Thursday, October 04, 2007

Everybody Gets a Job

We knew the boy was trouble the moment we entered the breakfast room. Our hotel had a breakfast buffet. The apparently teen-aged boy who worked there was either the son of the hotel owner, or at his first day of work ever. Maybe both.

He led us to our table and asked if we wanted coffee. I said I did, and Pipi said—in Chinese—that she didn’t. He looked at us blankly. Finally he poured me a cup—and then turned Pipi’s cup over to fill it. She repeated that she didn’t want any. Blank stare. Then he made a move to start pouring. Pipi turned her cup upside down. He froze, then walked away, shaking his head at those wacky Americans who can’t agree on anything.

During breakfast, I realized that the boy’s primary duty was not even seating people. It seemed to be to walk around with a tray of sterno containers for the buffet trays. His job description probably read: 1) Look pretty in uniform. 2) Try not to break anything.

Towards the end of breakfast, after passing through the room several times but not doing anything with the burners, he managed to drop the whole tray, spilling the gelatinous fuel all over the carpet. The boy disappeared immediately, leaving the woman he worked with to clean up the toxic mess. Just as she was finishing up, he reappeared with a new tray of sterno, which he promptly perched on the very edge of a table. This finally elicited a scolding from the woman, which he didn’t seem to notice.

The next day I went to breakfast myself—Pipi said the chicken feet, kimchee, and other unorthodox breakfast items make her loose her appetite.

As I was helping myself to the food—I love a buffet, no matter what’s served—a swathe of bunting that had been attached with Velcro to the front of the 20-foot long table suddenly detached itself and fell at my feet. I looked around for a possible cause and discovered our hapless boy standing a few feet to my right, with one end of the cloth in his hands and that same blank look on his face.

I shrugged, assuming that everyone would know it was the waiter’s fault, not mine. But just then, a little Australian boy, about four years old, shrieked, “Mum, the lady broke it!” (Mum looked pained, like she was hoping fervently I wasn’t an English-speaker. I don’t blame the kid, though; he probably thought he was going to take the blame.)

It reminded me of something that was sort of a mantra in my China backpacking days: Whenever we’d see four people on the scene of a one-man task, we’d say, “Well, I guess everyone gets a job.” It was never clear how the division of labor was worked out—who decided which one had to work and which ones got to sit around observing? But somehow every job site had its own arrangement, and 15 years later, even though I’m not sure full employment is a promise the Chinese government makes anymore, the Everyone Gets a Job policy still seems to be in practice at the Mason Hotel.

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