Friday, January 16, 2004

"Chairman Mao flies on Friday, Saturday I go out to play..." Yeah, no eagles or dead presidents on the currency here, just one dead chairman, some flowers and the Great Hall of the People.
Today was payday, always an activity bursting with romance, mystery and suspense. Neither foreign barbarian coworker Jeff nor I are ever sure exactly when we are going to get paid. It's at the end of the month - give or take a couple days and sometimes in a manner that makes me wonder if they are consulting a necromancer who advises them on a "fortunate time" for payment. We have no idea how our Chinese co-workers get paid and are too polite to ask, though many of them seem to know more about our salaries and pay schedules than we do.
He and usually begin by placing descrete, oblique inqueries on about the 28th of every month. Because it's considered to be bad form, an approach like: "Hey, gimme my bucks!" is verboten and as such we've adopted more subtle strategies such as: "I can almost see the bottom of my worn rice pot vernerable editor. Do you know when the Jade Goddess of Fortune will allow me to replenish it?"
Our pleas drift heavenward to the Celestial Abode where the Shenzhen Daily's own Jade Goddess of Fortune, Lilly, the long-suffering, ever-helpful staff secretary hears them and eventually bustles by our desks to loudly inform everyone within earshot that our pay can be collected at a very specific time --usually something like ""4:17" or "9:51."
This month, though, with New Year/Spring Festival - it's the same thing - rapidly approaching and the paper shutting down for a week beginning Jan. 21, everyone is getting paid early. The Chinese employees need the bucks for gifts, food and travel - New Year is also their Christmas and Thanksgiving rolled into one - and Jeff and I aren't excluded from that largess.
Today was memorable, not only for the early payment, but also because of an identity mix-up.
I went to the accounting office - where I had been told be at "9:03" - and stared at a woman through the cage bars who stared back at me. No one in accounting speaks English, of course. I finally made the universal gesture for money - rubbing my index and middle fingers and thumb together - and pointed to myself and weakly grinned.
She smiled, got up, pointed to a stool near me and made the universal gesture for sitting down. I did so and she went into the next room. I was alone for about 5 minutes, until another customer appeared with a wad of bills. We smiled at each other and waited.
Another acccounting woman - one whom I recognized - finally appeared. The second customer went to the window and she said something to him that amounted to "The barbarian was here first" and motioned me to the cage window.
As is the norm, she pulled out some paperwork festooned with red rubber stamps, Chinese characters and numbers and pointed to where I should sign. The other customer was fascinated and stood extremely close to me and crained his neck in order to see the exact amount of wealth that the soft, fat, white maggot of a foreigner was about to leach from the sweat and toil of the People.
Feeling like I was in junior high, hiding my Spanish test answers from the prying eyes of Jerry Lesnett, I attempted to cover the paper with my right hand, scrawled my signature, folded the paper and passed it through the bars.
This next step is always my favorite. You see, we are paid in cash. And it comes from a squat, sturdy antiquidated cast iron safe with a large dial that always brings Jesse James to mind. It sits right behind the row of accountants' desks, in plain view.
Though the safe has a dial, accounting never uses it. Instead it's unlocked with a key that looks like an oversized prop in a elementary school play where a key is Very Important.
A hand goes in, bills are extracted and run through an automatic money counter and the assembled wad is passed through the cage.
This time I noticed that my pay was a bit larger than usual. I didn't ask questions, figuring it was a New Year bonus or something and just stuffed the stack into my sport jacket, ignored the still curious second customer's prying eyes, and went back to my desk where Lily appeared in a panic about 20 minutes later.
"Justin! It seems there has been a small mistake in the accounting department. I am sorry to trouble you. Perhaps we can go together back to there and discuss it?"
The small mistake was that I had been given Jeff's pay. The accountant mistook me for him.
He is about 2-3 inches shorter than me, 10 years older and roughly 30 pounds lighter. He has blue eyes. I have brown eyes. His hair is gray. Mine is dirty blond. I wear glasses all the time. He only does to read and edit. He has a noble Roman nose. I have a generic Anglo-Saxon schnozz. He dresses like a dapper country squire, often with a vest and tie. I dress like Otto the bus driver on The Simpsons. We are the only two white guys in a building of 2,000 or so Asians.
But all foreigners look alike, doncha know?
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