Cheers to the queue queen, boo to the bank

By Charlie Shifflett (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-09-11 07:01

Apparently, some people in Beijing have yet to get the memo about queuing. Or maybe they simply misread it, taking it to mean that lining up for a subway ticket or a McDonalds hamburger is only proper etiquette on the 11th of every month.

I'm happy to report, however, that, two weeks ago, a sharp-tongued elderly woman in a purple blouse saw to it that five more people got the message. Long live the queen of the queue!

I had shown up at my bank 15 minutes before it opened on a Saturday morning, hoping to beat the inevitable crowd of customers. It was a beautiful day, and I planned to enjoy as much of it as I could. (Arriving early also seemed to me a good way to minimize the risk of being victimized by a queue-jumper. The fewer people ahead of me, the fewer chances - mathematically speaking - for line-breaking shenanigans: I trust no one!)

However, just minutes before the bank was scheduled to open, a green armored truck honked its way through the crowd - now 20 strong - and parked in front of the bank. Then, to my horror, a small battalion of guards with shotguns climbed out and began directing us away from the entrance.

In planning my early visit to the bank, I had forgotten to account for one very important factor - the unexpected, a rather common occurrence in China.

As the guards tried to clear a path for the bank staff, I understood that my rightful position in line was in jeopardy. For a moment I held my ground, but when I saw that the guard nearest me had his finger on the trigger, I chose to preserve my life. An extra hour in line, I figured, was better than having my head blown off with a full weekend ahead of me.

After a few minutes, the bank staff finished carrying the cases of money inside and the guards climbed back into the truck. Chaos ensued.

The sleepy looking university student who'd just arrived now found himself near the front of the line. So did the wife of an important looking man talking on his cell phone, a leather binder jammed into his armpit.

I was resigned to spending the next hour glaring at the currency exchange rates inside the bank when, suddenly, a little old lady began to unleash a firestorm of criticism at those who'd broke to the front of the line. One by one, the queue-jumpers turned and slinked to the back of the line, like kindergartners punished by their teacher.

I was of course delighted with my good fortune - and glad that the woman had made such a spectacle of the offenders.

Bad habits cannot be snuffed out overnight - or with a once-a-month reminder, but if alert citizens are bold enough to tap queue-jumpers on the shoulder and thumb them to the rear of the line, the civility of Beijing lines might still be installed by the time the world arrives for the 2008 Games.

As the bank opened its doors and I was given a square of paper numbered "003", I thanked the queen of the queue - only to discover that the bank's computers were down and would remain so for the next 30 minutes.

(China Daily 09/11/2007 page20)

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