Everything is more complicated than it really needs to be

I have a cold. A dreaded, seemingly never-ending summer cold. This, of course, has no bearing on the rest of this post, except as a blatant and shameless sympathy ploy.

Ah, life in Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton). When I got into Guangzhou, I went straight for the cheap hotel I had booked over the internet. It was, well, it was not the worst place I’ve ever stayed in my life and travels, that award goes to a certain Kaohsiung crack house, er, I mean hostel, but let’s just say I had a strong motivation to get out first thing the next morning and find someplace to live on a more permanent basis.

After commuting around an hour each way to get to the archives in both Nanjing and Beijing, I was determined to live as close to the Guangzhou archives as possible. My plan was simple: I went to the archives, and then walking away from the building walked into the first real estate office I found and asked about renting apartments. The first few I tried told me to forget it – no one would rent for only two months. I have a friend who rented an apartment in Nanjing for only two months, though, and she gave me a few pointers.

First, she said, do not accept the “that’s impossible” line. It’s China. Anything is possible for enough money. There is always a landlord who sees a two month lease (at a rate slightly elevated over the standard) as better than an empty apartment waiting for a tenant. Then, she said, be prepared to make a snap decision. No thinking, mulling, weighing options.

This is difficult for me. I am a champion muller. I mull so well I rarely reach actual conclusions. So this advice was, essentially, to go against everything that is intrinsic to my nature.

Okay then.

As I walked out of my third “not a chance, but we’ll call you,” a woman who’d been lurking in the doorway of the rental office followed me out. She asked about my requirements in an apartment, heard my request for a two month lease, and then told me to follow her to her office. She guided me to a storefront a few blocks away. As we walked, she called the office and spoke in Cantonese, presumably to prevent me from understanding when she reported that she’s bringing in a live one. Once there, they sat me in a chair and put a cup of water in my hand, while the whole office chattered over my head. After a lively argument, the women who caught me and, presumably, her boss, pulled out two keys and told me to follow.

A tall apartment building towered over their office, and they took me into this very building to look at apartments. The two they showed me were essentially the same – they had an entrance with a full kitchen and a table, a hallway with the bathroom on one side leading back to the main room, which had a bed, a desk, a couch, and (of course) a big TV. The whole place was quite small – like a studio, but with the kitchen divided out – but there was a small balcony with a view – it was up on the 16th floor), air conditioner, and a washing machine. The building was only a few years old, though, so everything was in good shape.

We looked at both places, and I after a truly minimal amount of hedging on my part, I told them to see if I could take the first one.

When they first showed me the place, the rent was 2000 RMB a month. After the landlord learned about the two month time limit, she raised it to 2400. I refused and countered with 2200, which she accepted. All of this, of course, was through the rental agency, which means that each stage was a separate conversation with me, followed by a phone call to her, and so forth. The rental agency also had its fee, and in spite of the fact that I was only staying for two months, I had to provide a two month security deposit. This meant, of course, that if I wanted to continue being Ms. Fabulous Snap Decision Maker, I had to go to the bank and pull out a fat wad of cash to make everything official and get the paperwork signed.

Being the full service real estate agents that they are, they offered to drive me to Citibank. I demurred, but ultimately found them to be more determined than I, and was soon strapped into their company car and heading for the bank. Just before we got there, a problem occurred to me. If I handed the landlord 4400 RMB as a security deposit, I’d get back 4400 RMB just as I was leaving China.

The problem is that Chinese currency is non-transferable – you can’t simply change it for dollars and head home. If you have a large wad of RMB when you leave China, you are stuck with a large wad of RMB until you can get back to China to spend it. And 4400 RMB (about $530) is somewhat more money than I’m willing to spend on last minute souvenirs.

Actually, I think it is also more money than I could spend on last minute souvenirs. How many stuffed pandas equal $530? I’d have to buy an extra seat for my flight home. I explained the problem to my real estate agents, and they called the landlord again, who agreed to take my security deposit in US dollars. Problem solved, right?

Nope. Now I had to figure out how to get $530. Even though my Citibank account is a US dollar account, it’s not a local Citibank account but an American account, so the only way for me to get cash is through the ATM, which only gives RMB. My Bank of China ATM account also only handles RMB. The real estate agent, a very nice Citibank employee, and I sat in the lobby of the bank for twenty minutes brainstorming possible solutions. The Citibank guy (“Call me Louis,” he said, congenially) finally had the winning idea: I’d give the security deposit in RMB, then open a bank account that could accept US dollar wire transfers (“But not here,” he said, “Citibank charges fees for this kind of account. You’ll go to Bank of China where it’s free”).

Technically, I already have a Bank of China Savings account that could accept a US dollar wire transfer, but it’s in Nanjing, and I can only access it from Nanjing. So instead, I’d need to open a Guangzhou account, which is, incidentally, my third Bank of China account of the year. Finally, when the money arrived, I’d call my landlord and trade the dollars for the original 4400 RMB. That way when I left, she would give me back my dollars, which as we all know, can be traded freely anywhere in the world. Whew.

My only concern was that this plan would leave me with 4400 RMB to spend in 6 weeks, but then the bright minds at Citibank pointed out that I still needed to buy plane tickets, which in China is strictly a cash transaction. It wasn’t simple, but it was a solution.

It took a few transactions to get all the cash I needed, but soon we were off. Or so we thought.

Somewhere between the door of the bank and the car door, it dawned on me that I no longer had my ATM card. I apologized to the real estate agents and ran back to the ATM to get it, but there was no card there. I asked Louis if anyone had come to the machine in the five minutes or so I was gone, but he said no, and that if I didn’t take my card at all, it was likely taken into the machine. That began a rather lengthy process that began with them taking the back off the machine with a screwdriver to retrieve my card, and included copies of my passport and signing multiple notarized documents so they could affirm that I was, in fact, me, with me blushing beet red and stammering apologies to the real estate agents and the Citibank personnel all the while.

As we were waiting for this long process to be completed, we chatted about the apartment and the paperwork that needed to be done. Over the course of the conversation, I realized I had miscalculated and still needed to pull out another 2000 RMB. Along the way, however, it dawned on me that I was wrong to be taking all this money out of my Citibank account, when I still had a Bank of China account with RMB. So I continued to apologize and told them once I had my Citibank ATM back in hand, I’d walk up two blocks to a Chinese bank where I could use the ATM (it’s an internal network, so I couldn’t use my Bank of China ATM card on a Citibank ATM machine), and then really, I’d be ready. They said they’d drive up to meet me. I took longer than they did, so they ended up trailing me slowly in the car as I walked, shouting out the occasional commentary on my progress.

Poor Louis, incidentally, has not yet heard the last from me – he is a part of another rather involved process of getting my Citibank ATM card replaced. For some unfathomable reason, it has an expiration date of July 31. If I was staying in China until I return home in August, this would be no problem – I’d just budget out what I need and put it in one of my Bank of China accounts.

The problem is that I can’t use my domestic RMB Bank of China ATM in Taipei or Singapore, so I either need to apply for a fourth, international account (a very involved process), or get a new Citibank card. I don’t have a legal permanent address (I’m, er, not registered in the new apartment either, and have no mailbox), so I can’t have my parents send me the card. The Citibank in Beijing had the bright idea to have Citibank USA send my card to the Guangzhou branch, where I could simply pick it up.

Easier said than done: my poor mom, whom I now owe at least one, perhaps two very large pitchers of margaritas for her suffering, has spent literally hours on the phone with half the Citibank “customer service” people in the US (or more likely, based on her descriptions of the conversations, Bombay) trying to get this done. She has power of attorney and can call directly; I could call collect, but I don’t have a phone in the apartment and my cell phone is not registered for international calls (and I’m not paying the 2000 RMB to get access. My Nanjing number could call internationally – it was set up before China Mobile set up that fee – but it is out of money and I can only recharge it in Nanjing, so I’d have to go out to find a street phone with international access…. It should be abundantly clear by now that the moral of this email is: Nothing, but nothing, is simple in China.)

The problems began at the most basic level: Citibank USA claims it doesn’t have a branch in Guangzhou. Poor Louis would be heartbroken.

From that inauspicious start, there have been a total of four mailed replacements (three to China, one to my parents), about 20 phone calls, many requests for supervisors, three trips on my end to see Louis and discuss progress, and finally, one phone call yesterday from Louis to say my card has arrived. This at the same time that Citibank USA was telling my mom that in fact they’ve realized that they can’t send it at all without talking to me first.


Citibank is marvelous everywhere I’ve been outside the US, but it is a beast to deal with at home.

Anyway, back to our tale of intrigue and adventure in the Guangzhou real estate world. When we finally returned to the real estate office with all that cash in hand, the landlord had come and gone – she’d be back after lunch. So I returned to my chair and a fresh cup of water to wait. She came back and we worked on the rest of the formalities: signing the lease, handing over the money, getting the key, and so forth. Then someone from the office took me up to the apartment to do the standard inventory. That’s when the Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House sensation first kicked in, and it has not yet really worn off. If only my fixer-upper came equipped with Cary Grant….

Right off the bat, I realized something I hadn’t noticed before: the place was filthy. Covering every flat surface was a thin layer of grime. Clearly it had been a while since anyone had lived there. Then, we realized as we flipped all the switches on that the air conditioner, hot water heater, and washing machine weren’t working. The man from the real estate office told me not to worry – he’d have it all fixed within 24 hours. In the meantime, he asked if I wanted to hire someone to scrub the place down. We agreed this was a good plan, and for 30 kuai, a woman came and spent most of the evening making the place sparkle.

The boss from the real estate office – the same evidently multi-talented guy who chauffeured me around town on my bank adventures – came up and fixed the appliances. By the end of the day I was starting to feel like the service fee I paid them – which at first, I balked at – in actuality wasn’t nearly enough.

I left for a few hours to check out of my hotel, have dinner, open the new Bank of China account, and gather my belongings – I felt that the sooner I could get into the place and settle in, the better. When the cleaning woman finally left at 9:30 p.m., I grabbed my wallet and keys and dashed off to the neighborhood department store to buy towels, sheets, and assorted other necessary items for the night. I admit, though, I was feeling triumphant: I inquired about, rented, and moved into an apartment in a single day. It only took 12 hours.

Over the course of the weekend, I took four more trips out to various local shops to get the basics (one bowl, one cup, one plate, one set of chopsticks… bit sad, really). I also had a rather catastrophic plumbing emergency (turns out something else was broken when I moved in), which I will refrain from describing in any detail.

Soon, however, I settled into an easy routine in the place. Granted, it is still a bit quirky. The overhead bar for drying clothes on the porch came swinging down on my head and collapsed against the wall of the porch one afternoon, never to rise again (at least it didn’t tumble down 16 stories to the street below). And then last night, when I was making dinner, I ran into another little glitch. I had my vegetables and tofu all chopped up and ready to go, I reached for the knob to turn on the burner, and… nothing. It had worked the day before. What’s more, I could hear and smell the gas coming from the burner. There was just suddenly and spontaneously no fire. I went down to the 5th floor maintenance office, but I found it dark and empty. From there I went to the entrance guard, and explained my problem. He got on his walkie talkie and sent a guy up to fix my stove.

When the man came into the apartment, he spent about 30 seconds examining my stove before giving me his exasperated conclusion: “There’s nothing wrong with it,” he said, “it’s just a dead battery.” Right. The stove battery. I wonder why I didn’t think of that. He reached into my hot water heater (which apparently also runs on batteries), pulled out one D battery and replaced the one in the cabinet under the stove. He turned on the burner and voila! Blue flames.

I tried to save face. “American stoves don’t have batteries,” I explained desperately. “I really didn’t know.” He gave me a look and muttered a bit. I think it was something along the lines of, “Oh yeah? So what do they run on then? No batteries. Humph. You just don’t know where the batteries are…” I suspect I have failed us all, and the Fulbright program in general, in that rather than creating a positive view of America and Americans wherever I go, I have instead convinced one more industrious Chinese worker that Americans are so rich and spoiled, they don’t even replace their own stove batteries. I’m truly sorry.

My fabulous apartment is a mere two blocks from the Guangdong Provincial Archive, which means that not only is commuting a snap, but I have the joy of spending the forced two hour break at lunch time at home, instead of loitering in some neighborhood coffee shop watching the minutes tick by. It also means I have fewer excuses for skipping a morning session. In Nanjing, where it would be a full hour from my door to actually sitting down in the archives, I wouldn’t bother going if I was leaving my house anytime after 9. They’d close for lunch at 11:30, and so if I arrived much later than 10, the trek wasn’t really worth it. Here, I have no such excuse. If I leave home at 9:30, I get to the archives at 9:35.

The Provincial Archive is beautiful – a new building with some of the nicest reading facilities I’ve ever seen. Of course, the trade off is that they don’t have much for me in terms of records: everything before 1945 burned in the war, and everything after 1949 is not open or somehow unavailable (I’m working on this. They have some 1950s records, they just don’t seem to want to give them to me. Perhaps they think I’m a spy instead of a scholar. Or, better yet, a CIA agent disguised as a scholar. That must be it. The first class of Fulbright scholars to come to China in the late 40s were either sent home in a hurry in 1949 or stayed to be arrested as imperialist spies, and there could be some lingering suspicion about the program).

Hmmm, I know I promised tales of sunburn and violent forestry, but I had not counted on being so verbose (you’d think I don’t know myself at all). So stay tuned for the next installment, Guilin and Yangshuo.


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