A few years back, my parents had a major renovation done to their apartment. Instead of going through the cringe-worthy, formal bidding process of finding a contractor, my dad knew a guy. It’s like a superpower that all Fujianese parents have; a secret construction guy, tucked away in their back pocket, waiting to be summoned at a moment’s notice.
Most Americans would find this unusual but there is a huge overlap between business and family for Asians. When the contractor visited, it was akin to a long lost uncle wandering his way back home again. Dad ushered him around the home, finger pointings ensued, they exchanged gestures, congratulatory pads on the shoulders, and just like that, they’re locked into a verbal contract. It was the most machismo and unnerving thing I’ve seen.
Months after the project completed, I returned back to my parents newly renovated empty nest, now covered with marble flooring and granite countertops. It was an impressive transformation until you start noticing random quirks in the finishing. Sink in the bathroom was unusually tall for us, which meant having to lean into the mirror every time we use it. The counter had an outward facing notch that led splashes to flow outward. Any of these issues are minor until you start seeing our whole family touting giant wet spots on the bottom half of our shirts every morning. High comical quality indeed.
I asked my dad about this.
“Chabuduo.” He responded.
This culture of close enough plagues the perception of Fujianese American (Chinese) craftsmanship. And that’s what we’re here to examine.
This is not a diatribe about first world problems. A poorly placed vanity isn’t killing anyone. But this lack of of adherence to quality on an industrial scale can be catastrophic. Remember the melamine scandal of 2008 where thousands of infants died from drinking tainted baby formula? Or the school that was built to withstand earthquakes and collapsed? The numerous plants that have spontaneously combusted? People die when chabuduo is amplified across billions of lives.
Was It Always This Bad?
The story is rather different more than a thousand years ago. Remember the silk road? The route where Europeans traveled thousands of miles to access the highest quality textiles, spices, and services in China? Even today, high quality porcelain is called fine china because of its origin in high quality Chinese craftsmanship. The more I dig into this history of excellence, the more I’m confounded by the juxtaposition between the past and the present China. How is it that we can engineer the forbidden city to last for more than 600 years but can’t design a school to withstand an earthquake?
What Went So Wrong?
An entire group of ethnic Chinese did not just wake up one day in history, had bad coffee, and decided that close enough was good enough. In the context of modern history, the bustling Chinese metropolis as we know it, is a fairly recent phenomenon. When Deng Xiaoping opened up China to the free market, it was done so with relentless ambition of catching up. Since the early 1980s, explosive economic growth brought more than 500 million Chinese out of poverty. That’s more than the total U.S. population! So credit should be given to the Communist government. But imagine if your purpose in life isn’t to produce high quality goods but rather to meet the quotas of production set by the government. In the pursuit of catching up to the west, the collective effort has been shifted from individual agency to meeting economic metrics set by the global elites. Building 20 good enough schools is suddenly more important than building 1 great, earthquake-proof institution. Somewhere along the way, chabuduo became a pervasive new standard.
Examining how the Chinese economy might turn around is slightly beyond the scope of this discussion. But on an individual level, you can affect the quality of your output and character if you simply slow down. The key ingredient for quality is caring for your work. But you can only care with adequate gumption (the fire, resourcefulness, and hunger to initiate). It’s awfully difficult to be excited about writing the next report, if you have a quota of 100 to complete this week. So this leads to a condition of impatience. Robert Pirsig calls this a gumption trap. So often we find ourselves overwhelmed with our workload but we persist without taking a break, fearing that we’d fall behind. But this exact form of impatience is what leads to corner cutting and the culture of chabuduo. The best remedy? Slow down. Take a break. Go hike a hill. Everything you can do to clear your mind will replenish your gumption. This means you’ll likely have to push out your journey but sometimes, it’s better to travel than to have arrived.