One of the more intriguing dichotomies of the modern Chinese lifestyle is their resolution of the inherent conflict between the desire to get things done and the rest required to have the energy to do so.
It starts on the plane ride over. The plane takes off, the meal is served, the lights dimmed, and, with few exceptions the Chinese are sound asleep while the Westerners work, watch movies, or just fidget about trying to get comfortable and somehow survive the excruciatingly long flight. Upon landing, however, the Chinese jump out of their seats, often before the plane has come to a complete stop, lunge for their personal belongings, and push their way to the front of the plane to make sure they can de-plane as quickly as possible. (To be fair, this scenario has softened immensely since I first began traveling here but the description will still ring true for those coming here for the first time.)
And on the commute to work each morning you can’t help but notice that many of the Chinese crammed onto the bus next to you at the stoplight are likewise sound asleep despite the crush of twice as many bodies as the bus was designed to hold. (A Chinese colleague and I both laughed when we got on an empty elevator at a U.S. hotel and saw a large placard warning that the spacious elevator had a legal load limit of 8 people. In China there would be no fewer than 20 people on that same elevator.) Having arrived at their sparkling new office building, however, they climb aboard the elevator and, without fail, reach out and push the button to close the elevator doors with an enthusiasm bordering on indignant exasperation.
As a quick aside, the ‘Chinese elevator culture’ as I have come to call it, is fascinating at many levels and is symbolic of multiple dichotomies. Beyond the rest/action dichotomy that is the subject of this blog it also speaks to the potential dichotomy of change and activity. While the Chinese pride themselves on the pace of change they are able to accommodate, they often confuse activity with action. Having ridden countless elevators around the world I have yet to witness any compelling evidence that the ‘close doors’ button on any elevator actually does anything. I suspect it is there only to create the illusion of responsiveness when, in fact, the doors will close whenever they have been pre-programmed to close.
Confronted with the rest/action dichotomy, many visitors, upon first witnessing a Chinese person sleeping on a park bench or other public venue, may conclude that the Chinese take a rather laid-back approach to work. It’s not unlike the judgment many New Yorkers make when they fly to the Caribbean for holiday and upon taxiing up to the gate look out their airplane window to see the tarmac workers lounging about or asleep on the baggage conveyor pulled up to the next plane over.
What the Chinese have mastered, however, is not the art of laziness, but the art of extending their personal battery life to its maximum, in the same way that the hard-working Caribbean baggage handlers have learned to survive in the oppressive heat of a Caribbean airport. They are, in essence, not avoiding work, but re-charging so that they can in fact work even harder and longer.
While always jealous of their effortless ability to shut down, I have become an ardent admirer of the idea of resting when you can. In addition to being good for your health it is the ultimate in LEAN living, for those of you with knowledge of manufacturing systems and processes.
Again, however, another dichotomy. By eliminating the waste of daydreaming they have, at the same time, eliminated much of the creative benefit of physical idleness. It’s great if your work is completely task-oriented, but can be limiting if your work requires both thought and inspiration. While I can wash dishes strictly on the basis of time and motion, writing does not always lend itself to such linear scheduling. If I’m struggling to construct an intelligible sentence I will often force myself to take a break and let my mind idle. It is, in fact, while watching a colorful sunset or walking in a forest filled with fall foliage that my best ideas come to me.
Many famous Westerners, of course, understood the power of a good nap as well. Thomas Edison, John F. Kennedy, Napoleon Bonaparte, John D. Rockefeller, and Ronald Reagan, were all accomplished nappers according to research posted on huffingtonpost.com. The Chinese, nonetheless, appear to have once again taken a good idea to an entirely new level. That’s what happens, I guess, when you have 1.3 billion people on a mad dash to lead more comfortable lives.
But alas, I am, as I write this, in the U.S. on a business trip; it’s 4 a.m. and I am unable to sleep.
Maybe it’s genetic.
Copyright © 2013 Glassmaker in China
Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.