11.1 They are people too.

The Chinese customer service is infamous for its…well, lack of customer service. Usually, one encounters annoyed, impatient ladies and gents behind the service desks, at the cash register, standing over you at a table, down the aisles of a supermarket, etc.

Is it due to the low wages, the lack of tip culture, or generally bad customers?

Who knows.

But, if there’s one thing I’ve discovered, it’s that they are people too.

Last week I was at Beijing University’s campus supermarket, doing some hunting for sugar to go with my morning coffee now that my lovely mother has mailed me a French Press and delicious Starbucks coffee from Canada (bless her kind and loving soul).

Like fate’s usual self, she never lets me find what I’m looking for. The harder I try, the more elusive she makes that thing become.

So I naturally walked up to a lady working at the store, and asked her where the sugar was. With an annoyed, pathetic fling of her arm in the very general direction she was referring to, she told me it was down the aisle over.

I walked over. It was shelves of junk food.

I walked back to her and said I couldn’t find it. She gave me a “are-you-stupid?” look and repeated the flinging of her arms again, once again telling me it was down the next aisle.

I went back to look more carefully. Perhaps the healthy brown sugar was stashed behind some ten thousand calorie bubble gum.

Not the case.

She came over and I gave her a quizzical look and she proclaimed exacerbatedly “You STILL haven’t found it?!”. She was about to go and show me. Then, in the midst of her trek over, she turned around and went in the other direction, saying “Go find it yourself! You’re a university student. You should be smart enough to do it on your own!”

I wish I had made this up. But if you’ve ever been to China, you know this happens, this kind of absolute poop (I would use a more appropriate here, but I’ll be civil) customer service.

At that point, I was offended.

She basically said that if I couldn’t find it, I was stupid and I shouldn’t be in university.

Thank goodness I was in a good mood and the weather was fantastic. Or else I might have exploded on her right then and there.

So I decided to check out some other aisles, because obviously, she was wrong.

A minute later, she popped her head down the aisle I was searching and said: “really? You still don’t see it?!”

“All I see are a bunch of junk food and candy.”

“Isn’t candy what you wanted?!”

Here, I need to insert a very important language point. “Candy” and “sugar” in Chinese is basically the same word: “tang” (second accent) or 糖. But, there is a distinction. The longer version of both are different. “Candy” is “tang guo” (糖果) and “sugar” (the grind-up kind of coffee shops) is “sha tang” (砂糖).

I asked her, simply for “tang”. So she thought I was looking for candy, and thus pointed me down the junk food aisle.

Finally, I clarified to her that I was looking for sugar.

A silly, somewhat apologetic smile broke out on her face. Her shoulders sagged a little in relief (that I wasn’t some stupid idiot) and she led me to the right stuff.

I walked out with a bag of brown sugar in my hand and a realization in my head.

The lady might not have had the best tone-of-voice or the most complimentary words that are usually a large part of good customer service, but she came back. She came back several times to check to see if I’ve found the product.

Yes, she could have been nicer, but Chinese customer service people in general is preset to impolite. But talk to them a little, even a sentence or two about whatever, the weather, where they are from, how their day is, etc. and you find out that they are dealing with the same bureaucratic poop that you are up against, and that’s why they were particularly irritated that day. You realize that they’ve been working the tables for 10 hours straight without compensation (normal in China), and they’re missing dinner with their kids while serving you dinner. You discover that they are good people underneath. Most of them anyway.

Like everything else in this country, you need a lot of tolerance and patience, and a little dash of humour. And perhaps a friend or two to vent to for those really bad customer service experiences.

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