MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
In China, waiting in line is akin to a competitive sport but with much higher stakes. Earlier this month, people waited four days and three nights to register for low-income housing, while admission to a certain Beijing kindergarten requires a weeklong, round-the-clock queue. In this postcard from China, NPR's Louisa Lim spends time with a pro.
LOUISA LIM: It's a hot summer afternoon here in Shanghai, and I've come to this quiet residential district to meet someone who makes a living doing something that most of us hate to do: that is, waiting in line.
Li Qicai is a professional queuer. And what's more, he set up his own queuing company. I've come to getting picked.
(Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: He employs four full-time queuers and a host of freelancers. Getting a proxy to stand in line for you costs about $3 an hour. He says he's been doing this for two years.
Mr. LI QICAI (Professional Queuer): (Through Translator) I'm just selling my time for money. You don't need any skills, except the ability to suffer. For some jobs, you need to look good. If you want to buy things for rich people, you can't look like a farmer or they'll think you're a scalper.
LIM: These are the paotui: literally, the running legs or runners. Their job: everything from a 26-hour wait for a limited edition handbag to something as mundane as making an appointment to see a doctor.
The longest waits of the year are for train tickets home for the annual spring festival. Bank lines are also epic. Half a day's wait is not unusual. Thinking of the bread lines in the former Soviet Union, I ask Li if he thinks authoritarian governments like to make their subjects line up.
Mr. LI: (Through Translator) Not at all. It's about population density. There's no connection with politics. If there are only two people in a village, you can't make a line. But resources are limited here.
LIM: So now we're going to see how Mr. Li and his runners spend their days. We've been given a job to go to a hospital to pick up some medicine for gallstones. I've been warned this normally involves a wait of two or three hours. Just the thought of that is making me squirm.
It's been a 40-minute motorbike ride across town, and we're now at the Longhua Hospital. And the first thing that we have to do is to register. And Mr. Li says we're in luck today, the line is particularly short. There's one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 people waiting in front of us.
Mr. LI: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: So he says, yesterday, the registration line was stretching all the way out of the door.
The man in front of us sighs. He's made a common and terrible queuing mistake: waiting in the wrong line. Now, he has to start over. Hospital lines here are a fact of life.
When my son cut his chin recently, we stood, dripping blood, in a total of eight different lines to get it stitched up. But Li says new appointment systems have made hospital lines shorter. As the world's most impatient queuer, I asked him to divulge the secrets to happy waiting.
Mr. LI: (Through Translator) The secret is go early. Take an umbrella in case it rains, and a book. Load books and games on your mobile phone. Make friends with your neighbors, so you can get away to buy food.
LIM: As we pay the registration fee, Li tells me this job took him five hours the day before. Today, we're in luck. We're fourth in line to see the doctor. Prescription in hand, we're eighth in line to pay for medicine. Then there's the last wait, and we're finished in less than an hour.
Li stands in line at hospitals a dozen times a week. This, he says, is the fastest job he's ever done. So that perhaps is the last secret of queuing. Expect the unexpected because, sometimes, you get lucky.
And with that, he's off on his motorbike to wait in another line.
Louisa Lim, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.