Beijing, 16 March 2013

Let me tell you about Lisa.

That’s not her real name, by the way, it’s her Western name. Like many Chinese, she has adopted a Western name for her interactions with laowai, or foreigners, like us. Which is just as well, frankly, because I personally never remember Chinese names and always mispronounce them dreadfully, which must be trying for the person being mispronounced.

Lisa is one of the army of young people who act as receptionists in our building. My wife and I are not entirely sure what any of these people do. Part of the day they sit at the desk by the entry door, monitoring who comes in and out. Then they disappear to do who knows what somewhere else in the building. They are perched at a somewhat higher level in the building’s management hierarchy than the doormen. They get to sit at the desk in the entry hall, while the doormen (always men, by the way) only get to stand by the door swinging it open for anyone who goes in or out. The two worker categories are distinguished by their uniforms. Lisa and her cohorts wear a white shirt, dark suit (men and women; no tailleurs here), and a dark coat during the winter months. The doormen, on the other hand, wear what looks like army fatigues and a red beret (although we have noticed that one doorman seems to have moved up the ranks and now wears an outfit more akin to the receptionists; but he still opens the doors).

Lisa is a godsend to us, because she speaks pretty good English. Whenever the electricity stops, or the hot water cuts off (which has happened to me twice when I was well soaped under the shower), or the TV mysteriously loses half of its channels, or the air conditioning system doesn’t blow any air out, my wife knows whose mobile number to call to explain what the problem is. In no time at all, Lisa will marshal the right buildings management crew or add some more Yuan to our electricity card, or water card, or hot water card (they have a rather bewildering system here for utilities; money gets credited onto a card, which then is used to credit an account we have somewhere in the building, and the utility magically works again). We always know which are her days off, and we anxiously hope that nothing will happen during those days; dealing with the other young men and women at the reception desk is hard going since they speak hardly any English. Some six months ago, we were also very afraid – as was Lisa herself – that she would be rotated out of the building to another of the host of buildings owned by our real estate company, but luckily this did not come to pass.

Over the year we’ve been in this building, my wife has struck up a good relationship with Lisa. She is a very friendly person and loves to chat. In the process my wife has found out a few things about her. She lives far away on the outskirts of Beijing, with her parents and twin sister. Given her miserable wages (real exploitation; I don’t know what Karl Marx would have said about it), and the fact that real estate in central Beijing now costs the same as in Manhattan, there is no way she can afford to live alone closer to work. And I think there is still an expectation that as an unmarried woman she should live with her parents. She went to a second-tier university to study languages, so it’s a bit depressing to see that the only job she could get was as a building receptionist, admittedly in one of Beijing’s tonier buildings. But the press often has articles about the army of young Chinese whose parents struggled to send them to university – but, crucially, one of the second-tier universities – and who haven’t managed to land a job (or at least a job that fits their expectations after a university degree). They live like ants (the term used in a study of this phenomenon), jammed together in colonies on the outskirts of Beijing and other big cities, as squatters in buildings condemned to demolition, eking out a living with small jobs here and there, often not daring to tell their parents what the true condition of their lives are.  So I suppose Lisa can consider herself lucky to have a regular job, even though she’s paid miserably, works long hours, and hardly gets any time off.

One thing about Lisa that warms the cockles of our hearts is that she has an enthusiastic curiosity about the rest of the world. I think her dream would be to travel all over the world if she could. She took her first small step in this direction some six months ago, when she left the country for the first time in her life and visited Thailand. She had managed to scrape together a week of holidays. She went with a group, of course, and they didn’t do anything very adventurous – Bangkok and a beach somewhere was the sum total of the trip. But she was so happy. She emailed us a photo of her standing somewhat awkwardly next to a guard at the King’s palace in Bangkok, beaming at the camera. And when we met her after she got back she told us all about the trip with a big smile on her face. She said she was looking forward to her next trip, once she had scraped together some more holiday time (she was on duty during the Chinese new year, when most of the receptionists took time off). My wife persuaded her to think of traveling alone, telling her that her English was good enough for her to manage without a group. She showed Lisa where she could buy her own flight tickets on-line and book her own hotels. Lisa was a little hesitant but seemed game to try. She was thinking of going to Viet Nam, she told us.

Yesterday, when my wife was leaving the building, Lisa came running over, beaming with joy. She announced to my wife that she had found a travel companion – traveling alone was too much for her. It was one of the other women at the reception. They were going to Viet Nam, Lisa announced, she had chosen the flights using the websites my wife had given her, everything was going swimmingly. But when my wife came back that afternoon, Lisa was completely crushed; my wife told me she had never seen her so down. When her travel companion had announced to her parents the plan of going to Viet Nam, her mother had nixed the idea: too dangerous, she had pronounced. It is true that China and Viet Nam had had a little war back in the late 1970s and that there is a certain amount of animosity at the moment because of disputes over islands in the South China Sea, but to say that Viet Nam is dangerous is ridiculous. But the parental veto had been cast and that was that. My wife urged Lisa to reconsider the destination. Lisa mournfully said she had thought of Malaysia; China wasn’t having any fights with them. But she had really set her heart on Viet Nam. It’s Lisa’s day off today. Let’s see if the night has brought her counsel, as the Italians say.