That’s China

Tonight, I visited the World Finance Tower in Luohu, a region in Shenzhen, China. I wasn’t there for anything worldly or financial, but I was there for a tower. To get to the top of this tower, I had to take an elevator and that’s when the problems began. I didn’t get stuck (I realize that’s what you’re likely thinking). From the first floor packed with people, I went up… alone (nearly).

Since I arrived in China over a year ago, I’ve heard, learned and come to love a curious but common refrain used by foreigners: “That’s China.” (Incidentally, when I hear the word “foreigner” I still think “non-American”. What we mean by it in this context is non-Chinese, obviously. For whatever reason, that’s still hard to shake. I guess growing up in the States did that to me). To describe and attempt to explain all sorts of anomalies only witnessed in China (in other words the indescribable), we’ll use this term to make sense of things that simply don’t make sense.

The list is long, but a few examples of “that’s China” range from transportation to production to, apparently, elevators in office buildings.

Try getting off a subway in China. What is seemingly a straight forward step, is actually a miraculous struggle. Instead of disembarking always preceding embarking (as instructed by the overhead audio and practiced the world over, save China) China does it differently. They surge ON the subway while passengers, push, press and navigate through mobs just to get OFF. I heard about this phenomenon before I arrived. I didn’t believe it. I should have.

Plastic straw makers in China, asked to make a straws long enough for use with a Coke bottle, responding to criticisms that their straws are too short will say “No, the bottles are too long.”

I could go on. I will…to elevators.
At the World Finance Tower today, I had a meeting on the 30th floor. I made my way up the entrance steps to the elevator bay in the lobby. There, I was greeted by a swarm of people trying to go up and a dozen escorts whose job it was to direct traffic into cars and send them on their way. Considering most people I know need no instructions on how to use an elevator, this struck me as odd. What was even more odd was what followed. The bay was divided by section depending on the destination floor, but rather than cars one through four going to floors 1-20 and cars five through ten going to floors 21-40, cars one through four appeared to go to floors 1-5 AND 19-40. Trying not to figure it out, I found an empty line (why it was empty when there was a crowd of people, I don’t know) and waited briefly. My elevator arrived and I got on first, pressed the button for 30 and the car filled after me. Lastly, an operator arrived. She got on, opened the opposing panel with a key, cleared the previously selected floors, turned to a random woman and asked “floor please?” “32” the woman responded. The operator then instructed everyone except the woman to get off the elevator, closed the doors and went on her way.

“What the…?!?”
Responding to my vocal protests, an escort approached me, apologized and asked:
“Which floor would you like, sir?”
“The 30th” I said.
“Oh, that’s elevator number two” she directed.
I went to car two. The doors eventually opened, I got on (first again), selected my floor and waited as people packed into the car behind me, followed lastly by another operator. Again, she got on, opened the opposing panel with a key, cleared the selected floors, and asked the escort who had directed me to the car, “which floor?” “30.” The operator then directed everyone else off the car, except one woman who refused to exit (she probably had enough of this insanity), closed the doors and took me to the 30th floor without incident.

Upon arrival, rather than a greeting more customary, I asked:  “What’s up with the elevators?”
“Oh, I know! Just last week, we waited 40 minutes for an elevator to take us down. Every morning, it takes me 20 minutes just to go up!”
“What?? What are they doing? The escorts, the bays, the operators clearing the floors and directing people off the filled elevator? What is that madness?” I asked.
My host simply shrugged and said “That’s China.”

Apparently, the foreigner’s common refrain isn’t foreign to anyone.

Epilogue: In reading this, you might think there must be some issue involving elevator safety at stake, that is until I tell you about the return trip. On its way down, a packed elevator arrived at our floor. Considering the office I visited had just closed, all six of us were waiting. We crammed in and went down a floor, where, despite being full already, the elevator operator invited five more people to join us. Struggling to breath, trying to find a comfortable position and praying while I was at it, I looked up. In front of me was the elevator occupancy card. It read “Maximum occupancy: 18 people.” I quickly did a head count…22, myself not included.

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