Our life in Urumqi

In case the etymological study of the word ‘logic’ didn’t give the game away, this is a contribution from Ian. On a Bad China Day.


Logic. The word has its roots in the ancient Greek logos, of which one meaning is to say or speak. In the thinking of Heraclitus, who first used it in a technical sense, it meant something akin to Truth, alethia. Nowadays, however, it denotes a systematic approach to something, a manner of saying or doing things that confirm to a logical, that is, comprehensible and easily verifiable truism. It is this wordview, this paradigm, that signifies Western technological thinking more than any other. And it doesn’t apply in China.

Take, for instance, a loose historical overview. In the thought of Confucius it is social harmony that reigns supreme as an ideal; it is solid, pragmatic and binding upon people. Not to fit in with societal norms distances one from the order of things. Logic, on the other hand, is rebellious in its search for truth; it questions accepted norms and demands of its adherents a degree of imagination and independence that would, in purely Confucian terms, be considered as wilfully destroying social harmony. Its very willingness to upset harmony places it irrevocably outwith the Confucian model.

These two worldviews affect the perception of time in novel ways. For example, if a bus is full then logical thinking can peer into the future and express the thought, ‘This bus is so busy that its journey time up until this point will have been quite a bit slower than is normally the case. Ergo, there will be another bus on its way in short order and, assuming the people at the other stops all got on the present bus, it will be comparatively empty’. So speaks logic. The Confucian-inspired model considers time differently: ‘Shita! This is my bus and everybody else is pushing and shoving their way on ahead of me. I’d better do the same to maintain social harmony with my fellow bus travellers. Who knows when the next bus will be!’

The same sense of Confucian immediacy applies to exiting from a packed bus too. For the Confucian: ‘Shita! My stop’s coming up and half this lot have already shoved their way to the exit door. I’d better shove even harder to make sure I’m off first, otherwise it might never happen and disharmony will occur’. Logic, in contradistinction, approaches things differently: ‘Great! Everyone else is pressing up towards the back of the bus. If I just wait here then I can get off last without being crushed and having my kidneys poked by needle-fingered grandmothers’. Despite knowledge gained through observation and experience the Confucian will repeat the same uncomfortable alighting/exiting behaviour so as not to upset a wider harmony, not to stick out. For the logician this is … well, stupid.

In Notes from a Small Country Bill Bryson shares with his readers an incident he observed at a ticket office in Edinburgh, Scotland. Only two of the ticket kiosks were open and, spontaneously, naturally even, people had formed an orderly queue, a singular queue. Not only was this queue singular it was also set at a distance of a few feet back from the kiosks, equidistant to both. As one traveller after another took his or her tickets a new person would come to the front to purchase theirs at whichever kiosk happened to become free first. Very democratic and fair, I think you’ll agree. For anyone who’s ever eaten at a KFC or McDonalds in China … let’s leave commentary aside. (Yes, they like rain and queueing in Scotland. They are very good at queueing, I’ll concede that any day: Ange)

Moving on (and no longer using the term ‘Confucian’ as it’s not even imprecisely accurate). During WWII there was a health campain in Britain to help limit the spread of colds, flus and other airborne diseases. Its tagline was famously, ‘Coughs and sneezes spread diseases. Always remember to cover your mouth’. Sage advice. Very logical. Nonetheless, it is considered unhealthy, illogical to do such a thing in China. I’ll expand: coughs, sneezes, phlegm etc. are unhealthy bodily by-products (true) and must not at any cost maintain close proximity after expulsion (keep going). Using a hand or tissue to stop the firing of these nasty things into shared space is bad for you (huh?), better just to get it all out there without blocking a single molecule (what about those in the firing line?). Unsurprisingly, WHO predicts that the next major outbreaks of flu-like pandemics to sweep across humanity will originate in China. (The short version here: they spit, it’s disgusting. Ange)

Another hygiene one: the Chinese are distrustful of crockery in restaurants. They prefer single-use paper or plastic plates, bowls etc. wrapped in cellophane to prove it’s clean. Ironically, they then share food from the same serving plates (which are reused from previous meals) and use their own chopsticks to serve themselves, happily overturning pieces of meat and vegetables until they find what they’re looking for. Bones? No problem, just spit ‘em onto the table or floor and make sure never to use disinfectant on the table afterwards. In the far west of China, the indigenous, non-Chinese population look upon these practices with a resignation only those accustomed to shaking their heads at poor logic can express. At least, that’s what I hear. The reason and the reality (my hearsay opines) is in such polarity that they wonder if the Chinese aren’t playing a long-running joke on them.

Supermarkets are another one where gross national logic can be found lacking. Trying to buy stuff can be a real problem for EVERYBODY in China. Allowing for people’s inability to queue there are other pitfalls for the uninitiated to encounter. It is not uncommon to find a till operator blatantly, and sometimes surreptitiously, simply removing an item from your purchases because the barcode fails to scan. Absoloutely no thought at all is involved in this act, it is entirely natural and can leave one baffled in the extreme. A firsthand example: I’m standing in line (naively) with a single item, cheese, in my hand. That’s it, nothing else. Just one single, solitary item. It doesn’t scan.

‘Mao,’ I’m told. ‘No,’ like the mayo in mayonnaise.

‘What d’ya mean mao? You think I’m some kind of dog giving you a stick? I want my cheese’. The till operator scans it a second time to prove it won’t play ball.

‘Mao,’ again.

‘Yeah, I can see that. Why not try typing the number in?’ This process takes a bit of trial and error to get across, but eventually the penny drops and the barcode is manually entered. Alas, to no avail.

‘Mao,’ I’m told yet again and the cheese is removed from view. This done, I’m expected just to give up. No! I want my cheese. I remove the exact amount of money from my wallet and hold it out. A simple note can explain why the till is 50RMB up on the final Z-reading, surely.


Exasperation kicks in. In best Homer Simpson mode I’m thinking to myself, ‘Money can be exchanged for goods and services’. Yeah, right. Holding out the money for a bit longer doesn’t work and people further down the line, such as it is, are getting impatient with the stupid foreigner who thinks money has a role to play in economic exchanges. Defeated, I leave the store. Cheeseless. Grumpy.

The above scenario is typically a weekly occurrence and happens to everybody. All the time. Quite how Chinese supermarkets turn a profit is a mystery. And nobody complains. Harmony would somehow fall apart if people complained at such idiotic practices. So, basically, when in China accept that your dinner plans probably won’t work out every day. (Like when you plan an Indian meal around an imported packet of spices… BASTARDS!!! Ange)

This lack of logic isn’t all bad. Sometimes it creates instances of irony in action. A favourite one is the preponderance of ‘no smoking’ signs in most restaurants. Very often these signs will be set directly above an ashtray, complete with smouldering cigarette ash falling from the hand of a customer as he cheerfully puffs away. It’s a joyful experience to see laws that are so rigourously enforced back home flouted by groups of policemen on their lunch break. It’s mostly funny due to the fact that while smoking in restaurants is illegal no one cares. However, the financial penalties for not having the signs themselves are enforced. Which must make for an interesting dilemma in the minds of hungry police cigarette smokers.

That said, back to cases of anti-logic. In a word: grit. You know, that stuff what is used to stop cars and people slippy sliding all over the place in winterland. Nah, not here. Armies of impoverished workers are employed to manually sweep snow from roads and pavements in China. Mostly indigenous people who can’t be trusted to do illogical jobs like competent till operation. Now, I’m all for boosting employment opportunities, but there’s a problem here. Snow falls (with me so far?). People walk on the snow, it compacts into ice (still there?). Things get slippy; people slippy slide and get sore botties falling over. Conspicuous by its absence, grit don’t happen (follow?). It snows again. The snow acts as grip for winter shoeses (thats’s good, right?). Kinda. At least it does until the same army of snow sweepers lift every snowflake from the city walkways. Now there’s ungritted ice on the ground for four months which, day by day, gets polished to a fine sheen by so many pairs of feet doing the Chinese winter shuffle. Duh!

This leads me onto a connected thought about walking. The winter shuffle gets into your bones, seeps into muscle tissue and forms synaptic pathways difficult to break. When spring hits and the ice finally melts people continue to walk strangely. Folk may now be lifting their feet when walking, but they find it impossible to do so in a straight line. Quite where the logic is in extending your journey by walking in a zigzag pattern up the street beats me. And invariably this diagonal walk will cause stupid foreigners (who inexplicably prefer walking in straight lines) to face an obstacle course of drunken-gaited fellow pedestrians. Standing still in this maelstrom isn’t too advisable either. Even set back out the way and minding your own business on an otherwise empty pavement will not save you from a diagonal walker practicing his or her shoving skills. It is truly a sight that has to be seen to be believed.

Okay, we’ve walked to a restaurant for breakfast, taken a bus and have just arrived at work. Nothing stragely unfamiliar has happened thus far. It’s a good day. Work related examples of the logical nadir that is China are bountiful, however, and you can never quite tell what’s going to happen/be done to you on any given morning. A personal favourite for you below:

‘Hey, Angela, we’ve found a way for you and Ian to have your two days off together,’ our supervisor informs her.

‘That’s great, thanks,’ she says.

‘Yeah, it is great. It does mean though that you have to work on one of those days. But it’s still your day off’.

‘Well, that’s not a day off then is it?’

‘Yes, it’s still your day off. You just need to come in for a few hours’.

‘So, you want me to work on my day off?’


‘So it’s not a day off’.

‘No, it’s still your day off’.

‘But I have to come into work. That’s not a day off’.

‘No, it IS still a day off’.

‘It’s really not. If I have to come into work i-t  i-s  n-o-t  a  d-a-y  o-f-f’.

‘No, you’re right. It is’.


Later, when I’m informed about working six days (although one really, really is my day off) I’m even less understanding and cut through the gordian knot of previous semantic games quicker than tabasco through a baby’s digestive system.

‘F*** off! That’s entirely unacceptable, it’s not what we signed up for and is entirely non-negotiable,’ I calmly and politely express without raising my voice even a little bit. (The last bit is a blatant lie: Ange)


Needless to say we’re not working on our days off and the whole idea very quickly disappeared.

This second work related one went on for months:

‘Hey Boss, can I have a payslip, please,’ I asked after our first pay came through.

‘Sure, not a problem,’ I’m informed.

Nothing happens.

Month two. Same thing.

Month three. Same thing

Month four. Pay is obviously wrong.

‘Hey Boss, I want a payslip, my pay is wrong,’ I demand.

‘Sure, not a problem. No, wait, there’s a problem,’ I’m told.

‘What’s the problem?’

‘It’s difficult’. Having been here a while now I know when to leave things alone and to wait a few days before asking again.

‘Hey Boss, where’s my payslip. What’s so difficult?’

‘Tax’. Progress! ‘You owe us money’. Repudiate former statement.

‘Can I see a payslip so we can work it out?’

‘Sure, no problem. No, wait, there’s a problem’.

‘What’s the problem?’

‘It’s difficult’. Progress made I leave it there for another few days. The same conversation is had again and frustrated I contact someone higher up the food chain.

‘Hey Big Boss, I still don’t have any payslips and I’m losing trust in Boss’.

‘What’s the problem?’

‘It’s difficult. Something about tax’. Big Boss leaves it there and two minutes later my Boss receives a phonecall. Thirty minutes later we have all our payslips.

‘Hey Boss, where do we owe you money?’ I ask.

‘You paid too much tax here and too little here and now you owe us,’ she tells us.

‘Right, I see. Thing is you haven’t paid either of us our probationary bonus or commission on getting seven kids signed for classes’.

‘Hmmm, okay we’ll fix it.’

‘Good, thanks’.

‘One thing’.


‘You don’t need to go above our heads to get things done. All you had to do was ask’.

I stare blankly for a moment or so and mentally recall all our previous conversations. Maybe it’s got something to do with that harmony stuff again, this is a mild reprimand for breaking the hierarchical order of things. And it’s so obviously a lie designed to save face by rewriting history that I wonder if perhaps I’ve imagined an alternative reality where all the stuff in my menory actually happened. Such illogical brinkmanship is common as diagional walking here.

Just a quickie, I know you’ve been reading for ages now. The school we work for is a business and as such it’s crap. Money comes before proper education and TPR (Total Physical Response, which is an approach to teaching) is used as a verb. Our fees are the highest in the city and the school considers itself to offer a premium product. This is what they mean by ‘premium’:

Educational Consultant (EC – no we don’t know what they do either): ‘This child likes English’.

Angela: ‘That’s good’.

EC: ‘Her parents want her to sign, but she’s very nervous’.

A: ‘That’s okay’.

EC: ‘So, just make English noises’.

A: *daggers* ‘How about we try teaching her?’

EC: ‘No, just make noises’.

There is so much more that could be written here. (Un)fortunately life is too short and some stuff just beggars belief. Please send me cheese. (And cardamom, cloves, cayenne pepper, and turmeric: Ange)

Comments on: "Who needs logic anyway…" (4)

  1. […] Who needs logic anyway… (camelsandkebabs.wordpress.com) […]

  2. Ange – this is awesome, awesome, awesome. Am loving reading this.

  3. Hey now I know where they got their inspiration for Sydney transport from,love reading this stuff, I can tell when Ian is writing ’cause it’s full of bigshit words sent to confuse your dumbarse dad (see Confucius strikes again!) I don’t think we’d better visit though or I’d be writing about the inside of one of their jails, you know how long I’d last with people poking, pushing and queue jumping on me,we would actually send you your spices if we had an address – hey we could put them in your birthday coffee pot, you remember the one we were going to send in January.
    Love Dad

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