No place for self-pity among the Chinese

You know those scary only-in-China pictures of people squashed up against one another on the Great Wall, around the terracotta warriors pit or on the beach in Sanya?

Those no-breathing-space pictures that seem to encapsulate life in China and evoke a frightening, inevitable future in which mainlanders with no concept of personal space have taken over the world?

I found this out only recently: Those pictures are all taken from one or two periods in the year when the entire country goes on holiday.

Most Chinese workers have something like only five days of annual leave. The rest of their recreational time are two week-long periods around the Lunar New Year and the October National Day. Then, 1.6 billion people are literally on the move.

The central government has sporadically mentioned plans to reform this system, but I suppose it's too difficult to jettison the dumbest aspect of communism - collective leisure - after junking nearly everything else.

This set-up not only brings the transport system to breaking point for 14 days a year, but also does great damage to the soul. The average Chinese person is forced to permanently be a peak-season traveller, paying through the nose to be pressed up against someone's armpit by the West Lake.

On their behalf, I feel a great sense of injustice. This is the only way they know a holiday to be - this is their reality.

I tried to get through to the victims recently when interviewing Beijingers about a "special holiday" they're getting on account of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit next month.

To ease traffic congestion and air pollution for visiting dignitaries, more than half a million public sector employees are being given a six-day break to keep them off the roads or out of the city.

I craved a grand statement from one of my interviewees, something like "finally, I'll be able to experience a real holiday for the first time in my life!", but none took the bait.

At one point, I posed this leading question to one of them: "Doesn't this special holiday mean a lot to you since you've never had a real holiday because the system forces you all to take holidays at the same time?"

She gracefully ignored my leading question and replied: "I don't really think about that. Why the public holidays are like that is like asking why are we getting this special holiday?

"It's just what is happening."

In her response was a total lack of self-pity that is alien to my entitled, First World existence.

I am so good at feeling self-pity that I was feeling externalised self-pity for the Chinese masses.

The better our lives get, the more self-pity we can conjure up for the minor and sometimes imagined injustices we encounter.

My life, to an average Chinese person, has been smooth-sailing to an absurd degree. But in spite of that, or perhaps because of it, stumbling blocks, obstacles and moments when the universe just does not decide in my favour take on the proportions of a Greek tragedy.

I've actually uttered the words, "Why does everything happen to me?" only mildly ironically, fairly recently. And it wasn't the first time.

My friends and I spend an enormous amount of time examining and analysing our woes, usually a result of someone's unfair attitude or action towards us. We end friendships and resign jobs over this kind of thing.

But the flipside of blame we did not deserve is surely credit we did not earn. And, if we're honest, that latter category dominates in our charmed lives.

I've had a really great year, the kind with an abundance of professional and personal blessings. I even - and this was the high point - won a business-class Singapore Airlines ticket in a lucky draw a few months ago.

I know this peak is finite. But maybe disappointments, resentments and sorrows can be put on the same impersonal, inevitable spectrum as joys and triumphs.

Unseen forces - the Chinese Communist Party, God, the Universe, take your pick - sometimes insist on crappy mass public holidays and sometimes give special unexpected ones.

It's just what is happening.

rchang@sph.com.sg