One of my friends, who has lived in Beijing for the last five years or so, likes to talk about what he calls “The Ratio of Success”. By that he means, in any given system or society, when an individual sets out to accomplish a task, how often do they succeed. Usually this task is something like paying the water bill or, more typically, finding an item you want to buy or even the place where you want to buy it.
In America, the ratio of success is pretty high: The systems and culture make it easy to know what to expect when you try to get something done and generally make getting that thing done pretty seamless. Places are open when they say they’ll be open. They don’t usually disappear without warning. They usually have the things you expect them to have. It’s easy to find information on the internet. Maps and addresses are accurate. Customer service is good.
In China, the ratio of success is much lower. It’s one of those things that can either been somewhat endearing or damningly frustrating, depending on your personality and mood.
Monday was a typical, if mild, example.
My friend CH accompanied me on a much-less-wandery-than-usual trip to find a coffee shop somewhere in town where we could study and actually study. I often try this kind of thing on my days off. And I often walk around for three or four hours having passed on every coffee shop I pass only to somehow — regardless of which side of town I began my walking in — turn a corner to find myself at Great Leap Brewing’s hutong location. Then I often convince myself that even though it’s only 2 p.m., I can manage a beer or two while writing Chinese characters. That often ends with me spending three hours wagging my jaws with some British businessmen before wandering bleary eyed into the setting sun already sporting a headache. Often, I get very little actual studying done. If I do, I can’t read anything I’ve written.
But Monday was going to be different, even though I still didn’t even pick a neighborhood until we sort of ambled whichever subway train arrived first at Xizhimen Station. In the end, after only one wrongly chosen train and 15 minutes of walking, near the Confucian temple we found a nice enough place, which had the standard pairing of too many cats and too-expensive coffee. But the lighting and location were nice so we hung out for a few hours.
CH really likes studying languages. He can speak about 10 to some degree or another, but he also seems to have trouble really settling in to learn one. He’s studied at least five in the seven months I’ve known him, only one of them Chinese. (Japanese, Korean, German and some Slavic language make up the other four, but I’m sure the list is longer). In similar style, he’s always trying to find new, more effective methods of language learning by buying trunkfulls of books and scouring internet forums. If any of his preferred methods have anything in common, though, its their near absolute reliance on notecards. You know, the cardstock, flashcardy ones that I’m pretty sure you can buy in 100-packs at any gas station, craft store, Walmart, K-Mart, Office Max, Office Depot, King Soopers, Safeway, Albertsons, or wherever.
Well, as far as I knew, China just doesn’t have them. Jordyn spent half a year looking.
Well, the lack of flashcards had really been grinding CH’s gears so at the coffee shop he spent some time using the wifi to try to find a place in Beijing that sells notecards. Short of that, he started looking for Staples-like stores around the city, settling on one called “O’Mart”, which said it’s website sells all sorts of American-style office supplies. Despite the cold, CH really wanted to try to find it. Notecards on the brain. So off we set.
We knew the store was near the Liangmaqiao subway station, but that was it. The only English-language information we could find was just that: “In the Lufthansa Center Area.” We also were able to find the Chinese address. With that we set out, making the best use of maps and people we could manage. Addresses are notoriously difficult to pin down in Beijing. Streets run for kilometers upon kilometers and sometimes many different streets share the same name.
We couldn’t find the street on the map. No one seemed to know where we wanted to go. One lady who worked at the information desk in the Lufthansa Center, simply wrote a number on a piece of paper, pointed at it, and refused to say any words. When it was clear we didn’t understand, she just pointed at the paper and shook her head. The number was the address of the Lufthansa Center. We already knew this.
To add to the confusion, the address we had from the internet had two different numbers. We walked up the road from the Lufthansa Center in one direction and the numbers shrank. One of the numbers in our address was larger, the other smaller. We decided to try the larger one first — that direction had more businesses — and set off. After about forty minutes, we felt no closer to finding our store.
(We did find Great Leap Brewing’s newest location. What did I tell you?)
Finally we hailed a cab. He didn’t understand where we wanted to go. “Two numbers,” he said, pointing at CH’s phone. “Go to the small one,” we said. Soon we passed the Lufthansa Center again. Then we stopped at a stoplight. A minute went by. Two. Suddenly, the cab driver announced: “It’s right there,” gesturing nebulously toward a building corner the 2 o’clock position. (Nebulous handwaving is standard practice in China’s ratio-of-success puzzles, but that’s for another post.) He asked if we saw it. I stupidly said that I did. We got out in the middle of the street.
Upon reaching the corner that was the object of the nebulous waving, we came to see that the number of the corner building was nothing in the ballpark of the number we’re looking for. 42. We wanted 33. But he told us it was over there before he took our money, so we strolled down the side street, shivering. The numbers started climbing again. The street name changed too.
We eventually asked a parking attendant if he knew where we wanted to go. He looked at the address.
“You’re on the wrong street,” he said, then pointed back where we came from confirming our suspicions. “That’s the street you want.” We walked back to the corner and started walking the way our money-fattened cabbie would’ve kept driving.
A block and a half later we spotted it: A sign on the other side of the road that looked like newspaper left too long in the back window of a Subaru. “O’Mart”, CH said it said on the peeling canvas. There were also some pictures that looked vaguely like they might have been copy machines or something.
We crossed the street, and started back the other way, murmuring all the while about how dark it looked inside and how it was already just after 6 p.m. CH grumbled something about suicide if the place is closed after all this time. Or if doesn’t have notecards. But no, the lights, however dim, were definitely on.
Then as we started up the ramp, a man walked out of the store. He grabbed a loud, blocky thing grumbling along just out of the entrance way. A generator. Off it went. Off went the lights. Out came a pair of women. Six p.m. closing time said the paper sign taped to the door. “F**k f**k f**k f**k f**k f**k f**k f**k f**k,” yelled CH, hopping up and down and thrusting his finger at me as. The women spared him a glance, kind of. The man, who I believe was the manager, did not. We turned around and walked away.
I don’t think it would’ve mattered. The place was about as big as a kitchen and most of its selves were at least half empty. Maybe it was better to get locked out than to get in, spend another half hour looking and still walk away without notecards. Still, after three full hours of failure, it was something of a blow to CH.
In the end it worked out: he found his notecards at a local shop the next day, and I didn’t care anyway. I just like wandering.