Mei Guanxi - Back with the Dentists 
@ 6 December 1999


 [glossary: guanxi - the network of obligations & relationships that govern Chinese social, economic & political life, often in defiance of equity or efficiency. mei guanxi - "don't worry about it", as a reply to thanks etc]

It had to happen. This journey back to the world of dentists. First I tried an independent line -- asked Rebecca by email to translate a request into hanzi, something to shove under the noses of reception staff while I played dumb. Then I double checked Rebecca's Chinese with HB. He tut-tutted and took it away, coming back a day later with a typed sheet in hanzi + an English re-translation. If the Chinese was anything like the English, it had little to do with the tone and organization of what I wanted to say, but maybe Chinese thinking doesn't either. At last, I made took the rash step of asking FXQ to arbitrate the versions. Should have known better.

FXQ took half a day off work.The guanxi network went into action. We were met at the dental hospital gate by a mousy young woman with slightly crooked teeth, and a rather expensive, figure-hugging brown coat. She was a nurse, though evidently off-duty.

One wing of the dental hospital itself has just been refurbished, with marble slab tiles to disguise the old concrete walls, shiny new floors, and even a reception counter that wouldn't be out of place in a Sydney private hospital. After paying the registration fee, Miss Mouse led us up the stairs, disappeared for a minute, and re-emerged with her mother. Mother, a woman of perhaps my age, was also a nurse of some more senior variety, and definitely on duty in her white hospital gown. Her thin face and well-managed smile barely acknowledged me, but the drama had already been scripted. We slipped around a corner, into a narrow, but tastefully tiled stairwell. You could see that this was a road less traveled by the hoi poloi. It led us up to another reception area, much smaller but discreetly tasteful. Along the wall was a small collection of modern arm chairs with polished wooden arms and floral covers, a potted palm stood in a large glazed pot, and six dentist's stations with the latest equipment stood separated with open-plan screens of grey and dark blue.

We had been ushered into a special clinic reserved for "cadres", the elite of the guanxi Mafia, or what the Russians used to call the nomenklatura. Over the last year I have occasionally stumbled across hints of this special privileged world that the heirs of the people's revolution have donated themselves. There is a suburb, tucked away in a corner or Wuchang, where the apartments are actually painted on the outside and the leafy streets swept with special care. No accident that that district is home to an enormous Stalinesque city hall, watched over by massive posters of China's supreme triumvirate, who gaze heroically into the distance.

The half dozen cadres we had joined were (one hoped) a bit past pulling the levers of power. The skin was taut on their old, bony faces, their hair thin, and their beady eyes focused on preserving the small pool of life that remained in their spent bodies. Their clothing had that shabby disregard of the retired, and matched the outer coverings of their public ideology. One old fellow oddly set off his khaki Mao cap and loose khaki uniform with a pair of Nike running shoes. A solid woman in a hand knitted pullover of black and red, shot occasional crafty glances at our little party as she unabashedly tried to eavesdrop. The mixture of broken Chinese & English probably defeated her curiosity, but playing stooge was a role so familiar, my paranoid foreigner's mind whispered, that she could run it on autopilot.

We might have weaseled our way in through the door, but getting special attention amongst a group so well-trained in getting special attention was a forlorn hope. In this company we were the last cab off the rank. FXQ made small talk with MM for two and a half hours, laughing, touching her arm confidentially, lightly brushing the other's hair in moments of care, burnishing her unsurpassed skill as a networker. Gradually MM relaxed, and found the courage to ask me a question here or there. Her husband is doing a Ph.D. in New York. In a few months she will join him. Would it be wise, she unwisely asked as the stooge strained to hear, for her husband to switch to computer science? That is, would he find it easier to remain in America with a computer science degree? It would be wise, I advised a little too tartly, for him to do what he's best at and enjoys ....

When the call came at last, it was a brief encounter. The lady professor came close, my eyes lost focus on her wizened, puffy face, and she stared down my gullet. Crowns, she declared, would destroy what was left of my chompers. How about a quick filling? There was a time when I took declarations of vast authority at face value. Some bad burns and bruises across half a century have rubbed my suspicion-sensor a bit raw though. I demurred, she retreated half a step, then went into full flight. Lots of rapid Chinese. My cake-hole, it came out, was a bad calcium excavation. It demanded lots of time and work, but she was, um, a very busy person. She would recommend another professor for another day ... I was, very definitely, not cadre with useful connections for her.

Back down the stairs, another search for mother nurse, who emerged, picked up the drift of things in a quick bird-like way, and made a Chinese noise that sounded like an old-fashioned English hrrrmph! She darted off, and two minutes later led us to another, much more public surgery, where a hearty professor, re-emigrated from Canada asked in perfect English what was wrong. Get me the best long-term solution for these jumbled molars, I begged. Right, no problem. Come back Thursday afternoon and we'll have a go at it, he said at once ... You'll find me right here ... just come straight in ...

Couldn't we have managed this three hours ago? .. well, no.. All the stroking by FXQ was the important thing, all the building of human relationships. It was much more important that I talk about MM's husband in New York than I get the teeth fixed or plan tomorrow's lesson. That's what FXQ tells me anyway, chiding my time obsession. Mm, probably she's right; no doubt that's why I've got no guanxi on any continent. But my warped priorities are an incurable condition. I should have hired a guanxi manager forty years ago.

"Mei Guanxi - Back with the Dentists" copyrighted to Thor May 1999; all rights reserved


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