Beijing life- traumatized by basic tasks

June 11, 2005

Nothing is ever simple, it seems. And as much as I would like to blame China for this, I suspect that it is only part China, and that the other factor making my life somewhat, uh, interesting, is just me. But I have to say, lately accomplishing even the most basic tasks feels like a major production.

Recently, I wanted to call the water company and have them send over a new bottle of water for the water cooler (a fabulously convenient way to make drinkable water accessible in places like China where water has to be boiled before it can be ingested). Johanna, whose apartment I’m staying in, has a company that she goes through for this. They way she explained it, the process was very simple: leave the empty bottle outside the door with a ticket in it good for one new bottle, and then call and tell them to come exchange the empty bottle for a full one. She said that she had checked with the company on which number they prefer we use for ordering water the day before, and had noted it on the order slip.

Brimming with confidence, I called the phone number and explained that I wanted to order water. The women asked me what I was talking about, and I explained that I was out of water, and wanted them to deliver a new bottle. She hung up on me. After a few huffy thoughts about the quality of the company’s customer service representatives, I called back. A different person answered, which made me glad. This one just might have a bit more patience; my water-ordering-Chinese is fine, really, but as always, my pronunciation is a bit, er, accented, so over the phone, at least, I do best with patient people. “I’d like to order water,” I told the young women grandly. “What?” She replied. “I’d like to order…” “Where are you?” She cut me off. “I live in the Denglongku hutong. One bottle, please.” Without as much as a “excuse me,” or “just one moment,” she hung up.

Growling, I tried once more. This time, at the automated answering service, I selected 0 for an operator rather than staying on the line for customer service. When someone answered, I explained that I have an account with their company, that I’d like to order some water, and asked when they thought they might be able to deliver. The operator responded with a curt, “what?” “WAAATER,” I emoted. “I would like to order water.” She seemed to pause for a moment, filling me with hope, and then she hung up.

At this, I gave up. I was chagrined. My confidence in my phone Chinese was gone. Clearly, my tones were all wrong, my vocabulary limited, and my listening comprehension, as usual, abysmal. It was a flashback to Taipei when I’d always blow the dictation on our unit tests. But also, it was partly their fault: what lousy service. They apparently couldn’t be bothered with me, so finally I decided I’d ask the ayi who comes twice a week to clean the apartment to call for me (this, by the way, is Johanna’s set up – this women has been cleaning for her for months. I am, I admit, a bit uncomfortable with the whole thing, to the point that I always find myself frantically scrubbing counters and wiping tiles just before she comes over. After all, I don’t want her to think I’m messy. But given the dust in Beijing and how quickly it builds up, it is quite common to hire someone to stay on top of it. She also does laundry and helps me buy vegetables, because the vendors around here – especially, I’m told, a rather nefarious egg man – always try to cheat foreigners).

When the ayi came, I explained the situation and she was very understanding. She marched straight to the phone, and called. She talked to the person on the other end for a few minutes, and then hung up, satisfied. “Are they bringing water then?” I asked with interest. “Nope,” she replied. “Why not?” I asked. “Because they,” she explained, “are not the water company.” Three times they hung up on me, and it never once occurred to me to ask if I had the right number.

Embarrassed as I was, I ended up being quite glad that I asked her for help. In addition to the wrong number that Johanna had written down for me, we had a second number for the company. The ayi called that one, and they gave her another number to call. At the other number, they were uncertain about whether they or the original number was closer for a deliver to this location, and wanted the ayi to call the first one back. She suggested that they discuss the matter among themselves and then call us back, which they ultimately agreed to. They called back twice asking for more information. The second time, it was a bicycle delivery man asking for directions (Johanna has used this company since last September, so I have no idea why they didn’t know how to get here, but we guessed this guy was new). I sat alongside her and listened to just this end of the conversations. I heard the ayi tell him first to head to Tiananmen Square, and then she’d direct him from there. Then there was a long pause, and she repeated, ‘Tiananmen.” A few seconds later, she sounded exasperated as she said forcefully, “TIANANMEN. Look, if you don’t know, just go out on the street and ask absolutely anyone where it is.” What followed, I assume, must be the Chinese for “sheesh.”

When she left, we thought we had it all in hand, but about a half an hour later the water company called back and asked me to call yet another office, and have them take care of it. Thankfully, calling this number was more like what I had originally envisioned for the ordering water task: I said I wanted water and where I am, then how many bottles, and then they said “Ok!” and an hour later, there it was. I think, though, that I’ll go back to boiling water before I willingly go through that process again.

The day after the getting the runaround from the water company, I received a phone call from
Federal Express. They had a package for me, but it was hung up at customs and they wanted me to fax a copy of the identification page of my passport to their service at the airport right away. I looked around my apartment. Nope, no fax machine. I asked about the alternatives. The women I talked to was flustered: apparently everyone who receives FedEx packages in Beijing has instant access to a fax machine. She gave me a different number to call, telling me that they will send someone to my house to pick up a copy of my passport. Er, okay. I called the number.

They told me the best thought they had was for me to FedEx a copy of my passport to the Beijing Airport. Let’s all just pause for a moment and let sink in just how asinine that idea is.
We went back and forth for a few moments on possible solutions to the problem. I finally suggested that since there is, as she noted with the FedEx-ed passport idea, a FedEx office near here, why don’t I just run over there and ask them to fax my passport to their airport branch? She put me on hold for a bit while she, apparently, located a quorum of unhelpful customer service representatives to mull over and ultimately agree that my suggestion “might work.”

This was my fault, really, I shouldn’t have asked. I should have simply gone directly to the FedEx office and demanded that they help me. When I got there, I found one very bored young man who snapped to and faxed my papers with such alacrity, I suspected I was the first customer he’d seen in days, if not weeks.

It took a full day for my package to be cleared by customs (the Hostess cupcakes and birthday cards inside sent by my parents being particularly suspicious). The next morning, I received another call from FedEx. This time it was the delivery guy, and he couldn’t find my hutong. After a few failed attempts at directions (he, at least, was on the right street and did not need to be informed of the existence of Tiananmen Square), I told him to wait out on the street and I’d come find him. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I slipped on my flip-flops and grabbed a sweater, and rushed out to the street. I looked in either direction, and finally saw the van about a block south from the entrance to my hutong. I started walking to it, but I hadn’t gone more than a few steps when it started to drive away, and turn left into an ally. This is how I came to be running down Nanchizi Street, arms waving, flip-flops thwacking the sidewalk noisily with each step after a disappearing van. It was a picture I daresay few people on the crowded street that morning will soon forget. Fortunately for me, the van got stopped up by a three-wheeled bicycle trying to pass him in the narrow ally, and I managed to close in and demand my package.

Speaking of cupcakes and cards, a few of you have asked how I spent my birthday. I was tempted to spend the entire day in bed with a new Korean soap opera, but was ultimately lured outside by gorgeous Spring weather and a desire for fresh air. I thought for a bit about what, ideally, I’d like to do, and then the proper course of action for the day came to me in a flash: I went to see the dinosaurs.

The Beijing Museum of Natural History is not on the level of the Museum of Natural History in London or the American Museum of Natural History in New York (which has the best dinosaurs I’ve ever seen – and I’ve seen dinosaurs in six countries and around the US – but loses points for being too expensive. If you have to pay $13 or more to get in, you cannot justify simply going to see the dinosaurs and then leaving again; you feel somewhat obligated to go look at boring gemstones and dull anthropological dioramas to justify the expense. It saps some of the joy from the experience, really), though Beijing is miles ahead of Shanghai. (I remember when I showed up at the ticket window in Shanghai and asked to go in, the women at the window just stared back at me, with an incredulous look that plainly said, “Really? Why?”) (To demonstrate the contrast between the two museums, I’ve included photos of a typical exhibit hallway outside the dinosaur area in Beijing and in Shanghai.)

Seeing dinosaurs in different parts of the world often means seeing very different fossils. Dinosaurs found in China date mostly to the Jurassic Period, whereas North America is known for its wealth of Cretaceous Period fossils, and they also developed quite separately; it is fascinating to see that, for example, a North American stegosaur (like the Stegosaurus) has rounded plates, but the Chinese stegosaur (most famously, Tuojiangosaurus) has pointed ones… I could go on, of course, but I think I’ll just say that in short, I had a lovely time at the museum. Everyone, I think, needs something (like the dinosaurs for me) that makes them inexplicably happy just because.

Aside from the dinosaurs, I also got myself some ice cream for a near-perfect afternoon. I stopped short of buying myself a balloon, largely because they were not dinosaur shaped, but also because the sad memory of my last balloon had not yet faded. (One day a few months ago, I was standing on the side of the road in Shanghai. A man walked up to me and handed me a balloon. “For you,” he said. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve never just gotten a balloon from a stranger for no particular reason before. It made me quite happy. Then, as I was walking into the way into the Shanghai Railway Station that afternoon, I heard a sudden, loud BANG! I jumped about a foot, let out a little shriek, and then stared down sadly at the little bits of blue rubber at my feet. And that was the end of my balloon.)

After the Labor Day holiday (celebrated May 1 here, as in most of the world outside the United States), which provided for most of the first week of May off, a sort of anti-research, anti-translation, anti-dissertation lethargy set it. This, I believe, is also known as spring fever. Many days went by when I could not force myself to open the Word files on my computer, much less work on them. Those of you who are in grad school, if you have never had this experience, please don’t tell me. I won’t believe you anyway. But I’m trying now to fight my way back into making progress. I have just a little over a month left in Beijing, and much to do before I depart, so cheer for me, will you? In the meantime, another trip to the dinosaurs might be called for.

Copyright 2005 by Meredith Oyen