This morning I found myself in the Zhengyuan Office Supply Supermarket in Beijing. The sign above the door said "Office Max," but I knew better. Ripping off names is a cottage industry here. I simply needed to pick up some computer paper and plastic file folders, so I thought it would be quick. The important piece that I’d forgotten (from previous visits to this store) was that, despite having the name "supermarket" in its name, it’s not a market, and it’s definitely not super. It is a state-run store, one of those last bastions of surly socialism. Upon entering, the telltale signs are immediate. There were uniformed clerks everywhere, easily outnumbering the customers 3-to1. Many items (including, for some reason the plastic file folders) were safely tucked away behind counters. The clerks form a scrum around the customers, ready to fill out their little forms on each item selected. And in the corner is the dreaded shou yin tai (the cashier’s desk), the place where every customer must go to pay. Except for the fact that the items on sale were distinctly 21st century (iPods, videocams, shredders, etc), I still had the feeling of stepping back to 1984.
Never mind. I had paper and plastic files to purchase, and these are the steps that were required:
Step 1: Find the counter with the paper.
Step 2: Clerk #1 fills out a ticket (in triplicate), noting that I am purchasing a ream of paper. She gives me the bright pink copy, and tells me to go to the cashier.
Step 3: Walk across the store to the plastic file folder counter.
Step 4: Clerk #2 walks over to clerk # 3, who is sitting at a computer. They exchange information.
Step 5: Clerk #3 enters a bunch of data into her computer, and then the printer spits out a fancy ticket (in triplicate, of course).
Step 6: Clerk # 3 gives the ticket to Clerk #2.
Step 7: Clerk # 2 gives me the ticket and directs me to the cashier on the other side of the room.
Step 8: I give Clerk #4 (at the cashier’s desk) my bright pink, hand-written ticket and the computer-generated ticket.
Step 9: Clerk #4 is not at all pleased with the old fashioned pink ticket. She hands it across the desk to Clerk #5, who is sitting at a computer.
Step 10: Clerk #5 enters a bunch of data into her computer, and then the printer spits out a fancy ticket (in triplicate, of course). This now replaces the pink ticket.
Step 11: Clerk #5 hands the printed ticket back to Clerk #4.
Step 12: Clerk #4 totals it all up and tells me how much to pay.
Step 13: I fork over the money to Clerk #4.
Step 14: Clerk # 4 hands the cash to Clerk #6, who is sitting beside her at the cashier’s desk.
Step 15: Clerk #6 makes change, and hands it to Clerk #4.
Step 16: Clerk #4 stamps all 6 pieces of paper that have now been generated (2 tickets in triplicate).
Step 17: Clerk #4 hands the stack of now-separated tickets back to me and sends me on my way back to the respective counters.
Step 18: I return to the plastic file folder counter, where Clerk #2 is waiting for me, with my folders already in a bag.
Step 19: I give her the tickets and she give me the folders.
Step 20: Clerk # 1 (remember her???) runs into the back room and comes out with a ream of paper for me, which I get from her once I give her back her tickets.
Exhausted, I stagger back onto the street, and head home!