Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Day at the Races

Somehow I ended up with a son who loves auto racing. And because I'm a good dad, I don't spend a lot of time telling him that auto racing sucks. Often his reward for doing a good job at school is getting to watch a NASCAR race online.

The plutocrats behind Formula 1 racing have developed a new series of races for electric vehicles called Formula E. Last fall the inaugural Formula E race was in Beijing. We found out about it after it happened, but we made plans to attend following year.

Like most things in China, there was very little information available about the event. I don't know if that's because everything here is sketchy so they don't publicize something that might not actually happen, or if it's because most people are too poor to attend expensive events, or if it's because they figure the people who should know do know, and everyone else can get lost. Whatever the reason, it is virtually impossible to find out information about anything before it happens. And it's not just a language barrier thing; the Chinese-language website for the event venue never had information about the event.

It turns out a friend from church went to last year's race. We asked him how to get tickets. He said last year they never actually sold tickets to the general public. They gave them all away to corporate sponsors who kept what they wanted and unloaded the rest through scalpers, which here are called "huángniú," or "yellow cows." So we planned to buy tickets from a scalper on race day.

But when was race day? It turned out to be delayed a week, which meant that it coincided with a weekend that my boss was requiring us all to work (in violation of our contracts, natch, because China). When enough people complained, he passed out a sheet of possible compensation options. Option 1 was to skip the school field trip on Friday and call that our weekend. Option 2 was to take one day off in the next two weeks. Option 3 was to take two days of flexible time where we would only be required to be at work for the classes we teach. And Option 4, which he heavily promoted, was to do nothing and just work when he wanted us to.

The problem with Option 1 is that the school field trips are things we look forward to. It allows us to see things we wouldn't otherwise know about or get to visit. The problem with Option 2 is that we don't use substitutes here, so taking time off makes your colleagues cover for you. When they take time off in return, you cover for them. So the end result is you work the same amount. And notice that we'd be getting one day off in exchange for two days worked. The problem with Option 3 is that being allowed to go home for two hours in the middle of the day isn't that big of a deal. Most teachers live off campus, and we all have work we have to do. The problem with Option 4 is that we're not indentured servants.

I turned in my form with an Option 5 selected: I'm not available that weekend. I was a little afraid they'd get really angry, and then I was a little hopeful they'd get really angry, but they didn't get angry at all. (We'll see if my paycheck this Friday is for the correct amount.)

We showed up at the venue just as the first practice laps were taking place. We couldn't find a scalper anywhere. I was looking for shifty-looking single men with small shoulder bags, but everyone who fit the description didn't want to talk to us. We asked some of the (literally) hundreds of security guards who were standing around where we'd buy tickets, but they answered either with vague directions to somewhere else, declarations that we couldn't buy tickets, or amusement that we were speaking Chinese. Eventually, Jerome noticed a ticket office marked on a map of the event. The office was located on the complete opposite side of the course from everything else--at least a mile away from the gate. We headed in that direction.

When we finally got to where the ticket office was supposed to be, we found some scalpers. (Maybe that was what they meant by "ticket office"?) They offered two tickets. I said we needed three. They said Jerome didn't need one. I happened to know he did. They pulled out a third ticket. I inspected them closely, since everything here is counterfeit, including Apple stores and bottled water. I told the guy I didn't know if they were real. He said he'd walk us through security to show we were fine. So we walked with the guy until we were inside the event, and then we bought the tickets from him.

The boys liked that every vendor booth had a version of remote control race cars for them to play with. When it came time to find our seats for the next round of practice, though, we started to have problems. First, what was my fault: the third ticket the scalper sold us was in a very different seating section from the other two. That could be a small problem or a large problem, depending on how far away the seats would be. Here, it was an enormous problem, because of how the event was laid out. The third ticket was about a half mile away from the other two, but because of how the crowd was directed, it was 1.3 miles of walking from one seat to the other. And that walk involved leaving the event and coming back in a different entrance.

We decided to just pretend Jerome was a lap child (the typical cut-off in China is 1.2 meters and he's about 1.35 meters tall, which, to express that in a more-usable form, is 0.00072894 nautical miles). He was worried because he's a good kid and he thought I was telling him to break a law. When you tell your kid, "Just be cool and everything will be okay," that's as good as telling them, "Why not freak out and confess to all and sundry?" But I explained to him that we weren't stealing anything: the event organizers were compensated when they released three tickets, and the scalpers were compensated when we bought three tickets. We weren't dishonestly buying low-end tickets and then stealing a high-end experience, we were doing the best we could with our limited Chinese (I had to say "Wǒ xiǎng mǎi sān zhāng piào" a lot and not much else). If this wasn't going to work, I was going to send the two boys in and I'd wait outside.

But it did work, with no problems at all, even though I later found out that the event organizers had announced that there was no allowance for lap children. Every spectator required a ticket. And it turned out that getting to the seats was where the real check of ticket authenticity would occur, so the scalpers walking us through security was all just for show. But the tickets were legitimate and we got to watch the race.

No comments: