Tuesday, June 12, 2007
If Speech Is Truly Free, Then Why Are There Phone Bills?
Just kidding everyone! I'm a capitalist at heart - you know that.

Anyway, I came to the realization this morning that though I have paid my gas bill (recounted in "Men (and Women) of Honor") and I pay my electricity and water directly to my apartment's management company, my internet bill (and accordingly, my phone bill) was going mysteriously unpaid. Now, I still HAVE internet - a sign that things are not too far gone. But still, I have to pay some time, right? Or perhaps not.

I hadn't received a bill: not by mail, stuck on my door, or - as my other bills are usually delivered - handed to me by the lady who operates the elevator. And pray tell, what happens if you choose to take the stairs? And on that tack, what on Earth does this country have against stair climbing? (which really should go in another post altogether, entitled: Why the Chinese Are Willing to Wait Twenty-five Minutes for the World's Slowest, Most Obstinate Lift In Order to Go Up ONE Freakin' Floor in an Air-conditioned Office Building).

And so, I asked some colleagues how I was to go about paying this bill. I could have just called CNC and asked, but despite my Mandarin's improvement since my arrival in China, I generally prefer not to pay my bills (or do anything else, for that matter) over the phone. It limits my ability to gesticulate wildly in order to ensure that I'm understood. Besides, bill paying more often occurs at the banks which are tapped into the utility companies' databases (oh, the beauty of government-run utilities!). I was told that in the Bank of China in the lobby of my office building, there was a machine that I could use - just swipe your ATM card, punch in your phone number, and you're done. Sounds easy, right?

Well it is. Except the machine was broken. So I had to wait in line like everyone else, not wanting to prolong the non-payment too much longer and, honestly, not even sure how much I was going to owe. I finally had my number called and went up to the window (waiting at a bank in China is much like waiting at a deli counter everywhere else - you get a ticket with a number and a mysterious electronic woman extremely politely beckons you when it's your turn). I handed the teller the sheet with my phone information on it and paid the bill. Turns out I was catching up on two months of payments. But, strangely, with no late fees. Hmmmm...

This made me hearken back on my first apartment experience in Yayuncun, when I worked for the consulting company in northern Beijing. Though they paid my rent, I still had to pay for utilities and internet (a pretty raw deal, looking back on it). Here's the thing: I never paid for the internet after the initial installation. Then, when I moved out, the consulting company said there was an outstanding bill for three months worth of phone/internet service. Not that I ever received a notice of any kind. And the internet was still running without issue.

The way things work here in China, you could almost forget you have bills to pay at all. Many places don't have proper mailboxes or locatable addresses (I never had a postbox in Yayuncun and I still haven't received the key to my mailbox where I live now), and so bills are often delivered by someone taping them to your door or coming by to collect, or - I guess for that matter - they are sometimes not delivered at all.

I went for three months without paying the internet bill at my old apartment, and wouldn't have known it needed paying when I moved out if the company hadn't been trying to lease the place out to someone else. With bills so easily left unpaid, I wonder how on earth the utility companies manage to enforce payment?

I've been told that, when time comes for my European vacation (much like National Lampoon's except with fewer tribulations - but just as fun!), it is fine for me to pay my bills upon my return. I don't know how THAT works exactly. But we'll give it a shot and see how things turn out. Perhaps I'll have to have a discussion with the management people when I give my visa another go. Should be interesting at least!
posted by Rachel @ 12:29 PM  
THE WILD WILD EAST: Everything you never knew you didn't know about life on the other side.
In China, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The Chinese, who call this land "home," and the expats who migrate here. My name is Rachel. I am an expat. These are my stories.
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