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Chinese Workers Seek To Adapt to ‘Tico Time’ In Road To Limón Construction

Chinese workers: Costa Ricans work a little slower ... doing things like that (slow) is good, because they make sure they are well done

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Two months ago, Rafael Cham was not Rafael Cham; His real name is Ji Jiang and he lived in Yunnan, a province located in southern China, very close to the border with Burma.

The CHEC design department in Costa Rica has about 18 people. Photo: Jeffrey Zamora / La Nacion

Now, Ji Jiang, 27, lives in Cairo of Siquirres, Limón, and was baptized as Rafael because that name is easier to pronounce for Costa Ricans.

He arrived in Costa Rica in April to join the team of the China Harbor Engineering Company (CHEC), in charge of expanding the 107 kilometers of the highway between Rio Frio and the Limon center. He also seeks to perfect his Spanish.

What do you like most about Costa Rica? “Cielo claro,”  (clear sky) the young man responds in his best Spanish and admiration for the “green landscapes” that predominates in the Caribbean. Rafael also wants to visit the volcanoes of the country. He is afraid of mosquitoes because he has read about dengue and chikungunya.

When asked about what he does not like about Costa Rica, Rafael takes a few seconds – he probably looks for the right words in his basic Spanish so as not to say something politically incorrect or offensive – and replies: “Costa Ricans work a little slower”.

Rafael’s response coincides with that of others interviewed, last Thursday, in the CHEC camp, the work base for the extension of the roadworks, built in Siquirres.

At the camp, there are 105 Chinese nationals there among engineers, administrators, cooks, and translators. There are also 210 Ticos (Costa Ricans) at the camp, working in the construction of the new road.

In the next few months between 160 and 170 more Chinese workers will arrive, who will be responsible for field work, such as the construction of bridges and intersections.

Azucena, a 23-year-old Chinese woman who arrived in the country in January to assist in the translation of documents, believes the same: “Costa Ricans and their institutions work more slowly.”

The woman – whose real name in China is Guo Xingyu – affirms that she has struggled to adapt to the rhythm (we call it ‘tico time”) to which Costa Ricans and their institutions work because “they take a long time” to reply to a request for documents or to complete a process.

Although she resents that slowness, the young woman tries to be diplomatic: “doing things like that (slow) is good, because they make sure they are well done”.

Zhou Jingxiong, CHEC project manager, acknowledged that they have faced problems to harmonize the Chinese and Costa Rican work culture.

“In Costa Rica, I really like the attitude of people, like when they say ‘pura vida.’ For example, you see a Costa Rican and they say ‘pura vida’ and that attitude is good for me, especially us Chinese over 50, but the attitude of the Chinese is to do everything faster,” said Jingxiong.

He added that “they have tried to put the differences in the pace of work on the table to talk and move forward together.”

“There is a cultural and also a political issue, they live in a condition different from ours, they (the Chinese) do not have to respond to so many institutions. We have had to collaborate a lot with everything that has to do with procedures with Costa Rican institutions,” said Kenneth Solano, the Consejo Nacional de Vialidad (Conavi) engineer in charge of the project.

“Language and culture barriers exist, but that has not been a problem for the development of the project, there are minutes in Spanish of all the meetings, those minutes are then translated into Chinese, but in general there have not been serious problems with regards to the language,” the official added.

Life in the camp

The work schedule in the Chinese camp is from 8 am to 5 pm, but normally work until 10 pm or later to coordinate matters with colleagues in China.

There is a strict schedule for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Two Chinese chefs are responsible

Ma Yang Hong, one of the two cooks, from the camp prepares lunch for his companions. Photo Jeffrey Zamora / La Nacion

for preparing the dishes, all typical of home. Vegetables and very spicy beef and pork predominate the menu. The most common at breakfast is the Youtiao, a kind of churro accompanied with vegetables.

In the dining room there are chopsticks, bowls for the Chinese and forks, and flat dishes for Costa Ricans. In the center of the circular tables there are different types of Asian sauces and dressings to accompany the food.

There are also televisions with Chinese news not to be disconnected from “home”.

In their free time, Chinese workers can play badminton, basketball, go to the small gym they have available or dedicate themselves to personal matters, such as laundry. Most prefer to wash by hand, although there are washing machines available.

Personal items, such as toothbrush, toothpaste, towels, repellent and toilet paper, are supplied by CHEC.

The bedrooms are divided into rooms for men and rooms for women, and in each there are two or three people. They have air conditioning in all the facilities to battle the heat.

“Now we are adapting, when another camp is ready in Guapiles we are going to be living better”, justified Lola, one of the CHEC workers who has more time in the country. She arrived a year and seven months ago. At first she was in the San Jose offices and now he lives in Siquirres. She is responsible for translating commercial contracts for rental of machinery, for example.

Lola He, 27, arrived in Costa Rica a year and seven months ago. She studied Spanish in China and lived for a year in Cuba, where a teacher gave her the name she now uses: Lola. Photo Jeffrey Zamora / La Nacion

Lola adds that they leave the camp very little and when they do it is in groups for security reasons. She has gone to the south Caribbean beaches on weekends, but most of her companions prefer to stay put, to rest up.

The contract

CHEC has 36 months to build the highway, which began in November 2017.

The credit contract for the US$395 million for that project was negotiated in 2013. Since then it has gone through a slow process that includes the approval of the Legislative Assembly, the endorsement of the General Comptroller of the Republic, obtaining environmental permits and dozens of revisions in the National Road Council (Conavi).

Currently, the Conavi still has no certainty of how many expropriations it needs to huild the highway and how much those acquisitions will cost.

Source (in Spanish): La Nacion