China – Organized Chaos

Now that I’m back in China my students often ask me why I came to their country. Which is a perfectly legitimate question. And some ask me to compare life in America and life in the Middle Kingdom. But few ask me what I think of China. As in many countries, China could be analyzed by its culture, its modernity, its history, or its people. But I think two words are sufficient – organized chaos.

Now those two words may seem paradoxical to some. How can something have both strict organization and random chaos? How can there be both disorder and order? But for this country, it works. You just have to come here to see it.

One great example is the transportation system. They have stoplights (most of them have visible numerical timers, which I prefer to the American light system), medians, dotted lane lines, and turn signals. In fact, if an American were transported to Huangdao, he would feel fairly comfortable with the transportation network apart from all the Chinese characters or pinyin. And as far as I know, China’s traffic rules are the same as the West. Stop at a red light. Go on green. Yield to oncoming traffic. Signal when changing lanes.

But then you drive here, and it’s truly chaotic. Taxis use the roads vicariously to fulfill their dreams as a Formula 1 racecar driver, cars change lanes with no warning, and red lights seem to be more of a prolonged yellow light for drivers. And pedestrians must fend for themselves. You are at the bottom of the food chain. And if you get run over, it’s your fault.

So yes, rules exist. The order is there. But once you insert people into the mix, things get messy. Another example is construction work. In America, cities were built over decades. In China, a year or two is enough.

When the work begins, there is an untouched, barren patch of dirt. Then the workers erect their temporary houses on the perimeter of the building plot. Next a massive hole is gouged from the earth to lay the foundation. Then the work really begins. An endless supply of trucks enter and exit the place. Hundreds of blue-shirted workers do their assigned tasks. And gradually the yellow cranes begin to rise over the site.

Eventually a concrete facade┬ádraped in green sheeting and yellow scaffolding emerges from the hole . The project clearly has organization, or nothing would be built. But sometimes it seems incredible that all the workers’ individual tasks can merge to create a new building. Surely there must be some confusion or miscommunication. Regardless, the work gets done, despite its seeming disorder.

And then there’s the universities (disclaimer: I teach at one). The bureaucracy can often be mind-numbing here. For each administrative system, there is a school hierarchy and a government hierarchy. For example, the dean of students would have a government administrator working alongside him. Generally, when I get my teaching schedule for the semester, it’s fairly straightforward. But one semester I had several conflicting classes that would require an extra body or two to teach them. Later I found out that three different departments had created my schedule. Honestly I was surprised my schedule wasn’t riddled with class conflicts.

Eventually the class problems were sorted out. And I could now teach each one. But once again, a little bit of disorder in the administrative structure made an otherwise organized system a little chaotic.

To be honest, I like order a lot. But a little chaos isn’t so bad. Otherwise I couldn’t bike into opposing lanes of traffic (a practice I don’t recommend too highly) or light fireworks inside an apartment complex. Chinese New Year just wouldn’t be the same. And weddings would me much more muted too. So if you’re an adrenaline-laced, high-energy person, China will certainly satisfy your needs. And if you’re more the organized, structured type, come to China and embrace a little chaos. It may be more fun than you think.


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