Me and Chairman Mao
  You got served.
Living in a country with 1.4 billion people and change--not to mention in a city of 12 million or so--definitely has its downsides: choking pollution, mind-numbingly bad traffic, and lots and lots of people pretty much anywhere you care to go. However, it does provide one very, very big upside: an almost limitless amount of cheap labor.

Turns out, the service industry is alive and well here in Red China. Who would have thought? I don't know that the waitresses, clerks, attendants, and such actually provide better service than their US-based counterparts, but what they lack for in quality they make up for in sheer numbers. The other day at the Outback, I hadn't been done with my beer for more than two minute before three different servers asked me if I wanted another. That, folks, is service.

Yes, if there's a one-person job to be done here, you can be sure there are at least two--and more likely three--people doing it. The other day, for example, we went to a Kodak store to get some visa pictures taken. The store itself was pretty normal--lots of film, computers to deal with digital prints, a backroom to develop pictures--although a bit on the small side, probably only 600 square feet or so in total. What was not normal, however, was the number of employees. You will not be able to guess how many people were working in a space that was the size of a good-sized living room. Go on--guess. Wrong!


(Don't lie, I know you didn't guess that.)

Yes, fourteen employees, all in Day-Glo yellow Kodak shirts. What were they all doing, you ask? Not much: one was in the back developing pictures; one was watching the guy develop pictures; one was asleep in the passport photo chair; two were helping us; two were watching the two people helping us; one was printing digital photos on the computer; one was playing mahjong on a different computer; one was telling the mahjong player what to do, or at least trying to; two were watching the mahjong game; one was outside smoking; and one was just sort of standing there with a dumb look on his face, although whether he was thinking really hard about something he couldn't understand--why there were fourteen people working at the store, perhaps?--or just had a dumb-looking face I couldn't say, although I'm inclined to guess the later.

Our complex itself, Seasons Park AKA "Home of Tycoons" (it really says that on the signs), is another prime example. We have guards. Lots of guards: guards for the door, guards for the gate, guards for the parking lot, guards for the cars parked on the street, and guards who just seem to march around the place in a way that never comes close to approaching "in unison." The thing is--other than open the door and occasionally salute as your cruise by the gatehouse in a taxi (which I have quickly gotten used to)--the guards don't really do anything. I've never seen them stop a car or keep anyone from entering the complex or a building. And, for that matter, I'm not even sure they could.

See, I'm using the term "guard" loosely, since our guards are mainly a bunch of kids, none of whom look older than sixteen, who dress up in blue, vaguely military-looking uniforms that apparently only come in one size: the wrong one, since I've never seen any of them wearing a uniform that fits. I think I could probably take three or four of them at once without really breaking a sweat--not counting the one who would likely trip on a too-long pant leg long before getting to me--so I'm not sure how much of a deterrent they would be to … well, whatever they are supposed to be deterring. But at least they all have jobs, which I guess is the point.

And guards just aren't confined to upscale places and the homes of tycoons--no, "guards" can be found, quite literally, everywhere. If a business has a door, there's a good chance it has a guard. (In related "too many people news," if the business happens to be a restaurant, it also probably has a girl who does nothing but open the door and point people in the direction of the hostess.) For example, the restaurant on the side-street across from the back gate of glorious Seasons Park has a guard. And a door-opening girl. And since I have never, ever seen anyone go into said restaurant, I'm not really sure what he's guarding. Maybe he's keeping them out? But then why the door-opening girl? Very confusing.

Oh well. Answers will have to wait for another time. Perhaps a time when I am hungry enough to go to that restaurant and eat Sichuan "hot pot," which is like fondue except the oil is filled with mouth-scalding, tongue-blistering red peppers. (The only time I had it, I almost threw up it was so hot. Really.) I'm thinking it will be a while until that happens.

Anyway, I'm off to buy Thanksgiving supplies. Luckily, if my hands are full on the way back, I won't have to worry about opening the door …

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