Thursday, June 28, 2007
Spar Wars: The Saga Continues
Why is it that I feel I am constantly in a grudge match with my landlord and the property management company? Though I have not yet regaled you, the reader, with tales of sitting for hours in the heat waiting for company representatives and people forcing me to pay fees that I shouldn’t have to pay, just know that this battle has been going on since the beginning of time. Or at least since the day I moved in. Well, it has taken an interesting turn. Well, not so much interesting as frustrating to the maximum. But close enough. Let’s go back, shall we?

After the “pickpocket fiasco” of last week, things were finally getting back to normal. I was back in the mindset of trip preparation, with new credit cards and rail tickets having arrived at my office early in the week. I had even started planning my packing. Then Monday night, I was laying in bed ready to fall asleep, when I suddenly heard a click. I jumped up in bed and pivoted my head around, but there was nothing. I mean not a sound - no air conditioner or anything. I got up and looked around, pulling the switch for the light. No electricity whatsoever. I looked outside to brightly lit windows and caught the glint of light streaming in from the hallway through my front door. My electricity was out. Mine, and only mine. I went into the hallway and there it was - the meter at zero. And then I got mad.

Let me go back yet a bit further and explain the scenario that led to this situation in the first place. Over the last several months, I have been bothering my building’s management company (and through them, the landlord) for three things: 1) the key to my mailbox (which I still have not yet received and don’t count on ever getting), 2) a new residence permit (which took a lot of hammering and a bit of manipulation on my part, but I got it - else I would have no Chinese visa), and 3) the electricity card for my apartment. The way electric works in China goes something like this: every apartment has an electricity card. You read the meter using the card to see how much money there is left for your electric. When it runs low, you go to the bank and recharge it. Seems simple, right? And it is, provided you have the card in your possession. Most people do. But no matter how much I nagged them, the property managers and the landlords refused to yield the card to me.

Do you know what their reasoning was? They didn’t want me to lose it. And implied in the way they said this was the fact that foreigners are irresponsible with their property. Though I took them a bit by surprise in accurately surmising the “subtext” of their statement and acting in an accordingly offended manner, they still refused to give in. I called the property managers about two weeks ago, perhaps less, asking about the levels on the electricity card. He said there was still plenty of money left. And I believed him. Which was stupid because - in all likelihood - he would have said anything to keep from getting off his lazy rear end and recharging my card. Now, before you take offense to this and tell me I’m stereotyping or making mass generalizations, know that every time I went to the company to run an errand or pay rent, half of the employees at the office were playing computer games and the other half were taking naps.

Now, back to the present situation. I have no electricity. There’s NO money on the card and here’s the kicker that’s going to make this whole thing more difficult - after hanging out at a friend’s place the night before, I accidentally left my cell phone behind, meaning I had no way to call the company the next day. Not only did I not have a phone, but the numbers for the company and the representatives I normally deal with were all in my phone. I had a general “company number” - but it is more like the number for a corporate headquarters and I could not manage to get through to the people I normally deal with. And so, I was without electricity: no air conditioner, no refrigerator, no charger for my bicycle battery, no computer - nothing.

I went over to the property management company’s office first thing in the morning (figuring that was the only way around the “no phone” situation), arriving around 8:15. I rang the doorbell and no one responded. So I sat and waited. I thought I heard noises so I rang the doorbell again. Still nothing. More waiting. By now it was around 8:40 and I was definitely not getting to work on time. But without a cell phone, I couldn’t even call to let anyone know. Just then I heard voices and they were DEFINITELY coming from inside the office. I rang the doorbell again. A half-dressed Chinese kid (well, at least he LOOKED like a kid) cracked open the door and looked very surprised to see anyone standing on the other side of it, let alone me. He closed the door and went back in. Then nothing. He knew I was there. I knew he knew I was there.

I rang the doorbell again and FINALLY someone came to the door and actually spoke with me. I explained the situation, at which time the snot-nosed pain in the ass who always keeps me waiting and makes me jump through a hundred hoops (only the majority of which are legal) every time I need a residence permit for my visa poked his head through the door. I explained the situation again and also the issue of my not having a cell phone. After much back-and-forth, he informed me that he would wait for me in the downstairs outside my building at noon and that I should meet him there, at which time he would bring me the electricity card.

So, I ride on my merry way to work, fill my boss in on the situation and break off at around 11:30 - enough time to grab a quick bite and head back to the apartment. I get there at a couple minutes after twelve. And I wait. It’s 12:30. More waiting. 12:40. Then I wait some more (are you sensing a pattern here?). I’ll give him until 1:00. He’s nowhere in sight. And without a cell phone, I couldn’t track him down even if I wanted to - which at this point I almost don’t, I’m so angry. I decide, rather than going back to the office which is across town, I will go back over to their company’s offices and see who I can’t give a piece of my mind to.

Upon arriving there, I get nothing more than blank stares and the occasional “I don’t know.” Finally, amongst the two people smoking and chatting and the four on the computer playing hearts/solitaire/insert random pointless computer game here, someone managed to get someone I had spoken with on the phone. He explained that the landlord would not give up the card and that he would come by when I was home that evening (at which time I could call him, since I would be picking my phone up on my way home from work). He offered no explanation for his not showing up earlier and only changed the subject each time I brought it up. I’ve pretty much given up on trying to figure out why things happen the way they do here. I go where the tide takes me. And if it’s a rip tide, so be it.

I went back to work, finished up my day, picked up my phone at my friend’s apartment and then headed home. Once there, I called the property people who said they were en route and would be arriving soon. The “snot-nosed one” (as he shall be called from here on out) arrived while I was waiting for takeout in the restaurant downstairs. He came over and pulled me aside in a “I don’t want other people to hear what I have to say to you because it’s not completely on the up-and-up or it’s just THAT bad” kind of way. He said that the landlord would not give him the card and that for some reason, I was supposed to pay 2000 kuai for electricity.

Now, this was clearly wrong. It’s about 5 mao (the Chinese equivalent of 50 cents) for one unit of electricity. I could barely use 1000, let alone 4000 units of electricity in the short time left on my lease. To give you an idea, most people use about 200-300 units per month. So I kicked up a fuss telling him that I didn’t understand and that he wasn’t being clear because this made no sense. All he kept repeating was that he was telling me what the landlord had told him and repeatedly asking me if I believed what he was telling me. And with each “do you believe me?” he uttered, I trusted him less and less. He then said that we should go up to the apartment to discuss it. Fine.

We went upstairs and he went through the same drill. I yelled at him, telling him I didn’t have that kind of money period, let alone having that much on my person - and that much to pay for ELECTRICITY no less (which is normally quite cheap). I told him I would call a friend of mine who is Chinese to help clarify and sort out the situation. I called my boss Emily and apologized for being bothersome, but continued that something really important had come up and I needed help.

This in and of itself was a turning point indeed because I’m not big on the whole “asking other people for help” thing. It’s outside my nature. BUT I know when I’m stuck and I’m certainly not arrogant enough to think I could’ve gotten out of this mess without some outside assistance. Emily started talking to the guy. It got heated pretty fast. I’m pretty sure amongst the comments were veiled threats to report the guy to his supervisor, report their company to the legal authorities, and expose their company’s tactics to the media for taking advantage of a poor little foreigner like me. With that, the guy started backtracking - confirmation that I was right to not take him at his word. 2000 kuai? I am NOT that gullible.

With my cell phone back in my possession, I gave Emily the phone number of the guy that leased me the place. He seemed a bit more managerial than the snot-nosed peon who’d been pissing me off for the last day and a half. Emily got each of them to call back the landlord and figure out a proper solution to the situation. It turns out it was actually 2000 UNITS (a more reasonable 1000 kuai - still pricey, but I could handle it) and the landlord would issue me a receipt stating that I would be reimbursed for whatever energy was left on the meter upon completion of my lease.

As he was leaving, the imbecile still in my apartment said he would call my boss tomorrow to confirm an appointment time for the landlord to come refill the meter. At the last moment he threw in that he would call Emily instead of me because I never seem to understand what he’s saying. And the beast reemerged. He had already admitted, “Wo shuo cuo le (I made a mistake/spoke incorrectly),” an admission difficult enough to obtain in the first place in a country whose culture is based on pride and “saving face.” With that in my back pocket, it was not all that large a leap for me to insult him into a corner, telling him the only reason I said “Wo bu mingbai (I don’t understand/I’m not clear)” was because he told me completely the wrong thing and how could he possibly expect me to understand if he’s going to say things that make no sense? I continued lambasting him, saying that my Chinese was obviously good enough to understand him NOW - when he’s not saying things that aren’t right - and I obviously know how to speak well enough to tell him so, so he daren’t tell me that MY Chinese isn’t good enough. AND I’m sticking it to you in a language I started learning only three years ago. So there.

It was awesome. And finally, only an hour-and-a-half after this whole episode began, I was able to kick the peon out and enjoy my solitary, air condition-less, extremely dark, but rather peaceful apartment. Well, peaceful minus the sound of industrial-sized brakes screeching to a halt at the bus stop down the street.

I slept through the night and jumped on my bike to head to work the next day. Without electricity however, my bike was barely charged and only got me about 92% of the way. I must say, having an electric bicycle is fantastic as it gets me across town without leaving me drenched in sweat and feeling generally more disgusting than everyday life in Beijing normally entails. But what they don’t tell you is that if the battery is not working, the bike is actually 10 times harder to pedal than even a normal bicycle. Mine stopped mid-intersection. I got to work, but it was as though I was towing a car behind me the whole rest of the way. Make that a big rig. Luckily, I had the foresight to bring my charger with me to work. And once I arrived (only mildly drenched in sweat), I was able to fill up the battery for the long haul home.

The meeting with the landlord and the property people was set for 3pm. Yes, that’s right. I had to make an APPOINTMENT for me to give someone money and have them slide a card into a slot above my door. Anyway, I figured I would have to head back to my apartment around 2:15 or so to meet them. But after returning from lunch and looking out the office window to a pitch black, stormy-looking sky, my boss Emily and I nodded in agreement that it would be best if I went home straight away, hopefully beating the rain there.

Of course, this was not to be. As soon as I started cycling, the drizzling began, and within less than 30 seconds, it was a full-fledged downpour. Due to the heavy winds, the raindrops felt like pellets stinging my arms. I clung to the handlebars and ducked my head low. Then came the lightning and thunder, which no amount of clinging or ducking would let me avoid.

Oh, geez. What have I gotten myself into? I thought. Maybe I should just turn around. But I was already soaked and about ten minutes along an approximately forty minute journey, so I figured I would trudge on and if the gods were smiling, I would make it home in one piece. Since I wanted to be as safe and aware as possible, I chose to not put my iPod on. This allowed my mind to wander. I starting thinking about the current state of things and the conclusions they were headed to. Especially after the wallet and passport debacle and now the electricity, it was like there was all this tension and frustration that had built up. And now, the rain and the lightning had come to physically and metaphorically diffuse it all.

This made me chuckle to myself. How lofty was I! Symbolism and all that whatnot...glad to know AP English was good for SOMETHING. The chuckle brought out a smile. When life hands you lemons, right? Besides, at this point, what’s the difference between “really soaked” and “really really soaked”? At one point, I attacked a giant puddle, not realizing it was deep enough to be a reservoir, and the water rose to my knees. Luckily the battery on my bike is waterproof. Any normal motorbike would’ve shorted out.

But splashing through puddles and running around in the rain made me feel a whole lot better. And since I was thoroughly drenched anyway, it was better than being like all the other Chinese who were also soaked, but huddling in from the rain and staring confusedly at the smiling foreigner sloshing through the water and singing Otis Redding. “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone…”

Jumping ahead, at 3:15 - in dry clothes and lounging around my apartment - I called the representatives at the property management company to see if they were going to make it. They were. They arrived with the landlord at 3:30 and, after several minutes of exchange and fumbling, I once again had power. And that was all it took.

So to recap. This week we’ve been pickpocketed. We’ve scoured the police stations of Beijing. Shelled out for new passports and visas. Planned trips. Lost electricity. Found electricity. And engaged in the equivalent of a four-year-old jumping through mud puddles in her rain boots. I suppose if they asked me, I could write a book.

Now if only Rosemary were here to sing it.
posted by Rachel @ 2:35 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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