Monday, August 09, 2010

Often when you think you're done, you realize your capacity to be even more done.

Just when my done-ness reaches what I consider an apex, something else always comes along to drive the point even closer to home, like a 20 penny nail in the forehead. Take tonight for example. I’m trying hard to work my way through the last of the food in my refrigerator and I decided that the dozen or so dumplings that I have frozen would be the easy and delicious choice. Now I’ve been scraping by with an IKEA pot that I’ve had from Day One and it’s always been too small, 12 dumplings and the requisite water barely fit and always result in a boiling overflow. So last week I went back to IKEA with two things in mind – a bigger pot and some replacement light bulbs for my desk lamp, the latter being critical from a fiscal standpoint as I’ve heard the stories of tenants being charged $10 for every dead bulb they leave behind. I had Jiang to take me there after work and I wound my way to the lighting department. After some searching I found the appropriate replacement and checking price tag – 9.90 kuai – or about $1.50 I said “What the heck?”, I’ll buy three packs and account for any eventuality. I grabbed them and a 75 kuai pot and went to the cashier.

Now I’m one of those shoppers who does a quick pre-calculation while my stuff is being rung up so I had 110 kuai in my hand when she scanned the last item. The total rang up to 194 which came as a blunt surprise. I asked to see the ticket and the girl showed me – the bulbs were 39.90 apiece. Well, $1.50 is one thing, but $5.85 is wholly another so I told her that the price was not as marked. She politely handed me my goods and with an outstretched arm and an open palm and the reserve of someone scared to offend a customer pointed towards the exit and said what I assumed to be “Take it up with Customer Service”. I thought about it for 30 seconds and decided that this might offer the crowning achievement in the development of my Chinese language skills and so I walked right over there and started to talk to the first person in a uniform that I saw.

They turned out to be custodians, but taking pity on me they led me to the actual customer representative who listened to my entreaty, took my slip and typed the query into her computer. There was a small crowd gathered by now, but at least no one asked to have their picture taken with me. She scanned the data and came back with the answer – 39.90 was the price. She sort of pantomimed a “Do you want some money back?” but I considered my situation and thanked her and headed for the door. One can never have too many IKEA G9 40W halogen bulbs, can one?

But back to dinner. The new pot worked like a charm and the delicate dumplings did not get scarred like too many pigs jammed in a livestock car. I poured the hot water down the left drain, put the steaming dumplings in a bowl and reached for the soy sauce. I gave it a series of shakes which only served to illustrate the fact that the lid was not fully on, judging from the spray of brown spots on the white tile floor, from one wall to another. “Fine”, I said. The bottle was about as covered as the floor so I decided to wash it off. I clicked down the lid lest we have another explosion ran it under the faucet, scrubbing off the current and previous streaks of sauce.

Something sounded strange though and looking down I simultaneously saw and felt the water that was soaking my socks pouring out of the cabinet. Opening the doors the cause was clear – the pipe had decided to disconnect itself from the drain. This was the first sign of the night that I was truly done. But I know what you’re saying “That could have happened anywhere” and to a certain extent you’re correct – it could have happened anywhere that they sell soy sauce in bottles with caps that don’t work and where plumbing is done with vacuum cleaner hoses. I took a long look at the piping and the only thing I could come up with was that it just decided to free itself from the sink trap. There was no broken coupler or missing clamp. For all I could tell it had never really been attached. I fixed it good though using two black plastic zip ties. That sucker is never coming off of there, well at least until the next time. Maybe I’ll apply the same fix to its neighbor, the two piece p-trap that’s been leaking for the last six months.

As I wind down my time, one of my biggest decisions has to do with my phone. I pay a monthly charge and I want to leave here with enough money on the account to guarantee that I will have a working phone when I travel back. This of course means doing some crafty calculations and estimating how much the charges will be during the time that I won’t be here because once I am gone there is no way to add money or to even check how much I have. Having survived the dumpling disaster I decided to go have a cup of coffee and pay up the phone account, the two places where these things can be accomplished being in the same mall down the street. I gathered up my stuff and headed out the door, and noticed that the huge TV screen on the Bank of China tower was in the process of being rebooted. A giant Windows desktop was displayed and an airplane sized cursor was jetting through the process of clicking on the icons. For an instant it occurred to me that I was seeing proof that God is a Windows 7 user I realized I would need proof. There was another guy standing there watching and smoking a cigarette, I took my camera out of my bag and stood next to him. One of the givens about living in a place where the humidity hovers at 98% and the dew point around 80 degrees is that you have to keep your apartment at 50F in order to survive. The one thing bad about keeping your apartment at 50F is that the moment you walk outside every cold surface instantly fogs up. Usually it’s your glasses that go first and you notice that right away. It also means that the 5 pounds of glass in a camera lens does the same thing and that’s precisely what happened the moment I tried to take the picture of God rebooting his computer. I wiped the lens and tried again. I blew hot breath on it and tried one more time but the lens was opaque within 15 nanoseconds of every attempt I made to undo it. I put the camera back in my bag and walked on.

The street between my apartment building and the mall is lined with restaurants and hotels and there is always a lot of traffic; people, cars, buses and taxis. As you get closer to the main intersection, the crowding gets worse because this is where all the mall shoppers congregate to catch buses home. There are regular public buses and there is also a fleet of gypsy buses vying for the same business. These buses are small, about the size of a rental car bus at our airports. The gypsy drivers have touts who stand out on the sidewalk yelling the destination and trying to get customers into their vehicles. The touts wander around yelling their destination and asking everyone who walks by if they want a ride. “Dalian, Dalian, Dalian, Lo” is how the call goes. I regularly get asked as though they have ever had a single western customer that looks like I do, let alone someone walking in the opposite direction and ignoring them. But such is the enterprising nature of these guys, a person not asked is a customer lost and sure enough I was accosted almost the minute I walked into the throng. More interesting though was a small woman rushing along the sidewalk. This heavyset guy actually reached out to grab the sleeve of her shirt and he just missed, she having a tad too much forward momentum. He lost his grip as she did a quick sidestep, heading towards the next bus down the queue. He looked at her and gave that classic Chinese grunt which has always irritated the heck out of me, “Uh, uh?’ as though she had turned down his offer to dance. I walked away wondering what it would have happened had he connected.

The China Mobile store can be found on the third floor of the mall, tucked away in the corner of the big department store that occupies the lion’s share of the building. Or at least it used to be because tonight it wasn’t there. I took this as a serious blow, because ever since the second week I was here this has been the place that I have used to charge my phone. Long ago this was where I sought sanctuary when I failed at buying minutes at the store down the street, and that shameful memory still burns my psyche every time I think about it. I rode the escalator up past the flip-flop department and thought I was in the right place but I couldn’t be sure so I rode up one more floor and walked past the gourmet hair brush kiosk before deciding that my phone store had either been replaced by a pirate DVD shop or the future location of a hair salon that advertised its opening with cameo pictures of Japanese Emo boys. What this meant to me was that now, in the 11th hour of my incarceration and probably on the last time I would need to do this, I was stymied. I would have to find another store. I rode the escalator back down stairs and bought a coffee and apple fritter in consolation. The fritter was stale.


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