Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I noticed on the third trip down that the elevator smelled strongly of Salami

I slept really poorly last night I’m sure due to that special level of wiriness you get from 28 hours on the road and too much late night thinking and unpacking. My attempt at a crossword puzzle did the trick, sticking me in an endless loop of reading the clue for 24 across, dozing and then trying to pick it up again at the same spot. I probably read and analyzed it sixteen times before I finally gave up and switched off the light. Two hours later though I woke up violently from one of those really deep, dreamless sleeps that leave you wondering where you are and what you’re doing. I was so out of it that I became concerned that I might fall out the window if I tried to open it. Where that came from I cannot say.

Weighing heavily on my mind was the status of my Chinese cell phone. Over the holidays I did some creative technical thinking and decided to unlock an old Blackberry that was idling away its days in our broken pen and pencil nub drawer. The technology exists and it’s cheap – only 16 bucks to remove the security rendering the phone receptive to SIM cards from any old place. Before Christmas, I spent my month here struggling mightily to relearn texting with a standard keypad instead of a QWERTY and I was so hoping to use that old smart phone for its keyboard alone. So I sent off the payment, received a code and freed the phone from its indentured servitude to Cingular.

While waiting for my bags I turned the phone on and sure enough it grabbed the China Mobile network almost instantly. “Victory” I thought, only to be brought up short a few seconds later when the phone proved itself incapable of sending a text message. I tried a phone call and it failed too which could only mean one of a dozen things with the two most likely villains being either a total failure of the code or a lack of minutes to make the transaction. Unlike the western approach, there are no cell phone “plans” here – you load the phone up with minutes and you replenish them regularly at the cell phone store.

My scientist brain kicked in and I began a series of designed experiments to narrow the root cause down to a single candidate. In other words, I took the SIM out of the unlocked phone and put it back in its rightful owner and alas, it no longer worked, more or less proving theory number two – expired minutes.

Filing that thought away I went to sleep only to toss and turn the entire night running the script in which I walk into the China Mobile store and announce in my finest Mandarin “I want to buy some minutes.”

You know how this goes, you’re over-tired to begin with and you end up in that half sleep state where you think you’re awake, doing awake things, when in reality you’re in the same low level fugue state that’s popular among most inmates in state mental health facilities. You can’t stop the tape loop yet nothing you do resolves it except getting up which I did about 4 AM.

I put myself to work further refining last night’s unpacking and trying to hunt down the a missing Blackberry case which ultimately surfaced on the stove. That sounds weird but it’s not – this place has a general shortage of outlets and I was using the two, completely useless ones over the cook top to charge my phone last night. Around 7 the sun crested the mighty wall of apartments to my east. I set a goal of leaving for the phone store about 9:15, my minutes purchasing speech in hand.

I hit the street about 9:30 and the first thing I noticed was the ice pick headache that formed behind my right eye. It was due to my first breath of the morning air – it was cold in a way that I’ve not experienced cold before. My head, sensing an imbalance sought to regain equilibrium by kicking off a matching headache behind my left eye. It was as though I’d eaten a gallon of the coldest ice cream imaginable in about 8 seconds. In a second attempt to regain control of my internal systems, my brain decided to extinguish the headaches by pouring tears down my face. Unfortunately all that produced was a frozen system of braided salt streams, decorating my cheeks. I picked up the pace figuring it would be warmer outside the shade of the building and rounding the corner I found out I was wrong. But no big deal, the phone store was right there.

I went in and spoke to the first salesgirl I met asking her in Chinese if she spoke English and I instantly received a negative response in the form of a cagey yet disgusted head shake. I told her I wanted to buy minutes and she looked at me as though to say “If you want to buy minutes, go to a clock store.” She took my phone, dialed a number and received the message telling her the phone needed to be renewed. She handed it back and pointed to another counter down the way where I headed, ready to use my speech a second time. The girl here was much less disdainful – when she couldn’t understand me she simply went back to doing something else, ignoring me in hopes that I would just go away. I persisted and so did she, but our stalemate was finally broken when another young woman offered in English that she would be glad to help. Salvation!

The process was actually pretty simple – you write your number down on a piece of paper along with how much you want to spend and the counter-girl types something in a computer and your phone springs back to life. This process could not have been more different than what I went through with James back in November which involved sealed envelopes, mysterious phone numbers, messages in Chinese that changed to English if you press 2 and other arcane little challenges. I followed her recommendation and moments later I had a fully recharged phone. As an added benefit, she tried to show me how to use a kiosk to display how many minutes I had, but the password I wrote down when I bought the phone did not work. Instead I was offered the option of calling a local number where a person would give me the details of my minute’s status in Chinese. Purportedly pushing “2” switched the spiel to my native tongue but in fact it didn’t even slow the Chinese speaker down for an instant. Before parting I asked the young woman how I should ask in the future. Instead of "buying minutes", one offers that they want to "put more money into the phone." Asking this same question later, another person suggested saying that you want to make a deposit; it seems cell phones in China are actually little banks.

I left there and headed to Starbucks where I managed to run into 7 fellow workers, 6 of whom were doing all those little governmental tasks necessary to keep you out of illegal alien incarceration. I relayed my minutes buying story and the consensus was that everyone else just has their driver do it. So much for cultural aclimation. Snort!

Today was to be devoted to apartment hunting and I met my assistant Maria in the lobby of my hotel just before noon. We had 6 or 8 properties to look at, and this activity deserves a blog of its own. For now though I’ll share an interesting learning - the Chinese feel no obvious need to heat the lobbies in these high rises. Instead, it seems that a meat locker sort of presentation is clearly preferable. So much marble and so little heat, it was like being in the tomb of the ancient King of the Eskimos. It was cold outside, and just as cold inside. I found one place I liked quite a bit and instead of looking for closets and at the furniture, I spent some time staring out the west side at a really spectacular view across the peninsula. On a clear day I think it would be possible to see both of the bodies of water that that form the sides of the region – the mellow Pacific on your right and the Bo Hai Sea to the west. While standing there thinking about my options, a big gray bird came into view, weaving between the skyscrapers – a Peregrine Falcon riding the icy waves from the tundra to our north. I took this as a sign that this might be the place.

Tonight was shopping night as it was my first back in town. After work I grabbed my bags and headed out the grocery store where I ended up finding about 75% or the things I wanted. That is one of the frustrations of shopping for food here – it takes 2 to 3 stores to rough out the larder as no store has all the items yet many stores have none of them. However with some judicious scoping I came away with all but 3 things.

Returning before a second foray to close out the required items, I found myself in a scum of people riding the elevators on the residence side of the building. There must have been some sort of event happening in one of the big rooms, because normally you don’t see anyone in these conveyances. My ride back down for the second trip out for cheese, bread and marmalade provided the title for this blog – had we not been moving, I would have sworn we were in a delicatessen.

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