The mysterious multiplication of workers

One worker is not sufficient to bring about the revolution.

How many Chinese does it take to change a light bulb? After eight months in China, I am pretty sure it will be more than one.

The handy men or repair men of our building’s maintenance department are usually referred to as “worker” (gongren). The term always brings to my mind Mao’s glorious propaganda posters, where broad shouldered men ride tractors and swing hoes to bring the revolution forward, the little red book in hand.

Today’s workers are very friendly, but slightly less heroic. The average maintenance problem in my house goes as follows: after days of putting off talking to our receptionists in my broken Chinese about the problem, I finally face them, and try and explain what the problem is. This usually results a few hours later (they are quick here, these workers I must admit), in a small Chinese guy in a Bordeaux colored coverall knocking on the door.

Worker will get to work without further ado. Then, at some point he will communicate to me that there is an issue he can’t immediately solve. To make sure I understand, worker calls property office to translate into English. Alternatively, he might also disappear, gesturing he will be back, leaving me wonder how long it will take. Both actions tend to result in another worker showing up within the next half hour or so. Is it a more skilled worker? Is the first worker looking for cover from someone else because he could not immediately solve the problem? I never find out.

Lengthy conversations follow between worker 1 and 2. If the problem is really complicated, worker 3 might be called in, with intercom assistance from an English speaker. It seems there is an endless supply of workers. Hopefully, the problem will be solved by this time. 

When they leave, I smile and think how much my patience has grown in China and how my amazement about many things I don’t understand has diminished in the past months.