It takes me two hours to commute by shuttle bus; I can save a half hour if I drive myself to the station. This commute is normal in China and might be below the average in busy cities like Shanghai or Beijing. The distance is not that long, 21 kilometers each way, so you can imagine the terrible traffic. I prefer taking the shuttle bus because I can take a good nap on the way home, recovering from an exhausting workday to start a productive night, which is worth more than saving a half hour walking.
Normally I am one of the first two to arrive at the office, starting the day by making myself a cup of “Big Red Robe,” my favorite kind of Chinese dark oolong tea, heavily oxidized with a refreshing smell of charcoal. I am an engineer, so called. Everyone in this company can be called an engineer, as we work in the research and engineering center of an American automobile company. But this engineering work is far from what I had imagined an engineer should do. Truly there are some engineers, but apparently not everyone. Yes we can read some engineering drawings and speak in somewhat professional terms, but still, we have a weak sense of the working theory of engines or transmission, the structure of chassis or body. Maybe I set the standard of an engineer too high.
A colleague once told me the reason this company chose to situate its engineering center here is that China is the only place where you can find 2000 engineers in one city. People in China often study engineering in college, it’s true, because it’s harder to make money with a liberal arts degree. Few changes that I can see have taken place since Trump’s presidency, and patently all top-level chief engineers are Americans and we just play supporting roles.
My desk is right at the entrance of our big office, where approximately 70 persons are seated, and I’m supposed to greet everyone when they come into the office in the morning as any polite person should do (am I?). I did this at first, but gradually slid into pretending to focus on my work and not noticing anyone come in, which saves me a lot of effort.
However, I do greet one person in particular every day, a fat young
father who has a part-time job playing clown at children’s birthday parties. I
used to have two close colleagues in my team, both young married guys, but one
of them left recently. I’d thought we were close enough that I would feel sad
about his leaving. He was my mentor and the first one I knew in this company
besides HR. I enjoyed working with him and we talked about many things more
than just work. He even trusted me with his dirty secret that I still keep only
to myself. A friend, I considered him. But no sadness came across my heart the
day he left. We still send each other messages sometimes. Now there is only
this fat guy to exchange interesting or evil thoughts with at work. We sit
right next to each other and can hear each other burst into laughter at the
same time because of some funny critics on our “enemies” we just shared on
skype. In most cases, we laugh in silence, avoiding causing unwanted attention.
No one wants to leave the impression of being idle at work, a golden rule in
this department. We both find it difficult to get along with other colleagues
in our team because they have that not-genuine air around them. Faking harmony
is not something I’m good at, so I choose to avoid unnecessary conversations
Our company provides lunch, as in our rural area no lunch option other than the canteen is feasible. Colleagues always complain about the taste, while I find it quite good. I mean, exquisite French cuisine is not something you should expect from a free lunch. But the food choice is indeed limited, since the majority of the employees here are local, there are only salads or burgers besides all the Chinese dishes. I often see Western and Indian colleagues bring their own lunch.
Our team, 12 persons, used to have lunch together because Chinese people have the tradition of living in groups and they are traditional people. Although I’m not as traditional as them, fitting in is the first thing people do whenever we enter in a new environment. But soon I felt awkward, not making proper responses to the trivia they exchanged in exaggerated tones at lunch. I’m not a silent person, not even remotely close (in case you were wondering). Sometimes I’m unsure how far standard relationships between colleagues should go. I’ve decided that connection outside work is not a must, which should be understood, but not always easily managed. Nevertheless, I still separated from this lunch group, with the true reason unspoken; it would be rude to express my indifference to them, my preference for solitude over their company, and I can’t be rude when they’ve not been rude.
Chinese people here all pick ourselves an English name with the intention of making it easier for foreigners to remember us. Indian colleagues don’t do this. They use their original names, which are always very long and confusingly similar, such as Balakrishnan, Balasubramanian and Balachander, and we always shorten their names for convenience, so a kind of question—which Bala?—happens quite often in our office. They probably feel strange not knowing people by their true birth names, which I can relate for certain, so I pick an English name which is pronounced similar to my Chinese name.
Mixing English and Chinese is a popular habit of certain Chinese colleagues; it is how Chinese soap operas often characterize white collars in foreign companies. It’s not like running into some fancy French or German words in the articles in the New Yorker magazine. Instead it’s like kids learning a new foreign language, replacing part of a sentence with only the simple words they know. I get the drama sense of these soap operas, because it makes the power of the mother tongue seem so weak. Personally, I eschew this way of speaking. I didn’t expect myself to be surprised at it anymore after working for years in a foreign company, until I met J.
She always paces around the office, bringing obviously negligible topics to everyone’s desk with grand but broken opening sentences in an awkward posture. I appreciate her passion for bilingual, but her pronunciation is not acceptable. I was shocked once when she said “whore team” at a meeting. What she wanted to say, I believe, was “whole team”.
She evidently considers herself an excellent bilingual while others actually see her as a toddler who cannot even speak a full proper sentence, either in Chinese or in English.
Sometimes she dresses like a teenage girl, sometimes a vintage lesbian, sometimes a mother her age, but I know her so well no matter what she dresses like, that J. I work with her nine to five Monday through Friday, although we don’t talk much, her entry-level boss-like working style is hard to ignore. You can tell that her ego is too big for her ability but she is not aware of that at all. Her confidence, which comes from her ignorance, constantly overflows from her swollen body.
“Get to the point in just Chinese” echoes in my head every time she talks to me, while I only look at her expressionlessly, struggling to be polite. She is a kind person on the whole, but her fixation on this peculiar way of communication, her vulgarity, something can’t be compensated by kindness, is too much to handle. Her confidence gives me an impression that she’ll see a much grander self when she looks back at her past, years from now. I can’t say that’s a bad thing, just wondering how her self-awareness does this mysterious trick.
We have a two-hour-long regular team meeting twice a week, during which I can’t take my eyes off J.’s hair. I have a bold speculation that she washes her hair once a week or a fortnight or a month, not sure, but probably on Friday night, because I never see her hair clean, always greasy black with scattered dandruff, like a starry night in a horrible way. I don’t feel entitled to judge her lifestyle, but it’s really a big distraction for me when in meetings with her. Escape is all I want.
The meeting room is on the north-west corner and filled by buoyant 3 p.m. sunshine, aslant through shutters, blurring the conversations.