The More Things Change…

…The more they stay the same.  Dealing with the phone company in China is just like back home–only here you have an excuse for not understanding what the contract says.  🙂

Monday (today as I’m writing this) was my day off. I slept in late (05:00 or so), did a load of laundry, and scrubbed down part of the balcony (there’s a stone counter top and tile floor) while I waited for the laundry to dry.

Around noon, I headed out to take care of a couple simple errands:

  1. Get a SIM card for my “burner phone” (cheap pay-as-you-go cell phone), with the help of Lyra[1] (on of the students) as a translator.
  2. Sign up for internet at the apartment (also with Lyra’s help)
  3. Do some shopping (sandals, shorts, a wok, groceries)
  4. Go to the photo store to get some passport-style photos taken (all visitors must register with the local police, and the forms require a photo)
  5. Register with the police (Sherry would do all the complicated stuff, Jason and I should only need to sign the forms

That should take… 2 maybe 2-1/2 hours, right?

SIX hours later, I staggered up the stairs into my appartment.

1) Clothes, groceries, etc: No sandals. The one time I *want* someone to come help me at Carrefour, there’s nobody in sight. I dug through boxes, but the labeling system is apparently random (the shoe labeled #32 is not in the box marked #32). I did, however, get some nice pork cutlets, green peppers, fresh garlic, celery, and some frozen peas. I also picked up a cheap wok and two wine glasses (One night of drinking wine from disposable plastic cups is enough, thank you). I didn’t get everything I wanted, but I got most of it.

2) The SIM card: For those who don’t know, almost all cell phones have a “Subscriber Identification Module” card (I think that’s what it stands for) that tells the phone what your phone number is, who your phone company is, and stuff like that. The school bought an el-cheapo phone for me (all I really need), so that they can get a hold of me if need be. I didn’t have my passport with me when we bought the phone, so we couldn’t set up an account. So, Lyra and I walked a couple blocks to China Mobile (One of 2 telephone companies in China–dealing only with cell phones), and she explained the various plans I could choose from. That went fairly smoothly. Oh… and I got a jug of laundry soap as a “free gift” for signing up. Don’t ask me, I have no clue. We did, however, need laundry soap, so I ignored the complete randomness of it all and accepted it happily.

3a) On the way back from the cell phone place, Lyra and I stopped at the other phone company, China Telecom, to get internet hooked up at the appartment. Here’s where things start getting out of hand. The plans are rather cheap (169 RMB per month for 8MB service)[2]. The catch? They require a minimum 2-year contract, and there’s an 800 RMB penalty for early cancelation. ACK! I can’t sign up for that without consulting Jason, first. So… back to the school.

This is my day off, remember? And so far, I’m spending way too much time at the school.

3b) I talk to Jason, and he’s okay with the contract and penalty. Basically he says “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Okay. So internet is back on the list of things to do today.

4) Ruby has been volunteered to take Jason and I down to the photo store to get our “passport” photos taken for the police registration and, I’m sure, umpteen other things that we’ll find out about later. A short walk and 30 RMB later, we have a stack of little photos.[3] They’re not exactly the best photos of me ever taken, but they meet the government requirements, so I’m satisfied.

3c) While Jason goes back to teach his next class, Ruby agrees to come with me to the China Telecom office (just around the corner from the school) to get the internet hooked up. And… here we go again. Yes, I understand that it’s a 2-year contract. No, I don’t want cable TV included. What? I’m required to get a cell phone plan in order to get internet in my apartment? WTF?? At this point, I’m hot, I’m tired, I’m confused, I’m frustrated (but dealing with it all calmly). I pick a phone that I like; a nice simple Android with 3G capability. And… they only have one in the store, and it’s broken. *headdesk*. Okay. I pick another one. Then they hand me the bill. 608 RMB! Now… remember: Everything is written in Chinese, I have no idea what is being said, and all my information is coming through a translator (who admits that she has no clue about some of what the salesgirls are saying). Imagine walking into the phone company and finding that everything is in Chinese. That is *exactly* what I was dealing with.

Okay… fine. We need the internet connection, I was thinking about getting a smartphone at some point (since mine doesn’t work here[4]) and, to be perfectly honest, I’m about ready to collapse from the heat. I pull out my credit card to pay and…. they don’t take credit cards.

Someone just shoot me now. Are you F***ing kidding me?? A telephone company that’s cash only?? And I only have 550 RMB in my pocket. I run to the ATM–only to find that it won’t let me do anything (this is the exact same machine that let me withdraw 1,000 RMB this morning). So I run (yes, actually run) past the phone compay, up 3 flights of stairs, to the school, where I make Jason give me 100 RMB. I then run back to the phone company and pay.

Then, it’s a 2km hike back home (in the heat, carrying a bag of groceries, a wok, and an umbrella), up 6 flights of stairs, and into my apartment.

A cold shower, a dinner of glazed pork & veggies over rice noodles, and a glass of wine, and I’m almost back to human.

The day wasn’t all bad, though.

I took a very casual stroll to the school this morning, along a “back way”. Rather than taking the main road, I followed a tree-lined back street with a cobblestone walk. Along the way, two boys–maybe 12 or 14 years old–were walking on a cross street. They were glancing at me and talking suspiciously between themselves. Finally, one of them look at me and said “Hello!” in English. I smiled and said “Hello” right back. One jabbed the other with his elbow to say “See. I told you!” 🙂

About a block later, a rickshaw driver gave me another “Hello” in English. Then tried to get me to buy a ride (all of that was in Chinese). I replied with a friendly “no” in Mandarin and walked on. He smiled and laughed.

The locals are starting to recognize me (as one of only 2 white guys in the area, it’s not hard). I get friendly smiles as I walk by (as well as a lot of amazed stares), and I’ve become a “regular” at a couple of the small food stalls. I no longer have to do a complex mime routine to get my tsai bao (steamed, sweet bread “dumplings” filled with vegetables; I just learned the name this afternoon). I just walk up, tell her how many I want, and hand her the money. When I get back to Lodi, I am so going to have a talk with Kira and the boys at the China Wok; I’m going to want some real Chinese food. This stuff is delicious. All this food talk deserves its own write up later.

I’ll leave you with a few photos I took from my balcony this morning. This is my neighborhood, seen from 6 stories up.


[1] Pronounced “Lie-rah”. She’s one of the adult students, about mid-level in her English skills. I thought it would be good practice for her to translate between the sales associates and me.

[2] The exchange rate is roughly 6:1, so 169 RMB is a little under $30

[3] Now… let me explain something about the weather today. The actual temperature is somewhere around 35 degrees Celsius. That’s about 95F. The projected heat index was 43C (110F). Fortunately the humidity was only around 80% (he said sarcasticly). And, because I was going to be at the school, I had to wear long pants (to hide my tattoos).

[4] Well… that’s not quite true. It *does* work here, just not the way that Verizon told me. I turned it on for about 1 hour and did nothing more than check my e-mail, and I got a warning saying I had used more than $50 in data. Verizon will be getting an earful from me and losing my business.

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