doesn't matter where you're from – I happen to come from America, and so use this as a baseline for my own experience – China is completely different from it. This applies to almost all areas of life and many people are not exactly surprised. They come here expecting different food of course, a different language (or ten), different social practices. None of this comes as much of a shock. There is one area, however, in which many expats find themselves taken aback: the workplace. Every office has the same basic feel, right? The same code of ethics, the same unspoken definition of decency, right? Wrong. Read on for some little things that are, if not completely legal all the time, largely accepted in Chinese offices – and that could get you fired if you try them in America.

1) Hiring based on looks
Perhaps one of the biggest and most obvious no-no's in America is not only legal in China, but fuels the multi-million dollar a year plastic surgery trend currently thriving in this country. A plethora of articles have come out in recent years discussing Chinese citizens (a vast majority of them women) surgically altering their looks in order to be more competitive in the workforce. Some jobs, and even college majors, actually have appearance and height requirements in China (such as flight attendants and English majors).

All other jobs simply require a colour photo submission along with your CV – and common knowledge is that the jobs usually go to the prettiest or most handsome candidate with even an iota of qualification (or sometimes not even that – see item #5 on this list). From steel rod leg implants given to increase one's height, to double eyelid surgery done to make one's eyes look bigger, to breast implants to, well, you know, it's all about the looks when hiring. And in America? Just Google "gender discrimination lawsuits" and you'll have some idea of how just how illegal hiring based on looks can be there.

2) Stealing ideas
Intellectual property is a huge deal in America – people want to be recognised and compensated for the hard work and energy they have put into coming up with the next big thing. Not so much in China (fake markets, anyone?). The Chinese workplace is seen as basically one giant, amorphous community, and this includes people's brains  (which explains a lot actually if you stop and think about it).

What one person thinks and says aloud can (and will) be made into a Power Point presentation by another. Never mind who had the brilliant idea or gets the boss' praise, all office workers are the same anyway, right? Well, that is the idea at least. So be sure to guard your ideas carefully if intellectual independence is important to you. Otherwise, you may just wind up seeing your brilliant business approach published without your permission under someone else's name.

3) Smoking in the office
Smoking has been banned in pretty much all work places in America, with the exception being if you happen to work in a strip club. And in fact many cities in China, such as Shanghai, have also banned smoking in the workplace. It is simply that no one really cares or enforces such a law. If one were to blatantly smoke at one's desk in America, or in the hallway, or even the bathroom, you would promptly be fined and perhaps fired if it became a habitual discipline problem.

In China, however, those who point out that smoking is illegal inside the building (usually a member of the cleaning staff) to someone who is smoking inside a prohibited area (usually a guy in a suit) will nine times out of ten simply be screamed at to get back to work and mind their own business. But in all actuality, chances are that no one will actually say anything to someone smoking inside an office building because a) a nation of nicotine addicts cannot be expected to enforce the law themselves and b) the person noticing it probably wants to bum a cigarette off the guy anyway.

4) Paying employees under the table
In all fairness, paying employees company money without paying taxes on them is just as illegal in China as it is in America. And Chinese companies do get in trouble for it when caught. It is just that they are almost never caught because the matter is never looked into systematically – well, either that or the official looking into it has been bribed… with company money that no one is paying taxes on.

One of the most popular examples of this in China is English schools. There are so many English schools either hiring foreigners to teach in their schools or contracting them out to other ones that the government can hardly keep track. So is it really any surprise that a great many of them (I may even go out on a limb here and say the majority of them) simply pay their teachers in cash so they do not have to report their earnings and pay taxes on them? But this doesn't just apply to English schools – there are many, many companies out there paying foreigners for services rendered with cash under the table. It is a win-win situation for both parties (assuming the company does not get caught) so it is doubtful that the practice will stop any time soon.

5) Hiring unqualified people based on personal relationships
In America, most companies require you to disclose if you have had any sort of prior relationship with a job candidate for whom you have the ability of hiring. An example of this occurred recently when a college football coach got fired for having hired a woman with whom he'd had an affair to a coveted position in the athletics department. In China, however, the whole idea of using guanxi, or relationships (business or otherwise), to your advantage in the workplace is such a commonplace thing that no one really bats an eye when the boss hires his nephew for that huge construction contracting job – never mind if the nephew has absolutely no idea about construction.

I will never forget a Chinese friend's complete acceptance when a new girl was hired in her office as a secretary – and told my friend she had never used a computer in her entire life. It turns out this girl had worked in the boss's favourite massage parlour and had apparently done such a bang up job that she was promptly hired as his secretary, despite having zero experience in anything other than "massaging." My friend basically wound up having to do both her job and this ex-masseuse/secretary girl's job – but my friend just took it all in stride. Relationships are funny things, you see…


May 20, 2012

May 21, 2012By Micah Steffes, eChinacities.com   Comments (2) Add your comment

Can the Chinese Still Eat Bitterness? Hardship and Personal Crisis in Modern China
Photo: achive.glimpse.org

My mother and my alma mater taught me that travelling is like reading—it's one of the best ways to "expand your horizons" and to learn about the "wider world." With this in mind, I came to China intending to learn about Chinese culture, to ask my own questions and to discover new values and new ways of doing things.

Because I had an impression of Chinese people as generally able to endure burdens and crises of all kinds, I found myself asking the question that inspired this piece: "How do Chinese people respond to personal crisis and what can I learn from them in that regard?" But I found myself coming upon the same theme, one that I had previously associated only with hard labour—eating bitterness (吃苦). This, I discovered, was the theme I'd have to explore to get my answer. Luckily I don't live in Shanghai.

I live in Chongqing, land of the Bangbangs, migrants named after the bamboo poles they use to carry heavy loads on their shoulders.

Mr. Zhou eats bitterness

"Where are you going?" a bangbang shouts after us in Chinese.

"Sanxia Guangchang."

We are making our way under the highway bridge toward the district shopping centre. Trotting up alongside us, the bangbang says that's where he's going as well. Refreshingly (if not surprisingly) omitting to ask us which country we were from or to remark upon the fact that we speak Chinese, he explains to my boyfriend that he likes to make friends and distributes his business card. I flip his card over a few times. One side has a few pictures of himself and the other a description of his services. I eye his bangbang stick.

"How much does one of those cost?" I ask, suspiciously. I've never met a bangbang with a business card.

Mr. Zhou pats his stick proudly and explains that he bought his bamboo stick for 10 RMB and a rope for a few more kuai in 2010. He wears fatigues, which fit him poorly and make him look shorter than he already is. I decide I believe him.

Like most bangbangs, Zhou spends his days in the city playing cards, joking, smoking, hustling, and on a good day hauling equipment, breaking down buildings, bringing produce to and from stores, helping people move and doing other kinds of hard manual labour. He is special in that he has also appeared as "Bangbang actor" in a few local television productions. He tells me that in his best month, he pulled in an astounding 8000 RMB. Additionally, by working and hustling really hard last year he averaged 3000 RMB monthly, some months being better than others. So far, he doesn't expect 2012 to be quite so successful since he's been ill since January. He rubs his stomach with a put-on frown and laments that he hasn't been able to perform more difficult, high-paying jobs. As he mourns his luck, I note that, like his non-movie-star peers, his face is lightly etched with 44 years of hardship. But he's quick to smile as he explains almost proudly, "Bangbangs have to be able to eat bitterness."

Dignity and pride when the going gets tough

Strolling along with Zhou reminds me of something important: among all of the Chinese folk I've met, it is the working class that smiles, laughs, jokes and teases more readily than any group I've encountered yet. Although they'd be the first to tell you about eating bitterness, bangbangs and the working poor are not downtrodden workhorses.

Seeing the country side, chats with migrants and working people, hearing about difficulties in times past, hopes for the future – all of these I thought would help me understand more profoundly something I thought that I, albeit superficially, already understood – why the Chinese endure where others would falter (or turn to a psychiatrist). And for the most part, it has.

One illumination: eating bitterness is undertaken not with a fatalistic resignation to a horrible life but with active striving to make life better. Eating bitterness is pride – the honour of being esteemed by self and others not by the nature of your work but by your own nature of being hard-working in spite of the work. And it goes beyond work. Eating bitterness is an attitude. It's not the stuff of a pitiful cheerfulness, but the stuff of strength through acceptance. It is a kind of dignity, a way to be proud and respectable and strong in the eyes of yourself and your peers, even in hardship, crisis and suffering. But its true strength is its class-blindness. 

Well, almost.

Can Chinese still eat bitterness?

Zhou reassures me when I express my doubts as to the ability of foreigners to eat bitterness as well as Chinese do. "It has nothing to do with China," he asserts.

I think he's right. Eating bitterness is just the Chinese term for a psychological tool that the Chinese have taken collective advantage of in their long years of labour, hardship, national and personal crises. The only truly cultural element of eating bitterness is how widespread its value has been in Chinese society. At its core, however, "eating bitterness" is made of the same stuff as "bucking up," "grinning and bearing it," having "grit," and even "keeping your chin up." The ability to do so is psychological, not cultural.  

Employers and the elderly often complain that young, urban Chinese "don't know how to eat bitterness." They seem right enough. Recent articles indicate that young working people are refusing to put up with less than desirable circumstances as they seek to etch out a new vision of a respectable existence. Phenomena like "naked quitting" (quitting before you have a new job to take the place of your hated old one) is a new trump. Having an iPad but no job increasingly confers more respect than endurance in the face of hardship.

Young people along with the emerging urban middle and upper classes no longer seem to regard the ability to eat bitterness with respect. And they themselves don't want to eat bitterness, able or not. But is that a bad thing?

The vacuum of values

A friend once remarked sadly that she wants the day when the bangbangs disappear to come quickly. In Chongqing, the growing middle class points to the bangbang as a feature of local culture in the same breath that they praise their famously spicy hotpot. But the disappearance of the bangbang is considered a welcome long-term inevitability. "Why?" I challenged friends. But they answer tenuously, if not evasively.

My answer? The bangbang represents the hardships that city people perceive themselves to be moving away from, and the fact that he still exists is testament to how far they have yet to go.

In this respect, among the rural and working poor the transition from communism to capitalism doesn't seem quite so monumental. People work hard, tough stuff happens but for the most part, life goes on like it always has (only with a bit more fortune and less famine).

It's among the young and the urban that the fall out of change in the years since the reform and opening has had its greatest side effects. In young China especially we see how this change has generated a morality vacuum, the damages of which many Chinese themselves are quick to point out. But the morality vacuum is only the offshoot of the black hole that I call the values vacuum. That is, the values of Confucius and Mao are no longer appropriate in the context of global capitalism—a system which, with respect to both the poor and the past, the urban young are in greatest contact with.

The collapse of values has a direct effect on the ability to eat bitterness. The catch is: the young and the urban embrace change without actively fighting to retain or reframe old values. As a result, they have culturally neutered eating bitterness. And in doing so, they only make themselves psychologically vulnerable.

In this respect, young and urban Chinese increasingly resemble their American and European counterparts. In giving up the value of eating bitterness without replacing it with new and helpful values, what tools do young people and urban people have to combat the perils of personal crisis?

Family? Faith? Pharmaceuticals?


Passers-by nervously laugh at and remark upon Zhou as they realise he is engaging some foreigners in conversation. This continues as he kneels with my boyfriend's copy of the Old Man and the Sea balanced on his knee, carefully writing some information upon the back sleeve regarding his next television appearance. I ask him what the attitude of city folk is toward people like him and he smiles wryly at me as he finishes and stands up, handing the book back to us.

"They want to eradicate us," he whispers conspiratorially.

A final note

I've discovered that learning about culture is less akin to reading a thought-provoking book and more like seeing a film with an ambiguous ending, the kind that, upon leaving the movie theatre, you're not quite sure that you "got" or even liked. But you keep thinking about it, because you keep telling yourself that there must be some important insight that you're supposed to piece together, some value or moral to be discovered. So what does contemporary China have to teach me?

I'll have to keep reckoning with that.

05:25 AM Nov 10 2018


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10:52 AM May 22 2012



"sure the life taught me to eat bitterness"... maybe is to "eat bitterness" not the right definition to me...to eat something means you put it in your body....and to eat bitterness makes the body (life) after a long term bitter...so is my definition! i can only bear(german: ertragen) bitterness, when there is something to overcome , or to reach something in the life.

sorry for my poor english ... maybe no one taught me to eat bitterness by learning englishFrownreading Henry David Thoreau was at this time much more exciting for me!Smile

"What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us." Henry David Thoreau