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 me 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.

Tuesday, October 11, 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