It was as sweet a moment of justice as I’ve ever tasted—better even than a fresh bowl of Malan’s house special noodles.
At said Malan shop (a fast-food chain where noodles are pulled fresh for each bowl), the lunch lines reach almost to the door by 12.15. So in recent weeks, I’ve taken to delaying lunch-time till after 1 p.m., in the hope of avoiding the crowds. On this day, however, my efforts were to no avail, and so after paying for my noodles I got in line and zoned out to the sound of the noodle chef pounding dough against the table.
When I was a couple people away from the window, the chef beckoned for the next few orders. It was then that a middle-aged man with thinning hair suddenly materialized at the wrong side of the window. “Hey, what about me?” he yelled indignantly. The noodle chef, a muscular, no-nonsense guy in a white smock, was unmoved. “You came from the back of the line,” he said.
“That’s ridiculous!” the man protested. “I was here all along!”
The guy in front of me got in on the action. “HE’S LYING!” he shouted. “I saw him cut the line.”
Spurred by their fellow line-waiter’s courage, a few other people started to pipe up. “Yeah!” they called out, shaking their fists.
The noodle chef looked at the line-butter. Chastened, but still grumbling, he lowered his head and shuffled to the back of the line. Justice had been done.
It’s a scene that, in my opinion, happens far too rarely in China. At least several times a week, I am witness to what can only be described as impudent and egregious displays of line-butting, known in Chinese as cha dui (插队), the opposite, of course, of the much more civilized pai dui (排队).
That’s not to say China is unaware of its problem with lining-up. In the year running up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the government—in an effort to make the city more “civilized,” or wenming (文明)—instituted “Queuing Day.” The day, which fell on the 11th of every month (since the two numerals are standing in a row, was dedicated to educating Beijingers on how to wait in a proper line. Though the campaign has largely fallen by the wayside, bus stops around the capital are still stamped with biaoyu (标语, slogans) about the importance of waiting in line. Among the most common is:
Wǒ páiduì, wǒ wénmíng, wǒ lǐràng, wǒ kuàilè.
I wait in line and am cultured. I display courtesy and am happy.
Despite all efforts, line-butting remains a reality in most places in China. According to our food editor Juling, this is not just a function of Beijing’s overcrowding. “It’s even worse in smaller cities and even the countryside,” she says, referencing her own small town in Hubei. “There’s more education about it in Beijing. And it’s better in Beijing now than it was before the Olympics.”
Yet it remains a pet peeve of many foreigners who come from countries where standing in line is the ultimate rule of law.
“I’ve accepted all the social norms of living in China,” writes one commenter on Chinese-forums.com. “Yet, the one thing that really grinds my gears is the fact that people will cut you in line. Where there is a line, there is someone cutting.”
While there’s lots of complaining to be found online, there’s also some reflection. Another commenter in the same thread writes:
“Because there are so many people sharing the limited resources and social security, it is a very competitive society and people must fight for themselves to get what they want. If there is only one bus every hour to take 100 people home, but there are 250 people who cannot afford more expensive modes of transport and must take the bus, it is a bit hard to expect them to line up and wait for one or two hours for later buses.”
But understanding a phenomenon and reacting to it are two different matters. Which is why it’s important that you know all the tricks involved in line-butting and the best ways to respond.
There are three common tricks that line-butters use to cut the line:
1. The “I’m With Them” Trick: This basically involves waiting until a group of people buys tickets for something, then running up to the window after they’ve started walking away and saying you’re with them. Most people in line, and the ticket-taker, know this is probably untrue, but it has enough plausibility to make them go along with it. After all, no one wants to be the reason why some guy misses the train to go on a weekend trip with his family.
2. The Five-Minute Friend Trick: This is even more insidious and ballsy. The line-butter-to-be finds his mark (likely someone who appears too demure to call him or her out) and strikes up a conversation with the mark, either by asking a question or making a bit of small talk. After the question is answered and the conversation ends, the line-butter continues standing right behind you, having successfully given the impression to the people behind that they know you.
3. The “Save My Relationship!” Trick: This rarely used approach requires a partner. Two people who feasibly look as though they could be a couple go to the front of the line and start arguing loudly. The girl begins to cry, saying that they should’ve bought tickets earlier, and threatening to break up with the male half of the couple. The guy then turns to a sympathetic looking line-stander near the front and says, “Can you please help me out?” (Ok, so this only happened once in a movie, but who knows, you might run into it.)
How to Deal
Just because you’re a clueless foreigner doesn’t mean you have to take this guff! Here are the best responses to line-jumpers, depending on your mood and the egregiousness of his or her offense:
1. The Polite Prod:
Qǐng páiduì hǎo ma?
Please line up, ok?
2. The Annoyed Snap:
3. The Rude Outburst:
Nǐ yā zěnme chāduì a?
What the hell are you doing butting?
Get to the back!
I’ll admit that our other editor, Beijing, (who is much nicer than any of the rest of us) said that she’ll make allowances for older folks or people who allow just one friend to jump in next to them.
“If it’s a group I’ll get angry, but if it’s just one person, then it’s ok because I’ve done the same,” she says. “But if the group is too big I’ll definitely say, ‘Go to the back!’”