Reflections in China 2: Time on our hands

How do you feel when a shop assistant is hovering around you, waiting for you to make your selection? I know what it does to me: I feel pressurized and intruded upon. It’s the same if we go into a restaurant, and  haven’t made up

our minds from the menu by the time the waiter comes to our table: we feel hassled and rushed into making a choice.  Maybe it’s because we have become conditioned  by supermarkets and online shopping, where nobody interrupts our deliberations or asks anything from us until we come to part with our cash, but we have reached the point we can do pretty well all of our daily trading without having to enter into communication with anybody.

The first time we ordered a la carte here (as opposed to serving ourselves at the buffet), the waiter brought the menus and just stood there quietly, a human statue. I thought: “Stop breathing down my neck! Go away and come back when I am ready!” Since I don’t speak any Chinese other than Hello and Thank you, there was nothing I could say, although I expect I made some rather disgruntled noises because he did actually wander off and come back a few minutes later. A similar thing happened when I went to buy a couple of shirts: the minute I entered the shop, I had a shadow. Fortunately we had a Chinese guy with us who was able to talk to the shadow about what I wanted, but the whole shopping experience was a communal enterprise, even down to the assistant passing her comments (via our friend) on whether the clothes suited me or not when I tried them on. So far from “I’ll have these two please. Thank you.”

I soon got used to the statue by our table, because there is always a statue; and I haven’t bought any more clothes. But I did get to reflecting a bit about the two experiences. The shop assistant was there to serve me, rather than to sell. If I’d been an hour in the shop her manner would have been the same. The waiter was just … waiting. What was different about the Chinese way?

There are a host of reasons why one culture is different from another, but I think one of the things at work here is a difference in our attitudes to time. We tend to be governed by schedules and timetables, and we can easily get under pressure to “make the most of our time”. We think of time as a commodity that we  waste if we don’t use it to produce tangible results. We can so easily spend our lives rushing from one result to the next that the weeks and months pass without us giving time to what matters most: friends, loved ones, places and things of beauty. We devote ourselves to “building with wood, hay and stubble” instead of “gold, silver and precious stones” (ie things of eternal value – the quotes are from the New Testament). Maybe the reason we ask ourselves “where did the time go?” is just that: it went in the pursuit of stuff that doesn’t last.

Here though, where civilisation is 5000 years old, there seems to be a different attitude (although whether it will survive the tide of Westernisation is another question. But that’s for the next blog.) Friendship, service and community are cherished above the “ker-ching” of a cash register having to chime every hour. Time spent achieving nothing isn’t wasted: if it isn’t given to assisting another person in the pursuit of their objectives, or just enjoying their company, it can simply be spent being at peace. We are here primarily on business, but I’m beginning to feel that I’m going to come back to the UK with something far more valuable than any deal we strike or contract we sign, and that is an increase in my store of patience.

Does this have anything to do with Dyslexia, or for that matter Visual Stress? Not a lot. Except for one thing. A problem keeping track of time is known to be a dyslexic “weakness”. We (Crossbow Education) have sand timers and even a Time Tracker in our product range. But maybe that’s not the case. Maybe the weakness is actually in our Western lifestyle, that insists on time being something that has to be tracked.

Bob Hext

Leshan,   Sichuan Province, August 2013

Note on the image:
The picture is of the Leshan Giant Buddha, who is apparently waiting for a future incarnation of the Buddha to return and bring salvation to mankind. As a Christian I’d say he’s waiting for the wrong guy, but he makes an excellent image of patience!

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