Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Shopping Spree Day

One of the interesting more little tidbits that have emerged since I was last here is the fact that I can no longer access Blogger unless I sneak in through the corporate VPN. Not sure why that is, whether the government is now blocking it, or whether there’s just some weird combination of this hotel’s network (which is not very reliable.) In any case it’s put the kibosh on my plan to move my literary efforts from my work computer to my personal laptop.

Yesterday started early, at 4 AM, and by 9 last night I was flotsam on the shore of sleep. Arrived home after a great catch-up dinner with Kris and Matt and after settling in I was dropping my book mid-sentence by 9:15.

But between those bookends, I had a pretty interesting day.

I met with Maria my relocation consultant at 9:30 to have a walk through at my apartment. I’d started the morning with a decent breakfast at the hotel, planning to avoid the need for food until dinner as I had no idea how the day would unfold. Arriving at the apartment building, I was glad to see that they’d enabled card reader access at the street level door. Last time I was here there was none, and I wasn’t too excited about the prospect. I’m a little bit anxious about living in this building and leaving my belongings unguarded, especially since it now appears that “renter’s insurance” in China covers the damage you cause to the apartment, not the loss of your goods. So it was nice to see that not just anyone can wander into the place as they could back in January. It was also nice to find that the lobby was not 30 below zero like it was back then,

Maria explained that they had fixed the elevator program to make the buttons match the floor. Prior to this re-programming, you pushed button 27 to go to the 24th floor, the reason being that the Chinese are superstitious about certain numbers (4 associating with death for example) and so they simply don’t assign those numbers to floors in buildings. It’s a bit confusing – “I live on the 24th floor, please push 27” and who really needs yet another mnemonic to remember? Well, now when you get on you push 24 to go to 24 and having done so, you try hard to ignore the fact that the readout stills says “27.”

The landlord’s agent was there with his wife and I proceeded to wander around looking at the condition of the place. Most of what I had ordered on my infamous furniture buying spree was there, minus lamps, end tables and a cabinet I had asked for. Why those didn’t get purchased, I am unsure and naturally there was no explanation forthcoming. But the good news was that we could go on a buying spree to make up the missing items. A couple of things caught my eye like no hot water (we just turned on the water heater, it’s heating up), a warm refrigeration (we just plugged it in, it’s cooling down) and the dryer sitting in a heap on the floor in my little glassed in combination balcony/laundry hanging place. These rooms are unique in my experience, little adjuncts typically off the kitchen or living room that form the front and back of these buildings. And given that they are normally crammed with drying clothes, they present an interesting front to the outside world.

After fighting with the internet connection for a half hour, the agent finally figured out that the cable for the phone was swapped with the cable for the modem and it came right up. That done, I made a list, we called Mr. Jiang and it was off to IKEA.

Two thirds of the way there we were directed off the highway by a platoon of police – some government official needed the highway to get somewhere and so we had to find a different way. It turned out to be a painfully long and arduous cross-country drive underneath the ongoing construction of a new bypass that will carry traffic between Kai Fa Qu and Dalian proper in a much faster manner. What it meant for us on this day was driving through tunnels of scaffolding supporting the curing concrete roadway above. I’ll use that slightly overworked word “surreal” because it’s apt – slowly crawling through these darkened channels, workers sitting in among the spires talking and smoking, the brown pipe extent only broken up occasionally by tiny palm frond palapas formed amid the grid; latrines I assume.

The upside to the detour was that I found my favorite Carrefour again and discovered the street name. Filing these little thoughts away makes giving directions to your marginally bilingual driver much easier. I keep a little file in my phone just for tidbits like this.

We got stuck in a traffic jam that was trying to funnel itself into one of the scaffolding tunnels, an interesting situation since a parallel tube was left unused. Mr. Jiang pulled out of the lane and went through the empty one which surprisingly led to exactly the same place as the jammed one, terminating in a giant water-filled pothole. From there we finally found our way to the store.

I’ve only been to IKEA in China. There isn’t one where we live and I’ve never had any motivation to bother with them in cities that I visit. I will say though that I now feel that there was an unidentified gap in my life to this point – IKEA is wonderful.

You have two choices here; furniture in kits that you order from the warehouse and stuff you can just drop in a shopping cart. We wandered around and around, following the arrows the floor per Maria’s insistence and slowly addressed the missing table and lighting needs. The whole rental thing here is a bit strange - the company assigns you a budget to cover rent and all the things that go in the apartment. What ensues is a delicate negotiation with the landlord over how much stuff you can request and how many demands they are willing to accede to. For example, my apartment had no showers or bath tub – I requested and I got them. Essentially the landlord buys a whole lot of stuff and the amount the company pays should be the asking rent plus some amortization of the cost of all the furnishings. You leave and the place stays furnished on Intel’s dime, or it gets moved on to the next expat. If you ask for to much it gets awkward, and being someone sensitive to such things, I was hesitant to push too hard. I have though heard plenty of stories about my fellow Americans making absurd requests just to see how much they could wring out of the system.

While I was presented with an amazing banquet of goods and colors, I was finding it hard to just decide. First of all it’s tough to conceptualize all the things you need when stocking an empty home is not something you’ve done in 30 years, and secondly it’s harder to do with 3 people in tow. Eventually though I got into the swing of things and picked a few of these and some of those and the carts filled up. About this time I had a small brainstorm and asked Maria if they agent would be willing to spring for things beyond the list – plates, tableware, pots – and sure enough, he was willing. My day brightened up immediately and I finally got into the genuine experience of shopping with someone else’s credit card.

We managed to fill up two carts, topping them off with a couple of carpets and checked out, adding two giant IKEA bags to the loot for the purpose of shopping. Maria and the agent’s wife went off to buy some lunch – IKEA has both a cafeteria and a snack stand – and no one liked it when I insisted that I was not hungry. Mr. Jiang though was happy to have a hot dog that Maria kindly provided.

We wandered across the parking lot to Metro to acquire a couple of plastic garbage cans, my companions finding it hilarious when I picked a big gray lidded version, insisting that I go with something a little more demure. Here I finally managed to break the purchasing detente when I mentioned to Maria that I would have to pick up a coffee maker at some point. Unbeknownst to me, she asked the agent and he actually said “not today” explaining that he still owed me drapes and wanted to see what they would cost before committing to anything else.

We left my entourage there, something I find odd about China abandoning the people you brought, but this time there was no room in Honda C58 due to the goods I’d purchased. The highway was now open so the shot back to Kai Fa Qu was quick and when we arrived Mr. Jiang and I got into a friendly pantomime argument about whether I should carry the stuff up to my place. He conceded the first trip but insisted on doing all the work on the second. I like this guy.

That was about all the personal stuff I could accomplish for one day so I decided to go into work. I had Mr. Jiang take me across the street to the hotel so that I could collect my computer and office stuff in transit and then off we went. I was not sure if he’d been there before – he being new to me and I think new to the company – and I wasn’t all that clear about how to get into the place having not been there since the opening. So I wasn’t surprised when he took the old entrance and tried to drop me off at the old building. I said “no” we need to go over there so he simply started driving down the back roads of the site – something that is not allowed at any plant I’ve ever been to. More interesting was the fact that every guard we passed simply lifted the gate and let us through until one, supervising a crew of gardeners forced us to stop. An argument in Chinese ensued but I broke it up by telling the guard where I needed to go. He waved us on and we arrived at a rude gate composed of two big steel plates secured with a chain and lock. The guard there refused to open it until Mr. Jiang told him the other guy had sent us. Good enough for his needs, he donned his construction helmet, opened up the lock and sent us on. From here the road led to the front of the office building.

The highlights at work turned out to be my monitor locked to a pole and no key to open it and a little convenience store off the cafeteria that had the Chinese version of those great ice cream bars we get in Mexico.

Today, my goods from the US will be delivered and so my morning is committed to waiting for the movers. Additionally the drinking water guy is supposed to bring me some bottles - we’ll see how that shakes out. Now, it’s downstairs for a free breakfast and then across the street for round two.

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