One problem foreigners have in China is dealing with obstinate officials and workers that either follow the rules to the letter but never tell you what the rules are, or lazy workers that pretend they can’t help you even when it’s easy to do. I’ve dealt with both types of people in China and have found a way that generally works with both kinds, at least at lower levels.
Act like a clueless foreigner.
Pretending to Be Helpless
A lot of Chinese people aren’t really racist, but they assume that foreigners don’t know much about China and definitely don’t understand the rules.
Playing dumb encourages this belief and does one of two things, it either brings out the helpful side of China and the desire to help a guest to the country, or it annoys them so much they’ll help you just to get rid of you.
Breaking the Rules
Right after my wife gave birth, she was in the Chinese hospital for 4 days, and visiting hours and guests were very limited. She could have one person, with her all the time, if you stayed late during visiting hours you would stay in the room for 4 or 5 hours until the next round of visiting hours arrived. My wife had an older Chinese caretaker who specialized in newborn babies and women to help her.
On the second day, I was visiting and lost track of time, so I was 15 minutes late to leave. When I went to the exit, it was locked and guarded by a big, angry looking Chinese nurse. As I tried to leave she started speaking to me gruffly in Chinese, and stopped me from opening the door.
I knew exactly what she was saying, but pretended I didn’t and with a confused look on my face, pointed at the door and said I had to leave. Every time she said no, I looked more confused and helpless. After about a minute of this, the nurse let me out and the caretaker in. She looked disgusted at this breach of the rules, but it worked. And the two dozen or so Chinese people in the waiting room who watched all of this seemed very impressed that I had managed to break the rules so quickly.
Getting Help In China
Exchanging money in China can be a huge pain, there can be lots of papers to fill out, and depending on the bank and the people it can be relatively painless, or an hours long endurance trial. When I first came to China, it was always the latter for me.
After changing money a few times I knew what I was doing, but it was still a hassle. One day I was tired, hot, and annoyed with work. I had to change a few hundred dollars into RMB, and didn’t want to put up with all the hassle. So when they handed me the forms to fill out, which at that bank at that time was all in Chinese, I just let a blank expression go over my face and looked at the form in confusion.
The manager who wasn’t very busy, started offering help which I clumsily followed, smiling really sheepishly. Giggling at the funny foreigner the woman took my pen filled out all the information for me, asking in very broken English for basic info, and had me sign my name at the bottom.
Then she helped me deal with the bank teller and got me out of there in record time. I gave her a big thanks.
So when you’re dealing with some problems or annoyances in China, sometimes playing stupid works. You’ll have to decide if you want to play stubbornly stupid or simply foolish, but if done well it will save you time, energy and sanity.