Tuesday, October 18, 2016

I Have the Power

 The title was an unintentional He-Man reference, but I'm keeping it.

Good day, everyone and welcome to the latest edition of WTF China! In this episode, we will learn how to pay your electric bill in Beijing.

Is there a reason that would be difficult?

On the day we were shown into our apartment, the building manager walked us around and showed us three different meters in and around our new home. Now, my Chinese is not good (basically, nonexistent), but I believe the meters were for gas, electric and water. But one could have been our ninja repulsion meter. I really have no way of knowing.

If you didn't already know this, many people who do not live in the United States do not speak English. Not even a little bit. And while the people of America are getting more and more adamant that a person inside the borders of the States should be able to speak English, the people of other countries don't really have this debate. If you live in their country, then you need to speak the local language. It's just understood. Because of this philosophy, we have no idea what is going on most of the time.

For instance, we have these three meters in our new home. We know that we have them, but have no idea what to do with them. Will we receive a bill? Will someone be coming around to read them for us? Do we need to read them and send the information into someplace? Is there an office we need to go to? WHAT DO WE DO WITH THESE?

We have difficulty even knowing what questions to ask because the answers seem so simple to the locals that they don't really understand the extreme depth to our level of confusion, but a few days ago something happened.

The building manager dropped by to deliver our electric card.

Now, what do we do with it?

All we learned during his visit (through extremely convoluted translation apps on our phones) was that we needed to take care of our electricity quickly because there was not much left on our meter.

I think this is the proper place for this .gif

After he left, I went outside to look at our meter. This is what I see. What does he mean that there isn't much left? So often, our conversations through phone translation apps are radically wrong, so I thought it must be another of the many misunderstandings we have encountered since arriving. However, we learned that it was not.

Apparently, no one ever comes by to look at your meter. You don't really even have to keep track of the numbers yourself. Sort of.

Upon taking a closer look at our meter, we noticed a small slot to the right side of the screen. Just about the right size to slide a card into it.

This is not a credit card slot as I initially thought.

It took a lot of trial and error, but we discovered that we were to put the electric card we had received into the slot. This registers the card to the meter attached to our apartment. Talking to some Chinese locals revealed to us that we then had to take that card to a bank and put money on it. They suggested putting 500¥ ($75) on it to begin. So the following day, I headed to the bank to begin my adventure.

I was initially sent to the Bank of Beijing. EVERYONE told to go there because it is the easiest place to get it done. So, that is where I went, but there was a problem. Easy for a local person who speaks Chinese is not necessarily easy for a foreigner who not only doesn't speak the language, but has no concept of their practices here. However, my ever-optimistic self dove in.

Upon arriving, I approached the person who appeared to be a "bank information" assistant-type person. He spoke no English, but seemed to understand what I wanted when I showed him my electric card and shrugged my shoulders. I shrug a lot these days.

He directed me back outside to a machine and took my card from me to insert into the machine. He then started navigating through a series of Chinese screens and eventually turned to me and pointed at the credit card slot on the machine. This excited me because we are still over a month away from receiving our first paychecks and our cash on hand is getting a little thin. I popped in my VISA card and entered in 500¥. The machine beeped and spit the card back out. It took a lot of pantomime and grunting from both of us, but I finally figured out that the machine would not take my American card.  

We have learned since arriving in China that Mastercard and Visa are not nearly as universal as we have been lead to believe. The only place that has taken one of our cards here is IKEA (the Swedish furniture company). China has their own version of everything and is pretty insistent on using only their stuff. 

So, I held up a handful of cash. He shook his head, pointed across the street, said "I C B C" and walked away.

Across the street was another bank conveniently named ICBC (I'm pretty sure that why he said that). So, I headed over to try my luck again.

At this bank, I found a similar-type person and started the same routine again. I showed my card and was directed to a machine. I tried my card again because, apparently, this bank can do something that the Bank of Beijing cannot. I got the same results as before, so I held up my cash.

She then directed me to yet another machine, punched a few buttons and it spit out a paper which she handed to me and directed me to a waiting area.

My number was 110.
The 73?
That's the number of people ahead of me in line.

I headed to the waiting area and quickly realized that I was in for a long wait. I was praying that my issue could actually be resolved after waiting in this line because I haven't actually spoken to anyone yet.

Notice the numbers.
I was going to be here for a while.

I got comfortable and slowly watched the numbers climb. Senior citizens sitting next to me kept trying to engage me in conversation and I could only repeat the one Chinese phrase I knew.

Wǒ bù míngbái
I don't understand. 

This usually got a lot of laughter and they excitedly said something to the others sitting around them while they were all laughing at me. You know, because foreigners are funny. I get it. It's at this point that I usually do the shrug that is growing quite comfortable by now.

I soon noticed that each person conducting business at the windows required approximately 17 hours and 42 minutes to complete their transaction. I was going to be here for a while. The days passed, but they finally called my number.

I timidly approached the window, held up my card and cash and pushed them through the slot. The employee entered something on the computer, gave me a pen and paper and pointed for me to sign. I signed it and he gave me another paper and called the next person as he handed my card back.

I had no idea what I had signed and my money was now gone. Plus, I was not entirely sure that I had just accomplished what I came for, but I had this piece of paper.

Click the image for an enlarged view and tell me what it says.

When I got home, I made a quick phone call to an expat who has lived here a while to see if there is anything else I had to do and he said I was done. Apparently, that card is tied to my meter through the national grid. When they entered the info at the bank, it automatically put the money on my account and I will have electricity until it runs out. I can look at my meter at any time to see how much money is left on it.

I have 511¥ left.
Now, I just need to monitor
to figure out how long that will last.

It was a long, frustrating day, but I can appreciate the simplicity of the system. Especially since I learned that this can be done online once we have a bank account. The electric company will never threaten you with a disconnect notice. The meter is right outside your door. If you don't keep a balance on it, the power shuts off. No customer service is even needed for this. You don't even have to set up an account or have service transferred when you move.

One utility down. Two to go. Next, I have to figure out how to pay our water and gas.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Token White Guy

I know I haven't blogged in a while (seven weeks to be exact), but I have been very busy. For instance, since my last post I have moved to China.

Yes, China. Home of fried wontons, cheap electronics, tiny people and kung fu pandas. Seriously, that Jack Black Kung Fu panda is freaking everywhere. His face is on every ad. They love that guy here.

Since arriving here, Red and I have both started our jobs, gotten an apartment and started trying to learn our way around town using the public transportation system. Being from small-town Illinois (Waltonville, pop. 450), I have never been educated on how public transportation works. When I lived in Indianapolis (pop. 858,000), I had a car and never gave it a second thought. All the criss-crossing bus routes and subways have always been a bit intimidating to me. Much like beautiful women in my teens, but now I could get dumped in the wrong part of town and not know where I am. This happened with an Uber-type driver a few days ago. 

I need to go to the Balizhuang Primary School.
Which stop is that?
The name of the stop is Bei Ying Fen. Does that help?
As intimidating as I may find public transportation, it is twenty times worse in Beijing. Almost nothing is in English. Even if I do find English letters, it is often the English letters for a Chinese word, which helps with about 3.2% of the problem I have having. Quite often, if I have the English phonetic spelling of a Chinese word (in this case, the name of a bus stop) right in front of me, the way it is actually pronounced in Chinese is totally foreign to the American ear. The buses have a speaker which announces the next stop, but it is of no help until I start getting used to the Chinese dialect. I spend every bus ride counting the number of stops and frantically looking at the names of each bus stop we come to. If I get off at the wrong place, I will be lost forever.

Public transportation aside, we are also working in Chinese schools. It is a very unfamiliar system. I went to my new school one day to meet with the head of the English department (who speaks very little English) and get a tour of the school. They gave me a few textbooks and showed me out. The next day, I went in early to prepare in my office and no one came by to greet me. Now, I don't need to be greeted. I just found it odd. I did not speak to a single staff member before walking onto my first class an hour later. The teacher of that class walked out as soon as I arrived and I was on my own. I had five classes of first graders that day and no guidance as to what was expected of me other than "we are on Lesson Six".

This is the lunch that was served in the cafeteria on my first day.

I have learned that the Chinese mindset is that I am considered to be the expert. It even says that on my passport. FOREIGN EXPERT. As the person in the school who speaks the best English, they will not be intruding on my methods or style. In fact, I was told that the other teachers may come to observe occasionally. Not to critique me, but to learn from me and my methods. Talk about pressure.

In the meantime, Red and I are being taken to a sort of English conference this weekend to represent another school where neither of us has worked (Red will work there sometime next week). We really don't know what our function will be other than to be their token white people. Having a first-language English speaker on staff gives a school credibility for their English department. It should be an interesting day. Maybe we'll make some connections as well.

In the meantime, if you would like to send us a care package (I can't find Mt Dew here), send it to this address.

This is our actual address.
We don't know what this means and have no idea how to write it in English for our family stateside, but this is where we live. All we know is that it must be written in English for the American post office to get the process started of getting a letter to China, but then the address must also be in Chinese so the Chinese system knows what to do with it.

I love China.

Wallet I found in a shop in Nanluogu Xiang

Monday, August 22, 2016

Fortune Cookie #11 - Chinese Beauracracy

Sometimes it feels like our move to China is never going to happen. I know we will get there, but the process has been much more frustrating than I had anticipated. This was the first thing I thought of when I saw this fortune.

You will conquer obstacles to achieve success

The obstacles we have encountered mostly involve the mountains of paperwork required to petition the Chinese government to grant us permission to work in their country.

I am in no way an expert on international travel and employment, but I do know that the requirements vary greatly from country to country. In most countries, a foreigner will need a work visa in order to work there. You simply apply for a work visa instead of a tourist visa and you are good to go. However, China is harder to get into than the Playboy mansion. You must have an invitation.

We've had our fingerprints run for criminal background checks. We've sent our resumes to have them translated into Mandarin. They needed our marriage license, our original college degrees, copies of our passports, some new passport-type photos, letters of reference from the places we have worked to ensure the accuracy of our resumes and a health physical.

They have received everything they need from us except for two pieces of paperwork. My TESOL certification and the paperwork from our physicals. These papers have proven to be more troublesome than Ryan Lochte's account from his night out in Rio.

I don't actually have a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certificate and there is a reason for this. I shouldn't need one.

I spent two years going to graduate school to get my Master's degree in TESOL. This means I have a Master's degree. That is supposed to be an impressive document. The TESOL certificate can be obtained by attending some weekend classes for a month. It is a much, much, MUCH smaller undertaking. Having a Master's degree trumps having a certificate. No one would ask a doctor to see proof that he has taken a CPR course because he is a doctor.

Now, this may be frustrating, but I understand. Sort of. Things work differently in different countries. Paperwork and regulations vary from place to place and carry different weight. Add a language and cultural barrier into the mix and it can get quite complicated. Since their paperwork says I have to produce a TESOL certificate, if I can't do that, then I have not met their requirements. No amount of explaining (or tears) will change that.

Luckily, I went to the fantastic school Lincoln Christian University. I called them and explained my dilemma. Since I had more than met the requirements of what it takes to get a certificate from them in getting my Master's, they agreed to issue me a certificate. I love my school. I should get it on August 31.

The second obstacle has yet to be conquered. We are required to get a health physical. Anyone coming to work in China needs to be of reasonably good health and not be bringing particular communicable diseases into their country. This makes sense. However, getting this physical is not easy. It must be performed at a Chinese Embassy-approved facility and we must bring the proper forms to have filled out by the doctor.

These forms are nowhere to be found on the internet and even our employer in China has no idea where to find them. We also have had no luck in finding out where these embassy-approved facilities are. It's like a real-life Where's Waldo book. After literally hundreds of phone calls to the embassy in Chicago for the last six weeks, we are no closer to the answer than when we started. Plus, once I get all excited about getting naked in front of someone, it just has to happen before I can get a good night sleep.

I know these roadblocks will eventually be overcome and we will end up in China in the end. It has just been a very frustrating process. I'm sticking it out for the endless supply of fried wontons.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Fortune Cookie #10 - Adventure Is Where You Find It

Time just gets away sometimes.
It has been 1,033 days since my last Fortune Cookie post. I've forgotten to write these for a while, but never forgot to keep collecting my fortunes. I will try to get caught up. It may take a while.

Since I have been saving my fortunes and not writing about them right away, they are not in very good condition. However, they are still legible.

Not according the the makers of Pokémon Go

I am a complete believer in the philosophy that "life is what you make of it", but adventure is within? I'm not sure I believe that one. Having an active imagination may be great for helping you pass the time during times of extreme boredom (while doing menial labor, sitting in a doctor's office, looking at a friend's vacation slide show, spending time with your children, etc.), but it is far from an adventure. Adventures in my head are just thoughts about adventure. They are not adventure.

Unless we want to redefine the word, adventure will have to include the venture part of the word.

Whether we are talking about the verb or noun, both definitions involve doing something and the only thing I do within is process food stuffs into an inedible sludge to be expelled the next morning. An extreme meat and cheese day may require much more effort to accomplish the expulsion part, but it is still far from an adventure. Adventure is outside. I don't care what the fortune cookie wizards have to say about it.

To test this theory, we left the apartment last weekend to visit downtown Indianapolis. GenCon was in town and we love to go nerd watching and be jealous that we aren't in costume also. However, before even getting there, the adventure of being outside found us.

The red car is the one I hit.
The girl is only crying because her Pokémon got away.

Due to me gawking at a motorcycle, I rear-ended the car in front of us when the car in front of her stopped suddenly. The sound of metal on metal told me immediately, "YOU ARE IN THE MIDST OF ADVENTURE!"

This sort of thing just doesn't happen when you are sitting at home having an adventure "within". I'm still not even sure that I know what that means. Real adventure is outside beating up your car, talking to police, driving up your insurance rates, giving you seat belt bruises, and traumatizing teen-aged girls in cute little red cars.

Ignore the fortune cookie gypsies. Get outside and have some adventures!

Friday, July 29, 2016

On to Our Next Adventure

It's been about six weeks since my last post and that post was written while Red and I were in Turkey. If you been watching the news, you know that Turkey has had some turmoil recently. Several bombings over the last few months (one happened while we were there), and most recently there was a failed coup to overthrow the government. I swear I had nothing to do with it. I was back in Indiana when everything went down.

Just narrowly missing the economic and military implosion of a Middle East country has given us a renewed sense of adventure and we are ready to leave the Midwest to see what else is out there for us. After a few drinks much consideration, we have decided on our next adventure.



Less than a week before we left for Turkey, we accepted teaching jobs in Beijing, China and plan to leave Indiana sometime in late September. We would go sooner, but the paperwork and legalities involved with moving and working overseas are very complicated and take some time to arrange. 

Almost exactly two years ago, I completed my Master's degree in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). Since then, I have applied for over 100 different positions all over the country and have had no luck. Every college wants someone with at least 5 years experience and every public school requires a degree in education in addition to my current degree. Therefore, unless I just get lucky and find a place that will take me, I just can't seem to find a job in my field.  

When I first moved to Indianapolis almost three years ago, part of my motivation was to be in a bigger city with more language teaching opportunities. I needed to be teaching in a classroom to meet the practicum requirements for my degree and small town Mount Vernon, Illinois just didn't have that. As I was settling into my new Indianapolis apartment, I posted on Facebook about my move and need to find a place to teach in order to graduate. Within hours, I was contacted by a school and offered a job on the spot. This was more than an opportunity to get class credit. It was a real teaching job. Before I even had my degree. But it was in China. 

A friend of mine from college had moved to China after graduating and eventually started an international school in Beijing. It has been quite successful and he has since expanded into more schools and has partnered with many of the local schools there. He was in the need of an English teacher and wanted me to come. I really didn't have any reservations about moving overseas, but I didn't feel that my life was in a place where I could leave the country yet. I had just moved to Indianapolis less than a week before this offer. My daughter had one semester left before graduating high school and I had been dating Red for several months and really felt like this relationship was going somewhere. I couldn't even consider leaving the country at that point. My friend tried to convince me, but it didn't work. I turned him down, but he did check back with me a few months later to see if I would reconsider. I denied him again. He said he would quit calling me about it.

Kirsten's graduation picture
Fast forward to this year and my life has settled in. I married Red and my kids are grown and living their adult lives. However, I still don't work in the field I went to school for and built up all the student loan debt for. In the midst of a conversation about this, Red asked me about my friend in China and if that job offer still stood. I thought about it for a couple of minutes and realized that leaving the country is a workable possibility now and I called him. He was very excited to hear from me and offered a job immediately. After a few minutes of questions about Red, he offered a job to her as well. It was an exciting phone call.

We were leaving for Turkey in a couple of days, so I told him we would start to hammer out the details as soon as we got back into the country. Since then, we have started exchanging paperwork back and forth and selling off our furniture. It's been a whirlwind of activity and a mountain of regulations and paperwork, but this is happening.