March 4, 2008

I Want a Divorce!!

It all started on Sunday evening when my cell phone decided to jump in the toilet. Immediately I recalled a similar incident in the winter of 2006, when my phone took a dip in the hot tub with me and it took me about a month to get sorted out properly. And that was in America. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, I suppose.

I quickly tried to salvage my little information buddy by separating the battery case, battery, SIM card, and the phone itself on a dry towel and placing this towel directly under a heater running at full blast. I was all ready to go to bed in this situation when I realized that my phone is not only my phone -- it's also my alarm clock. So I had no real way to wake up in the morning. I do have a regular desk clock in my bedroom, but I'd long ago given up on using it as an alarm clock, which is especially disconcerting given that it's a Fungdo brand, which is well-renowned for its quality. (That's a joke, people.)

Luckily, I still have my American cell phone with me, and, for WHATEVER reason, it still gets a signal in China. It's on Digital Roaming, but it can pick up the correct time, which means that I was able to use it as an alarm clock Sunday night.

So all's fine and good. I figure I'll give my phone a couple days to dry out, and if it doesn't, I can pick up a cheap one at Carrefour.

So I came home from work on Monday, all set to check out my phone and see if it's working yet. I walk inside, flick the light switch as usual, and step towards my bedroom door -- and stop.

The light's not on.

I flick the switch a couple times again to be sure. No dice. Oh great, I thought. Somehow, even though the only things using power right now are my laptop in sleep mode and my fridge, I've managed to trip the power again. This does not bode well for the coming months.

I step outside my apartment and go to open the door to where the breaker is.

It's locked.

No, that can't be.

Yes, it can.

Now I'm frantic. My power is off and the only way I know how to get it back on is barred. And I have no cell phone. And I'm, um, in China. And I don't speak or understand Chinese very well.

I find my flashlight (so glad I brought that to China) and my landlord's business card (so glad I kept that out where I can get to it easily). Then I gather up my keys and wallet and head for the gate entrance to my apartment complex. The guards there seem pretty nice and friendly whenever I say hello, so maybe they'll take pity on a poor lao wai.

I'm halfway to the guard station when I think: when's the last time I checked my mail? For those who don't know, in America, I hardly ever check my mail. Ever. The past two years, my roommate was the one who checked it since he worked from home all day. And I so rarely get information via snail mail anyway - what with these new fangled computers and Internet doohickeys.

But maybe, just maybe, there's a power bill sitting unpaid in my mailbox. So I turn around and open it up - and sure enough, amongst a bunch of folded-up fliers and ads for random junk, I see the two distinctive red ovals that mark a fa piao. The only Roman characters on the paper are a symbol for the Beijing Olympics and the words "State Grid". The date reads 2008-2-19.

Oh crap, I think. I'm delinquent. They cut off my power. It's 7 PM at night.

I step out the door again and head for the guard tower. In my mind I'm like, okay: the first words out of my mouth will be Ni hui shuo Yingwen ma? "Do you speak English?" On the off chance that they do, then, good, should be much easier. However, it is 99.99% likely I will have to whip out the Zhongwen. Let's see - what do I want to say here?

I decide on two phrases:

1. Qing bang wo - "Please help me"
2. Wo de jia bu hao - "My house is no good"

(Stop laughing)

That's all I can do. I don't know how to say "light," "door," or "locked" or "My power's off."

This is all in the 15-second walk to the guard house. I walk up to the guard house and, after determining that the guard can speak "a little bit" of English, proceed in order as described above. I punctuate this by pointing at the light in the room. He understands - "Your power is off."

Woohoo! Score one for the American.

He squawks on his walkie-talkie for a bit and calls someone. "You no pay bill" he said (or something to that effect). Then he points to a sheet of paper on the wall - "You call them." Ah, now, time for the "I don't have a phone", or mei you shouji. Wo de shouji bu hao. These I know how to say, so I do. He offers to call them for me on his cell phone, and does. Of course, it's like 7 PM, so nobody answers.


So I call my landlord and explain the situation. Which is tough - he speaks halfway decent English, but I speak to him so rarely that I feel like I have to remind him who I am every time ("Wo shi gao mei guo ren, zai Dingxiang Lu jiu yi ling, we went shopping at Jialefu ..."). It's like a missed connection on Craigslist.

No wait, scratch that -- he speaks quarter-decent English. Maybe, if I'm feeling generous, third-decent English.

I pass the phone off to the guard, who explains things in Chinese. I get the phone back and my landlord re-re-explains the situation to me.

Yes, I'm a delinquent. I'll pay tomorrow -- wo you qian. But is there anything I can do tonight? Jin tian wan shang ma?

He promises to call them and ask. I guess he has some super-secret number that the guard doesn't. He asks for my phone number and again, I bust out with the Wo de shou ji bu hao. Hahaha. I really need to learn how to say "broken." So the guard gives him his cell phone number, and tells me zhe li deng yihuir - ("Wait here a moment.")

After 5-6 minutes, my landlord calls back to report a failure. No dice. I pay tomorrow - tonight I'm without power. He says "You can pay tomorrow. The address of the company is on the bill. Go to the one on Fudian Lu." And we hang up.

I'm pretty proud of how calm I stayed just then. I figured, what the hell. It's certainly not freezing outside. I won't be cold at all. I can go to Carrefour, buy some batteries for my flashlight, eat dinner at the Thumb and just kind of hang out for awhile. At home I've got a fully-charged iPod and an entire season of The Simpsons to watch. Then I can go to bed kind of early.

So that's exactly what I do :-) I also check my cell phone, which has regained 90% of its functionality. It turns on and the numeric keys work -- but the menu navigation buttons do not. Oh well - at least it's a start.

Luckily in the morning, there's enough hot water for a regular-length shower. I don't know how that happened, but it did and I'm thankful. It's light out so I get dressed and leave easily enough without running into things. But today I wake up earlier than usual, because I have to go pay my bill.

Which is part two of the story.

I look at the fa piao. Like I said earlier, there are no useful Roman characters on it - no Pinyin or nothing. However, I have an ace up my sleeve - I know the Chinese character for lu, or road, after having stared at it on the subway maps so much. (To me, it looks like a little man waiting to cross a street while a car passes in front of him, with power lines overhead. Yes, I'm serious.)

So I look for the character, and sure enough, on the back I see lu, in tiny print, about 10 times, along with associated road names and street numbers (which are in Arabic). So my power company has like 10 locations in Shanghai -- beautiful. There are even phone numbers associated with each one.

I can't read these addresses and I don't know how to get anywhere they say. But I know who can do both of these things - taxi drivers. Which, thankfully, are plentiful in this city. Damn, sometimes I really enjoy this whole not-driving thing.

So I have 10 addresses and a way of getting to any one of them. However, I am cursed with a geek's brain and must optimize this problem. It's not enough to go to one of these places - I want to minimize the amount of time it'll take me to get there, pay, and get out - so that I won't be too late for work. I don't want to end up in Hongqiao by accident.

So which address is the closest to me?

This is the query I attempt to pose to the guard at the gate who, obviously, is not the same one from last night. I start out with Wo yao gei ta men qian - "I want to give them money." I flip the paper over and point to the section with the addresses. Wo bu zhidao zai na li yi - "I don't know where." Qing bang wo again.

This line of questioning is, of course, woefully indirect. What I want to say is - "Which of these addresses is closest to here?" I could say, or approximate, every word in that sentence except for "close". And I don't think I could pantomime it, either. So that's why it takes 10 minutes and the assistance of a man in his PJs walking his dog in order for me to hear the words "Fudian Lu".

Ah -- that's right! Fudian Lu - that's what my landlord said! I had forgotten since last night. Now which one of these addresses here says Fudian Lu?

Ahh, he points to Fudian Lu 92 - Fudian Lu jiu er. (If I'd been smarter, I would have noticed that it's the only one listed that has three characters - one each for "Fu", "dian", and "lu" along with the numerals.)

Because I'm supremely happy at this point, I say zai na li - "Where is it?" This wastes precious time, as the nice man proceeds to give me directions to Fudian Lu which, of course, I can't really understand. Nor do I care, because I'm going to hail a taxi anyway. So when he closes with Ni ting dong ma? ("Do you understand?") I respond with.

Ting dong. Ming bai le. Hao de.

("I understand. I see. Good!")

After thanking them both profusely (Tai xie xie le), I hail a taxi, gesture frantically to the address on the fa piao, breathe a sigh of relief when the driver appears to know where it is, and I'm on my way.


In the cab on the ride over, I can't remember how or why I struck up a conversation with the driver or if he struck one up with me - but I said Zhe ga shi wo de fa piao - "this is my receipt." He must have noticed me playing with the bill and looking at it. I hand it to him to look while we're stopped at a light, and of course, he can read it and so he understands my situation. He points to the due date, which is 2008-2-19 if you're still with me, and says something. I don't need an interpreter to realize he's saying "You're late!"

Wo zhidao - "I know". I laugh and try for some comic relief. Zuo tian wan shang bu hao - "Last evening was not good". Which isn't 100% true, but still. Hehe.

It turns out that we're going to Pudian Lu - I have mis-heard everybody up until now. Pu because the street is near the Huangpu river. As we approach, I look up and see blue tile roofs on the houses -- rows and rows of them. Now where have I seen these before? Zai Jin Mao Da Sha ba shi ba lou. On the 88th floor of the Jin Mao tower last week, this very same section of housing caught my eye, because it's a big swath of bright blue in the middle of the area nearby. Now I'm right in the middle of it.

We make it through heavy morning Shanghai traffic and I see the building. The logo on the door matches the logo on my bill. Luckily the pay station is located right in front of the door. I manage to pay the bill with only some mild hilarity that ensues when the teller asks me to wait a minute while she checks my account, only to confirm that I have to pay some late fees. She speaks pretty decent English, so I leave with the full confidence that my power will be restored within three hours.

And so it was.

It takes me about 20 minutes to hail another cab, and another 45 or so to get to work -- only 45 minutes late, natch. As I was relating this story today to my co-workers at lunch, I learned some important facts about Chinese life:
  • You can pay your utility bills at most convenience stores.
  • Wo de jia bu hao is colloquial for "My home life is not good" which is usually what people say when they mean "I want a divorce." So there you go. Now the gate guards think that I'm having domestic problems ;-)
Now -- about that water bill ...

p.s. I must impart that, at any time, I could have called one of my Chinese co-workers, given that I had a working land-line phone and a list of their numbers handy. However, in the midst of everything that was going on, I did not think about this option. But if I had, I might not even have called them, because that would have been way less fun.

1 comment:

Michelle said...

*laughs* Oh man, Ryan. Thanks! I needed a laugh like that today. I think we've all had to go through the horrors of disconnect notices but at night in a foreign city? Yikes. All the same, it makes for a great story.