When I started at a four-year college in 1998, I didn’t think it the least little bit odd that the schedule included in my orientation package already had the date of my graduation ceremony listed. Considering that family and friends would be traveling from out of town and would need to plan in advance, this made perfect sense to me. Why would it be any other way?
Fast forward to late September of 2002 and I was trying to find out what the October Holiday was (other than a holiday in October), why the October Holiday was being celebrated (“because it’s the First Day of October” my English speaking Chinese colleagues would say, as if stressing the word October was going to help me understand), what day or days it took place, and how many days off work I had. Once I finally cracked the mystery of the October Holiday being held on October 1st not only because it was the first of October but because the first of October actually meant something, I couldn’t understand how this apparently very important yearly holiday was something that wasn’t listed on the school calendar of events.
I’ve been in China for a tad under 10 years by this point and I still don’t understand. I accept that the Chinese are apparently culturally unable to plan in advance, but accepting and understanding are not and never will be the same thing.
On January 6, 2003, when I left China for a trip to the US and Thailand, I gave my employer a wide variety of options for contacting me to let me know about my schedule. I would have given them my contact information anyways but it was more important than an American might otherwise think due to no one knowing when the Spring Term was going to start. Within half an hour of arriving at Capital Airport in Beijing my phone rang. The head of the English Department was frantic with worry because she hadn’t been able to reach me by phone, hadn’t tried my email address, and classes were starting tomorrow.
The kindergarten after the high school job let me know on a Tuesday that, despite the printed schedule in my contract, classes were ending for the summer on Wednesday and I needed to prepare “going away party” materials to say good-bye to all my kids. I thought maybe it was a boss-to-foreign employee relationship thing but as a student at Hainan University, it was no better. Holidays were announced or not announced seemingly at random and no one knew when classes started until after they had already started. Maybe it was my fault for not living in the dorms?
However, as I got to know more long term laowai and got to know them better, I realized that it wasn’t just me. For instance, friend and fellow Lost Laowai contributor Nicki was working for a training school that wanted her and her husband to renew their contracts for a further two years. The couple made some unreasonable demands to the school, however. They wanted to have two consecutive days off each week and they wanted all schedule changes (with the exception of emergency cancellations) to be posted 24 hours in advance.
This inability to plan in advance isn’t just a school thing but seems, rather, a cultural thing that is endemic to Mainland China. (In the middle of writing this piece, I asked some of my Taiwanese friends about this and they are just as confused as I am.)
Even though the October Holiday is on the 1st of October every fricking year no one is going to know what days they have off until its published in the newspaper; and the same goes for May Holiday, Spring Festival, and New Years’. Wedding invitations are issued days in advance–sometimes hours. And when the Public Security Bureau said that they’d let me know within a week about their decision regarding how I would be punished for a little incident where I got detained after failing to notice the “Forbidden Military Area” sign, it was annoying but it came as no surprise when I got a call six weeks later telling me that I was being fined.
Early in 2010, I started offering discounts of up to 50% off my normally posted translation rate if clients would give me two weeks to do a job. No one Chinese has ever taken me up on it. Around that same time I decided to charge 150% for rush jobs. By now, according to a very elaborate chart that all of my long term clients have their own personal copy of, I can and will charge as much as 2400% depending on the amount of notice given.
I didn’t raise my rush rates because I want to make more money from my work. I raised my rates because I don’t want people giving me last minute work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. Despite repeat warnings that last minute work will be lower quality for more money, my Chinese clients still give me last minute work. On the plus side, I get paid well for their bad habits.
Take, for example, a 15 page contract being translated from English into Korean. The client in question gave me two days. Since the Chinese to Korean translator I usually work with doesn’t speak English, I had to spend some of that time looking for a translator. Once the translator had started, I spent some time tracking down a Korean law firm to proofread the contract and make sure that it was not only a valid translation but also legally valid. However, the client declined the use of the lawyer. Their reason for not having me send it on to a lawyer wasn’t because a lawyer would add at least another $1,000 USD to the already very high cost of the document, but was instead because there wasn’t enough time.
Only in China.