Monday, November 17, 2008

My first day as a resident alien

The goal for today was twofold – get a cell phone and get registered with the authorities. Since the latter involved surrendering my passport and the former required my passport to complete the purchase, I decided to follow that specific order and so began my day.

When I arrived last night my room was close to 80F so I shut down the heater and opened a window. By the middle of the night though, my sleep was being disturbed by the wind whistling through the open pane. I had no idea what that noise portended, at least until I stepped outside this morning into a wind that started in the Arctic and merely got colder as it blew down across Siberia. I’m not sure I have ever been that cold, which is what I said last January when I was here for the first time during the winter. I had gloves along and there was no question that they were necessary to merely survive the walk down to the ATM I had spotted last night on the ride in. If not for keeping my hands warm, they came in handy for scraping the icicles formed by my tears as they froze along the side of my face. My head felt as though I had just wolfed down the coldest bowl of ice cream on record.

I found the HSB office but could not locate the ATM so I went in and asked the uniformed guard who obligingly jumped up from his desk and trotted outside to point the way. Pretty good service I thought as he too was about to freeze but he was well prepared as he had been sitting at his desk, inside, in a full length wool trench coat. Apparently to survive the breeze generated when customers came in through the revolving door.

My withdrawal completed, I headed back down the street making sure this time to stay on the sunny side towards Starbucks where I intended to grab a something to warm up my frozen fingers. Having the wind at my back was slightly better, but it was still darn cold.

Had a nice breakfast of a chocolate muffin and an Americano and returned to the hotel to meet James who had agreed to help me find a phone. He was prompt and we drove back down the road to the mall that I had just left.

His recommendation was to stay away from Chinese phones and to stick with a major international brand. We had a debate about the size; I prefer a small phone which he told me were popular with women in China, men like the big ones. And his was large, the kind we in the west view as outdated based on size alone. One more tiny cultural tidbit to file away. The Goma Mobile store didn’t have anything that I liked so we asked and were sent down the street to another store where after much debate I finally settled on a fairly simple Nokia. Buying it was anything but simple between handing over my passport and waiting while they verified the validity of my money and discussing what name to put on the receipt. But it finally showed up and once it was discovered that the SIM did not work, we were sent down the street again to the China Mobile store where we entered into the next phase of the transaction, buying a working SIM and trying to understand how the plans work here.

In the US, it’s simple – you pick your plan and the bill shows up at your house every month. Here, you live month to month by going to the China Mobile store, buying some minutes, making a phone call and recharging the phone to the tune of about $20 monthly. I was at a loss to understand that procedure precisely, but I finally figured it out, it’s sort of an electronic rental agreement. Minutes and phone in hand, I asked to go to the bank so that I could deposit some of the money I had pulled out of my US account into my China account.

Why we have a Chinese bank account is still a bit of a mystery to me, but I’m game so I opened one when I was here in September. I figured having it more or less meant I should put some money in it, so into the bank I marched while James parked the car illegally in the bus lane. I was waiting when he appeared and told me I needed to get a number in order to be waited on. Why a number was needed when there was an orderly serpentine line was pretty confusing but he got me one and I waited along with the rest of the banking public. After a bit though we thought it might be better to use one the ATMs so I left my spot an went over and tried to remember what PIN I had created last time I was in. A couple guesses later the transaction was complete and my balance verified and we were off to the next stop – Starbucks again to kill a half hour until it was time to report to government offices.

Two things are required of all foreigners working in China, a residence permit and an employment license. Luckily both can be obtained at the same office and since I am living in a hotel, I didn’t need to make the special trip to the police station to prove that I am living where I say I am. The hotels share a tracking system with the police, so it’s completely automatic, unlike what you have to go through if you rent an apartment or house.

James and I headed over a couple of minutes early and were stopped at the door by a guard who said we had to wait outside. We protested as waiting out there offered a genuine risk of frostbite and he relented pointing us to a place where we were free to stand while the officials returned from lunch.

The two young women who would handle my application, Cherry and Ms. Mei showed up and we climbed the stairs to the second floor where the work would be done. I handed my passport, employment license and residence certificate from the hotel to one of them and she shuffled them a bit and took a seat at a counter that unfortunately lacked an official on the other side. Seems this official was taking a bit of a longer lunch today despite our 1 PM appointment. So we sat and waited for him to show up, the hiatus giving me a great opportunity to be instructed in how to use my new phone. I felt pretty ignorant, because James and Cherry were very adept at making the thing work while I was struggling with the simplest commands. James suggested that it was because I was old and not up to date with the most modern features. I figured it was simply because I’ve been using a Blackberry for too long and the differences, while slight in appearance are still significant in function. Eventually I figured out what I was doing and impressed both of them my skill at adding a name to the phone book.

The official finally showed up and stamped my stuff and we were sent over to the next stop where I surrendered my passport to allow the insertion of a visa that will allow me to come and go as I please. Our wait there allowed me to have a look at the other counters, some with interesting names like “Bureau of Watercourse Application” and “Place for Chinese Requesting Passport to Travel on Private Affairs.” My turn finally came up and I was instructed to sit while everyone else stood in order for me to “catch a picture.” The official here seemed to have a thing about squaring up my five or six pieces of paper that comprised my file. He would tap them down on the short side and then repeat the same on the long edge. He did this five or six times as though the alignment of the sheets was just not up to government snuff. If he did take my picture, I don’t know when he did so, I just sat there with my hands folded and watched him tap, tap, tap until he softly said “you’re done” and I was sent away, sadly watching my passport as it was added to a pile of other people’s paperwork. Supposedly I will see it again come Friday.

It was now closing in on 3 PM so I asked James if he wanted to take a walk through the grocery store with me. I wanted a few things – snacks, dish soap, laundry powder – and I figured my first time there would be better with a native. He agreed and so we drove back across the street to the Trust Mart.

It’s a very strange thing to shop in a store where you can’t read any of the labels. You can more or less guess what you’re getting, but it’s still disconcerting to do so purely on shape and the particular aisle you’re walking in. I found everything I wanted and even successfully weathered a conversation with the aisle monitor (helpers who assist you in making the correct product choice) who suggested that the dish washing liquid I had selected (orange scented with a tabby cat on the label) was inferior to the space rocket shaped bottle of strawberry scented soap. When I say “weathered” what I mean is I nodded, smiled and bought the first one I liked the looks of.

Of late we have been using fabric bags to shop and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that China is on the vanguard of that conversion. So much so that you have to buy plastic bags if you don’t want to carry home everything loose. Which I had to do having neglected to bring mine with me.

And so that was pretty much how the day wrapped up. I went back to the hotel, had a snack and struggled to stay awake until the penthouse opened, figuring I would make a meal of appetizers as I often have done at other hotels. Well, this banquet is quite different than what I am used to, and it’s clear it will not be my ace in the hole for dinner. The selection was at best meager and in some cases downright scary. I returned to my room and made a meal of the remaining ½ of a strawberry yogurt, the balance being lost when the packaging got the better of me resulting in my tiny kitchen being sprayed with my dinner.

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