Saturday, September 19, 2009

A week back and a week closer

Things change very rapidly around here. A road that might take five years to complete in a more regulated place like The States is done here in a matter of months. Just today I had a bike ride on a 4-lane boulevard that was weeds when I came back in July. And like projects that get done fast, the places I like have changed too. Take my Starbucks for example. A couple of years ago it was the lowest performing store in their entire international network, buoyed only by the coffees that my friends and I would buy when we were in town. There was always a seat and it was never loud. Today I’m sitting outside on the patio bombarded by loud disco promoting the mall and watching the people go by. On the permanent stage are skinny little Chinese 20-somethings wearing hot pants and crop tops flouncing along and lip-synching to some hard-edged Chinese girl band music. Inside there are no tables and no chairs – it’s full of foreigners I’ve never seen and Chinese who have discovered it’s a place for westerners, and so one worth patronizing. It used to be that I knew or had seen just about everyone that came in the door; today there isn’t a familiar face in the lot. I’m glad that the weather has changed enough to make it nice for sitting out here in the Saturday tumult.

It’s a funny thing when your idea of a place changes right before your eyes. I suppose that it’s one thing when you watch your neighborhood turn over completely in the course of your life – that’s to be expected. Similar perhaps over the span of ten years as your favorite vacation spot gets crowded and loses its appeal. This place is like the latter I guess although on a much more 21th century “flat world” scale – I came here with an expectation and I loved it when it was dark and dirty and Chinese and the only westerners I saw were the ones I knew. Now every 5th person is wearing knee-length Bermuda shorts, Oakley sunglasses and has their socks pulled up to their knees. I guess I understand now why that German told me I “don’t look like and American.” The streets are full of them and it’s not an improvement.

My house was just as I left it when I returned on Tuesday night, which I suppose is what we all hope for when coming back from an extended absence. It was cold enough to freeze any of my Chinese friends and everything was just where I had left it. After unpacking and getting a sense of how much food I didn’t have I sat down in the library and decided to post the blog I had finished while waiting for my plane in Beijing. I turned on my computer and waited for the little network terminals to turn blue. I waited and waited and waited until I finally came to the conclusion that there was no connection. And after 20 minutes of swapping cables, pulling power cords, going through every possibly permutation of pieces, parts, cables and conditions I came to the painful conclusion that my modem was on the fritz. It wasn’t hard to conclude, between the lack of a connection and the constant pattern of cycling lights it was obvious. No Internet for me.

Like so many today my dependence on electronic access to the world outside my apartment borders on the desperate. I will make a plea for an extra bit of pity here as I am far from home and my computer is my only current link to the things going on in my personal world. From pets to family to My Lovely Wife to the Obamanation, if I don’t have the Internet, I don’t have information. There is only so much of Wolf Blitzer I can take and BBC news is almost always talking about the development of some obscure manioc cooperative in Botswana. I rely on my computer to convince me that I still have a universe beyond the Yellow Sea and when it’s not working, I’m not happy. But it was late and I was tired so I went off to bed planning on solving the problem in the morning.

Since we live in a country that uses a language that doesn’t even remotely resemble ours, we use an intermediary for all of our interactions with suppliers from bottled water to cooking gas. I called mine, Miss Su, first thing the next morning and set the balls rolling towards a solution. Like the US though, when the repair persona says they are coming you need to be there so when Miss Su told me 1 PM I was out the door and on my way home. Waiting for me was Mr. Yin the landlord’s agent and his trusty sidekick Tracey. I vaguely remembered Tracey from the day I moved in but I’d had little interaction with her. I made a joke in Chinese with Mr. Yin, asking him if he was ready to head upstairs into the winter. He laughed, no doubt remembering how close he came to frostbite when he was supervising the repair of my bathtub drain. On the ride up in the elevator I struggled to make Chinese small talk and Tracey told me that I could speak English with her if I preferred. Well yea I guess I would, thanks for asking.

Mr. Yin went through all the same permutations of pieces, parts, cables and conditions as I did with the same result. He threw in a new test case – removing the splitter that serves the phone but the result was the same – the same constant pattern of cycling lights. Tracey made comments on the photos cycling by on my digital picture frame. She liked the horses and she liked our house. When pictures of My Lovely Daughters came up, she liked those too. She looked at a picture of me sitting with one of the kids on a park bench in Boulder and asked if I had a son. I told her that the gent in the picture was me and she refused to accept that. I took off my glasses and adopted the same pose; she said I looked really young.

Mr. Yin got on the phone with the service provider and had a brief conversation with Tracey who translated for me, “The government says that your connection is broken and they will come out and investigate within 24 hours.” Well, anytime “the government” comes up it’s not good. I mean I didn’t think I’d visited all that many of those sites, I’m a pretty clean-living guy. I challenged this a bit finally managing to get “government” changed to “phone bureau” and then “phone company.” Tracey apologized offering that perhaps she had chosen the incorrect word. I didn’t like this explanation, regardless of the regulatory agency and so I asked again about the modem. Mr. Yin replied that it was a problem across the whole network. I offered that my friends down the block had no problem at which point “whole network” changed to “this building.” When I looked skeptical, “whole building” became “my apartment” and so we were at an impasse – the government was going to have to come out and check my apartment. I sent Mr. Yin and Tracey off and went food shopping at Metro with Jiang figuring I might as well salvage the day.

At noon on Thursday I had a frantic email message from Miss Su telling me that my cell phone was not working and that she had to speak with me right away. Not a big surprise, my phone doesn’t work in my office building, it’s just too big a block of poured concrete to allow a signal to reach it. I called her back while perched on a windowsill and she told me that Mr. Yin would be meeting me in 30 minutes with a solution to my connectivity problems. Not sure if Jiang could get me there in time so I sent him a text and sure enough he was on his way having already been called by Miss Su. Another interesting thing about this place, all the unsolicited help you get by your personal employees that makes things happen whether their timing is good for you or not.

On the way to my place, Jiang set about educating me about Chinese modems. Now this was a very complex conversation using terms that were new to me and generally lacking in context, that veritable glue that holds Chinese conversation together. He was using a colloquial term for the device that sounded like “mao”, the word for cat. Not a surprise I suppose if mice are mice perhaps modems can be cats. I followed the best I could finally coming to the point he was trying to make – Chinese modems are very poor quality and so you have to turn them off once in a while or (in his words) they get too hot and fail. My modem had been on since I moved in, back in May with nary a problem and so I wasn’t buying this little piece of folklore. I asked how often I should do this – 3 days, 5 days, 7 days? He said the number didn’t matter and that perhaps I should turn it off whenever I went outside. I pushed a bit on this and he finally reduced the service interval to “Whenever you go to America.”

Mr. Yin was there as expected and on the ride up in the elevator I asked his opinion on what Jiang had been trying to tell me using Jiang’s words. Mr. Yin looked at me with a smile and told me that he was not there to fix a cat. I retreated and reconsidered my choice of words. He went through the permutations of pieces, parts, cables and conditions one more time and naturally the result was the same. He disconnected the modem (no kidding!) and headed to the door. I went with him but he stopped and held up his hand saying, “You are here.” Fine, I guess my job was to wait.

He returned fifteen or so minutes later having apparently run down the street to the phone company and back. He had a brand new modem – a different model – bringing to mind the same experience I’ve had in the US. “Gee, what are you guys doing with that old thing, didn’t you get the service bulletin?” He swapped it out and sure enough I was connected once again to the outside world. As he was about to leave I thought I would try one last time with that little bit of apocrypha relating to recycling the modem thinking perhaps I could get the word straight. He looked thoughtful for a moment, considered the modem blinking merrily on the desk and turning to me he said, “Whenever you go to America.”

One of the things I have in the works here is a trip to Tibet over the upcoming National Day and Fall Festival weekend. An interesting thing travel to Tibet – although the government considers it a part of the country people like me have to obtain a travel permit to go there and that involves lots of paperwork including an affidavit promising that I am not a journalist. I applied for it a month back before my trip home and I had checked on it before I left. The answer at that time was “The government only works on October permits in September so you will have to wait.” Not a problem, I went off to the US and spent the next week driving around Ireland blowing tires and getting rain-soaked checking every day to see if the mail had come in. By the time I came back we were halfway into the month and I had no answer so I asked again. “Well, the policy changed – the government only issues permits within 10 days of your travel” - an interesting problem for someone trying to book a trip from outside the country, not so big a deal for me so I went back to waiting. If it all falls through it will be a shame because part of that trip requires a day spent in Beijing, which happens to be the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. There is an enormous celebration scheduled and I can’t even imagine how difficult travel in the capitol will be that day but honestly, I am dying to find out.

At dinner last night I had one of those amazing sightings - a Chinese guy with his shirt off. Men's exposed skin is something all too common around here, every day when it's hot you see guys walking down the street with their polyester polos rolled up under their man-bosoms and usually their physical condition does not merit such an outward display. But a guy stripped to the waist in a restaurant is somewhat more elusive (thankfully) and I had heard the tale but never actually seen it. Until last night when the guy a couple of tables over apparently thought the peppers were too hot and so stripped down. No one cared and no one noticed when I snuck a photo from across the room to provide documentation. "No shirt, no shoes, no service" signs have not made it here yet.

Less than a week now after my return, I am still pretty jet-lagged. Every night I’m about ready to pass out at 9 and last night after dinner I walked home and off to sleep around 9:45. Sometime thereafter, in the middle of a dream I was pulled back to consciousness by the ringing of my Chinese cell. I was almost too groggy to worry about what this meant – a dead employee, the government wanting to check my Internet connection – whatever, it couldn’t be good. I answered and found myself talking to a woman with that typically high-pitched Chinese customer service voice. It took me a while to figure out what she was talking about and of course we went through all the formalities of being unable to hear each other due to the poor connection. Eventually I became aware that I was talking to a customer service agent at CTRIP, the Chinese Internet travel agency use to book flights around the country. I had just booked the Chinese portion of my November trip back to the US, that very day. I listened for a bit and then I snapped to it – she was calling me at this ungodly hour to tell me that my flight from Beijing to Dalian, on November 24th had changed. Originally scheduled to depart at 6:06PM, it would now be leaving at 6:19 and she wanted to confirm with me that this was acceptable.

“Fantastic” I said, “I was worried my layover was too short.” I thanked her for calling and went back to sleep.



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