China

The lack of trust on the mainland, even for little things

This hasn’t been the best of weeks, though it did start well with Arsenal beating Spurs in a tough game where they scored within 3 minutes and held that lead until the end (English Premier League football). There’s been a few annoyances, but I’m trying to handle them as best as I could. Anyways, here’s my opinion on a problem in society here, which for me is Beijing, but which can probably be applied to elsewhere in mainland China. It was meant to be an opinion piece, but it wasn’t published.

I recently saw a few striking photos online. A guy was standing next to a woman who’d fallen on the street off of her e-bike and taking her picture. However, he wasn’t being callous or voyeuristic. He was making a record that she’d fallen in an accident which he had nothing to do with, before helping her up. And who could blame him – there’ve a spate of incidents nationwide where people have fallen in public and then turned around and blamed the very ones who helped them, even extorting them. So far thankfully I’ve never experienced anything as extreme, but I’ve had a few mishaps where I realized just how little trust there was in society.

Before I came to China, I was well aware that sometimes you have to watch out for scams and trickery. What surprised me was the lack of trust in everyday life. I learned this the hard way because apparently, I’m a liar and shifty in some local people’s eyes.

My first experience was at a hotel I stayed in during my first several weeks in Beijing. One day, I came back and realized I’d forgotten my key inside my room. I went to the receptionist, who lent me the hotel master key. After I opened my room, I went downstairs to the receptionist and returned the hotel key. After returning to my room, I found that it hadn’t been cleaned so I called the front desk.

As soon as I started speaking, the receptionist said I hadn’t returned the key to her. I was stunned, and insisted I had. “I just gave it back to you a few minutes ago,” I said. “No, you didn’t give it back,” she replied bluntly. After several minutes of this back and forth, I went downstairs where we continued to argue. Luckily I spotted the manager, who quickly found the master key behind the counter. Instead of an apology, the receptionist claimed the key had been returned by another staffer who’d gotten it from me upstairs!

My second notable experience was during a messy situation with my previous apartment that involved a seriously disreputable agency. The affair came to an end when the landlady decided to sell the apartment. I agreed to move out at a certain date, but coincidentally I had to go to Hong Kong the weekend before. I met with the landlady and the new owner right before my trip, and told them I was returning next week and would move out. I thought everything would be ok.

Yet when I returned to Beijing, I got a text from my landlady who said she’d been trying to contact me. She had even visited my place the day I left to discuss something. The next morning, the new owner also called me, saying he heard from the landlady that they couldn’t find me. “That’s because I was in Hong Kong like I told you,” I said.

It just showed they were either ignorant about geography or didn’t believe me when I said I was going to be away from China for the weekend.

In return, I’ve also been guilty of being suspicious.

The messy situation above unraveled when I first met my landlady in my hallway after coming home from work one night. She’d been waiting for hours and told me how the agency had duped her and had been renting out her apartment without her permission for over two years. She seemed to be telling the truth and even brought her property ownership certificate and ID later. Yet during the whole time, I couldn’t help wondering whether this was all an elaborate ploy. I had all kinds of paranoid scenarios in my mind about the agency hiring this person to pretend to be the landlady, and then, whether the landlady and the agency had planned this whole drama just to get me to move out quickly.

Dishonesty is bad in itself, but what’s worse is its effect. People lose trust and become quick to accuse and be suspicious. Not just in major situations, but in minor, ordinary or everyday situations like the ones I described above. If you can’t even borrow a key in a hotel without being accused of taking it or be believed when you tell people you’ll be out of town for the weekend, it’s no wonder that people are often guarded and suspicious.

If even born-and-bred locals have trouble coping with the dishonesty here, how can non-natives deal with it? All I can try is not to be consumed by suspicion but always be cautious. And don’t take things personally, because whatever shady misfortune happens to you, it’s probably happened to many locals as well.

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