Saturday, 13 May 2017

You DON'T Know What You're Standing in Line For?

     A writer who had lived many years in Hong Kong claimed that Asians in general, and Chinese in particular, do not queue. They will push up to the counter; they will take you taxi if you're not quick enough. Queuing, she said, is for affluent societies whose citizens know that there will always be enough merchandise, taxis, or tickets to go around. She obviously hadn't lived in Mao's China, where acute shortages, combined with strict rationing, produced the same sort of interminable human lines for which the old Soviet Union was notorious. There is nothing like manmade disasters, such as wars or Communism, to make people stand in line.
     Take, for instance, the experiences of a girl called Sansan. She was her early teens in the bitter years, 1959 to 1961, when the Great Leap Forward morphed into the Great Chinese Famine, which has probably been forgotten by most of the present generation, but which cost the lives of 20 to 40 million people. She tells the story of ragged children from the countryside begging in a restaurant near the school, and of shortages in the hospital being so severe that the sick were forced to separate into two queues: one for temperatures over 102° F [39°C], and one for lesser fevers. Members of her family were living on two to four ounces [57 - 113 gm]  of vegetables a day, and corn-husk muffins at every meal. The latter consisted of simply the ground skin of corn kernels after the meat had been extracted and exported to countries like Albania.
    Everything, but everything, was rationed. By 1960 they didn't even have enough cloth to make patches for old garments. When the seat of her blue school trousers wore out, she dyed her white underpants with blue ink in order to camouflage the hole.
     Needless to say, all this led to an interesting phenomenon:
     While waiting in the queue, I tried to guess what the man was selling that day. Was it spinach or onions or cabbage? Or maybe, just maybe, was it chestnuts? How I craved chestnuts!
     I wasn't the only one who played this guessing game, because we all spent many hours a day just waiting in queues. Whenever we spotted a line of people, we would automatically get in it, for no matter what was being sold, we could use it. [I heard the same story about the old Soviet Union.]
     My neighbour down the block got on the tail of a very long queue one day and waited almost three hours before reaching her turn.
     The salesman asked her, "What measurements?"
      Bewildered, she replied, "What measurements to you need?"
     "Comrade, don't you know what you've been waiting to buy?"
     "No, but whatever it is, I am sure I need it."
     The man smiled. "Yes, but I will still have to have somebody's measurements for the coffin."
Reference: Sansan and Bette Lord (1964), Eighth Moon. (Sansan's mémoires were ghost written by his older sister, Bette, who grew up in the United States. She tells of his sister's early struggles with colloquial English - for instance, saying "Keep chilly" instead of "Keep cool", and turning "I am in a pickle" to "I am in a cucumber.")

No comments:

Post a Comment