January 4, 2008

Icebox - The First 12 Hours

The flight and touchdown went fine. I ate the first meal on the plane, some sort of chicken-and-rice dish, and it sadly upset my stomach for the rest of the ride. But the day was saved thanks to the iPod I'd bought a couple weeks previously, because I was able to watch like 10 episodes of South Park, and listen to tons of music, during the flight. No need for in-flight entertainment when you've brought your own :-)

I made it through customs and baggage claim just fine, even though I had five total bags (three suitcases, a carry-on, and my laptop bag) to manhandle. It was really helpful that I'd done this before in November, so I wasn't worried about anything. I knew exactly what to expect.

I met with two of my co-workers and a driver in the "receiving line" outside customs. The receiving line literally are these lanes that you walk through with metal rails on each side (kind of like the lines you go through to enter rides at theme parks) that wind this way and that. The railings are absolutely mobbed with people waiting for friends or acquaintances to exit customs. You see tons of people holding up signs with names on them, signs with tour group names, signs with hotel names, and so on. I quickly found my co-workers, and we were on our way.

After a quick 30-40 minute trip back into the city area, we arrived at my apartment. I live in a series of high rises off Dingxiang Lu, near the Thumb Plaza, which is where I ate Pizza Hut last time. I'm close enough to The Bund to see the World Financial Center from my window. I think I'm also near Shiji (Century) Park. Other expats from my company live here or near here, which helps me feel at ease. I'm on the 18th floor, which technically means I have a great view, but in reality it means I have a great view of the other skyscrapers next door ;-)

The driver left us, and my two co-workers and I went up to my apartment to meet my landlord, Qian. Very nice guy, super-helpful, and generally put me at ease. When I walked into the apartment, I was struck by how ultra-modern it looks. It's furnished quite nicely, at it's a lot nicer than where I was living in Austin, "nicer" in the sense of "looks like it came out of a Wired magazine showcase." Haha. It's two bedrooms, which is cool, and there are two actual beds here. Two balconies also, and each bedroom has a pretty huge windowbox -- or whatever you call those areas in front of windows that you can use for sitting down. There's a desk, a living room table with some chairs, and a bathroom including a washing machine. No dryer though - I'll have to investigate that :-) There's a nice living room with a TV and a DVD player. I'm glad that I am not used to watching TV for entertainment, because I think the only English station I can get is CCTV 9 and I don' think I could stand to watch that for more than 20 minutes straight :-) There's no oven but there is a microwave and a two-burner stove, plus a refrigerator and freezer.

Speaking of freezer ...

I was a little surprised to see there's no central heating. Obviously I've taken this for granted while living in America. Let me assure you, after one night here, I never will again ;-) The living room has a giant tower in the corner that acts as a heater, and the two bedrooms each have one smaller wall-mounted unit in them. To put it nicely, uh, the heat from each unit doesn't reach very far out into the room ;-) The living room unit heats the area directly in front of the TV, so if you're in the dining area or kitchen, you best put on some mittens. The unit in the main bedroom is on the wall opposite the bed, so let's just say I slept in some warm clothes last night :-) The unit in the second bedroom is just above the desk where I'm typing now, though, so at least I'm pretty warm as we speak. Also, to get hot water, you have to specifically turn on the water heater and wait for it to warm up. Whew.

There's probably some super-powerful mode that I haven't discovered because the buttons are all in Chinese. I'll have to ask someone to help me with that, but in the meantime, I might have to investigate getting a couple more space heaters ...

Okay, enough about that. After meeting with the landlord and getting the tour of the place, such as it is, the four of us went to the Thumb Plaza, just a 5-minute walk or so, to eat. Mmmmm. I'm not sure why Qian came with us. My coworkers said that it wasn't normal for the landlord to spend a couple hours with his new tenant. We were all confused why he wanted to hang out with us and go shopping, but hey, I wasn't complaining :-)

Since I wasn't that hungry, I deigned to eat at McDonald's. I figured I wanted to check it out at some point, and I didn't want to do it at a time when I had a big appetite. In line we actually ran into two NI expats that I met last month, and they teased me for eating at McD's on my first night in China :-)

The McD's is attached to a Carrefour, a store that's like a grocery store on the lower level with a Target or Sears on the upper level. I'd sketched up a small shopping list including things like alarm clock, pillows, shampoo, detergent, etc. So the four of us went shopping! Qian was super-helpful. He took my shopping list and ranged far in front of my coworkers and me, helpfully asking people where things were and pointing out things I might need. Again, I'm not sure why he was being so helpful, but I definitely appreciated it!

At one point we stopped to try on slippers, which was hilarious and involved the four of us and two store employees, plus a couple customers who were passing by. None of their merch looked big enough for my lao wei feet, and I was right -- even though I tried on and bought a pair of XL slippers (the biggest or second-biggest pair they had, I think) when I got them home they turned out to be too small to walk on. Anyway the Carrefour staff was making me laugh because they kept pulling pairs off the rack, or pointing to them, and speaking to Qian in Chinese, and he would translate in decent English. They spoke very excitedly and gestured a lot. I felt like I had a couple of manservants with me :-)

Buying bedding was also pretty fun. I was looking for sheets, pillowcases, and a comforter. Of course, comforter doesn't translate into Chinese, so I had to explain kind of what that was. And I think I got one. What I ended up with is something that is the size of my bed and has this weird plastic-y feel to the outer lining. It's pale yellow and looks like it belongs in a hospital. My co-worker said that I'm supposed to put a cover on it, but I'm confused by the idea of covering a blanket, and the one cover I got with my sheet set doesn't fit it. But hell, it's warm, so that's all I cared about last night :-)

Carrefour sells tons of package-style bedding, and we went back and forth for a couple minutes over which size and color I needed. Of course these discussions are all among Qian, my two co-workers, and anywhere from 2 - 3 store employees who happen to be helping us. I just stand there with a smile on my face, nod at the appropriate time, unable to understand anyone unless I ask them to translate for me, and laugh at the absurdity of what is taking place before me :-)

One small tidbit: I picked up an alarm clock for 77 kuai (colloquial term for yuan) and paid for it at a separate instore location with my debit card. Unbeknownst to me, my bank's fraud detectors went off (Uh oh! Purchased something in China! Identity theft! Identity theft!) But the purchase went through. This came back to bite me when I tried to check out at the front register with the rest of my purchases -- my card was denied!! Luckily I had another one and was able to use that.

(I'm pretty happy that Carrefour took Visa in the first place -- most places here don't. It'll be weird dealing with mainly cash again after so long of a plastic existence in the US.)

After that I picked up a couple bottles of water, because I don't feel like getting dysentery from my tap, and some snacks like green tea cookies, Pocky, and some variety pack including rice puffs and pea-flavored crackers. Mmmm.

We loaded my purchases into a cab and shuffled off back to the apartment. I said goodbye to everyone and they left. I set about unpacking not only my purchases but also my suitcases. I kind of failed at the latter, but I was tired :-)

As I was putting my sheets on my bed, the power went out all of a sudden. I panicked for a split second but then remembered that I'd packed my flashlight from home. Genius! I managed to find it and suddenly I had light. I wandered over to the phone (thankfully, my apartment comes with a land line) and called Qian, who said he'd call someone right away. About 10 minutes later I heard a knock at my door. It was a security guard for the complex, I think. He showed me how to turn the power back on -- basically, just outside my front door, there's a room with the 18th-floor circuit breakers in them. All he did was flip the switch and presto, the lights came back on. That made me happy :-)

I wonder what caused the outage in the first place. The door has a lock on it but seems to be unlocked. Maybe some punk kid got bored and came up to the hall and started flipping switches ;-) At any rate, this happened a second time in the night, but at least I know how to fix it now. I might talk to Qian about making sure that door is locked (and that I have the key to it), because that's really unsafe.

After those escapades, I finished setting up my purchases. It was only 8 oclock, so I tried to watch a DVD. I almost succeeded :-) The disc inserts and plays just fine, but the TV and DVD remotes are all in, of course, Chinese. I fired up The Matrix but noticed it had subtitles. So my first thought was: okay, let's turn off the subtitles. (They are distracting). But how? The answer: press buttons randomly and see what happens!

After about ten minutes I succeeded in getting to the DVD's main menu. From there I was able to turn off subtitles. But unfortunately, the picture started showing up in black and white. Curses!! I spent literally another thirty to forty minutes trying to fix the picture. It wasn't that way before, so I knew I must have pressed some button to cause the change. But alas, it was not to be. I did succeed in getting the DVD player to display its options in English. And I think I memorized where the important buttons (including, ironically enough, the Subtitle button) are on the remote. But alas the DVDs, they have no color! I checked the TV itself which was in color, so it's got to be something with the DVD player. I even put in another DVD to test it and it was still in black and white. So, again, I'm going to have to get someone to help me fix this :-)

By this point it was like 9 PM and I figured I'd stayed up late enough to deal with the jet lag appropriately. I got in bed and watched some CCTV (exciting!!!) before passing out.

I woke up around 7 AM this morning, so I got a decent night's sleep. I checked my email and found an alert, the one I talked about earlier, from my bank. Their instructions said to call them immediately. I was able to use my computer and Skype to call in and resolve the issue.

Today I'm supposed to call another co-worker (they're passing me around like a hot potato) and will attempt to purchase a cell phone. I'm supposed to meet up with another one of them (co-workers, that is -- not cell phones) for dinner.


Bob London is... said...

Thanks for the extensive post even though you must be exhausted :-)

U. Bob

lifepart3 said...

Hi Ryan,
I enjoy reading your blog and laughed uproariously though I KNOW it wasn't as funny to you going thru it. But you are a VERY entertaining writer and I hope you are now keeping warmer and perhaps will soon even be watching color DVDs and eating snacks other than (gulp) 'pea-flavored' crackers, unless they're a lot better than they sound. Much Love, Aunt I.

Michelle said...

Sounds like you're having a lot of fun! How they're describing the blanket thing sounds almost like you need to get a duvet or something like that to go over it. It kinda sucks not having central air and heat though. Maybe you can pick up a little heater and carry it around with you wherever you go in the apartment? I suppose insultating the doors and windows on the inside won't do much good but maybe it'll block a little bit of the cold from seeping in. Being that high up I'm sure you're getting buffeted by some pretty strong winds! I hope China continues to be a fun, if slightly wacky, adventure for you!