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  
Friday, June 22, 2007
Rachel's Travels: Like Gulliver's, Only Better.
I've been checking the readouts on my viewership and I have to say that I'm quite impressed with the diversity of my blog's audience. I was convinced it was confined to family and friends and the occasional stray who had lost his or her way in the woods. As it turns out, people from over sixty countries visit me - some even more than once.

And with that in mind, I would like to publish a rough sketch of my travel plans, as I am headed on a five week summer vacation in Europe starting next Saturday. If you are or will be in any of these places and want to meet the face behind the blog, leave a comment on the site or in my guestbook and I'll be sure to get back to you!

The Route:

London, UK
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Cologne, Germany
Hamburg, Germany
Berlin, Germany
Prague, Czech Republic
Munich, Germany
Vienna, Austria
Venice, Italy
Florence, Italy
Rome, Italy
London, UK --> Return to Beijing

I will also be in Turkey, Greece, and Croatia in the midst of everything, but my travels at that point will be pretty inflexible, so I figured best not to list them. And for those who have asked, I will definitely be reporting from the road. Have a wonderful summer!
posted by Rachel @ 11:48 AM  
Aliens Exist?
Probably not. But I have noticed something a bit strange. For the past several weeks, I have been taking a new, faster route to work that involves more highway (a bit more dangerous, but definitely a smoother ride) and fewer roadways (less clutter/people in my way). For a while, everything was normal, but then - starting about two days ago - every time I pass under a certain bridge, my iPod freezes. At first, I thought I had just gone over a bump the wrong way, jilting the iPod (since I have it clipped onto my handlebars) and that THAT was the cause. But yesterday and today, it happened again.

Once is fine, twice is coincidence, three times and you've got verifiable data. It's not much more than a pain in the neck (because I have to reset the iPod, preferably without stopping to pull over to the side of the road, which would add time to my commute). And before you give me a lecture on safety and awareness while driving in a big city, YES I really do need the iPod THAT much. Have you ever heard what traffic sounds like in Beijing? Honking here is like saying "hello." Or actually, "ni hao."

Could it be aliens? Poltergeist? A secret military experiment gone awry? Probably not. It's likely just some transportation or communications system that they're working on that's interfering with my iPod's ability to function. Something along the logic of forcing you to turn off electronic devices and cell phones before takeoff. But's weird.
posted by Rachel @ 9:55 AM  
Of all days, TODAY I wish I had my camera...
You know how sometimes you say you got stuck behind some ass on the road heading to work in the morning and it gets you all annoyed and impatient? I had that happen today. There really was some ass blocking up the road. I mean literally. There were two asses pulling carts on the highway this morning and they were blocking traffic because they didn't know which ass was up and which was down. I've always wanted to be able to say that.

Normally, the commute to work is, well, a pain in the ass. Did you like that one? The asses themselves were pretty funny, bellowing and confused-looking. The scene was especially comical as there was a guy in a Mercedes who had managed to convince himself that honking at and agitating the donkeys in the street was going to get him to work any faster. The visual was priceless.

Update to earlier posts: My visa is in order and life is pretty much back to normal. A four day turnaround time? Not too shabby. Thanks to everyone who lent me a helping hand after the events of Sunday. It was and is deeply appreciated. I don't normally do this because it's a little lowbrow, but a smiley face for all of you! :o)
posted by Rachel @ 9:46 AM  
Thursday, June 21, 2007
The Grinch Who Stole My Wallet (and Almost Ruined My Birthday)
Okay, this is a long and treacherous one, so brace yourselves. Due to the nature of this post, I must disclaim that this entry is in all forms FICTITIOUS - it is merely an exercise in creative writing and only based "loosely" on the events of what really happened this past Sunday. Be advised. Now, on with the story:

The weekend's activities started innocently enough - Saturday night brought dinner and beers at Hutong Pizza (which just so happens to be the best pizza in all of Beijing; anyone who disagrees can challenge me and we can take this outside!). Hutong Pizza was followed by the opening of a new bar called Block 8 in Chaoyang Park's West Gate. However, after being struck about 25 minutes in by the realization that "no air conditioning" + "100 kuai glasses of champagne" = ABSURDLY AWFUL, we made our way out of the 3rd circle of Hell and meandered our way to the casual Black Sun Bar down the street. Hours of drinks and good conversation were had by all, which confirms my belief that the simpler the venue, the better the times to be had. Something about pretentious, stuffy bars makes me want to show them where they can shove their snooty 600 yuan bottles of Moet.

Since after midnight it was 'officially' Sunday, the birthday toasts were abundant and hearty. Being hungry party people, we decided to switch venues and made our way to the rooftop patio at Kokomo for French fries, pitchers of beer, and champagne on the house, care of my birthday.

By the time we ambled down the stairs to hop a cab home, it was about 4:30AM. Which not only meant that the sun was up and our Sunday was already well underway, but that I was going to have to climb the fourteen flights of stairs to my apartment as I did not feel like waiting around for the 18-hour lift to start running again at six. I finally crashed, waking at 7:00AM to the sound of hammering in the apartment above mine. Good timing, guys!

Being awake, I decided to do my normal thing: read my emails, check for drunken texts (there really aren't drunken voice messages since no one in China owns voicemail), watch a little TV, eat some breakfast. There was a text from my friend (let's call her 'Annie') that we would meet up at 11 to go shopping in some really cute, haggling-style markets across town. Though I had originally planned to go to a brunch being held by my friend 'Ben' at noon, I hadn't seen Annie in quite some time (and had already spent two of the previous three nights with the 'brunch crew'), and so decided that was the way to go. Besides, it's SHOPPING. Which - strangely enough - I hadn't done in months (I'm sure mom and dad will appreciate that!).

I got myself together grabbed my bag and biked over to the subway stop. I made my way across the city, got out of the station, and walked over to grab a bus that would take me to the shopping center. Having lived just three blocks away from the station for six weeks last summer, I already knew where I needed to go and how I needed to get there. The 105 pulled up amidst a throng of people and I jumped on the bus, 1 kuai in hand to pay the fare. I sat down toward the front of the bus, looked down, and saw my bag was open. "That's strange," I thought. I had taken the 1 kuai bill out so that I WOULDN'T have to open my bag. I went to close my bag and realized that something just wasn't right. Then it struck me...I didn't feel my wallet. I carry around a gigantic wallet, about the size of an organizer. Humongous, I know, but it fits all my stuff. I felt around for it. I checked the other pockets of my bag. I checked the seat around me on the bus. But it was gone. And then it hit me. Getting on the bus I had been bumped and nudged - and pickpocketed.

Luckily, I hadn't brought a terribly large amount of money (or at least not as much as I had originally planned), but there was a greater loss at hand. Not only were all my credit and bank cards gone, but so was my passport. Now, normally I don't keep my passport in my wallet, but I had planned to apply for a new visa that afternoon after we finished shopping. And now it was all gone. I got off at the Beijing Zoo stop and called Annie. She was en route and would be meeting me soon. Needing a bit more comfort, I called my friend Ben who, upon hearing the words "wallet" and "stolen," proclaimed he was already slipping on his shoes and jumping into the next cab to meet me with no way to convince him otherwise.

After surmising the situation and figuring out what needed to be done, I started calling to cancel credit cards left and right. My passport and residence permit would also need replacing. I placed a call to the American Embassy in Beijing's emergency line and was connected with a gentleman who may literally be the nicest phone operator I have ever spoken with. He slowly explained the steps of what I would need to do: First, I would have to go to the police precinct and file a police report saying that the passport was stolen. I would then have to bring this document to the American Embassy's American Citizen Services Department, at which time I could apply for a new passport. He explained which entrance to use and how I would need to explain myself.

He asked me if I knew where the embassy was and if I had a photocopy of my passport and visa. I told him I knew where it was and that I keep a scanned copy of my documents in my computer. To this he exclaimed, “You’re so prepared – you should teach other people how to lose their passports!” He then noticed that it was my birthday and, like everyone else I had spoken with that day (credit card people, bank people, etc.), I got the requisite, “I’m so sorry this happened to you, but happy birthday!” It might sound obnoxious to readers, but this actually DID make me feel a little better.

After getting all the important stuff out of the way and realizing that it had hit almost noon, we decided to go have something to eat. Having originally planned to do brunch anyway, we decided to go back to the first plan and paid a visit to my favorite brunching eatery, Grandma's Kitchen (a slice of Americana in Beijing). We had a fantastic meal and I was already feeling better about the whole thing. What happened had happened and nothing could change that, right? I figured the hardest part was over. Which is something you should NEVER think, let alone say aloud.

Ben decided to go home and take a nap before the dinner festivities that would commence later that evening. Annie (with her amazing Chinese skills) and I went to go file the police report. We went over to the police station near my apartment, which was easy since I already knew where it was, and went in to talk to the officers who were (of course) lounging around in the lobby, chatting lazily. Annie presented the situation to the policemen there. They asked what exactly happened and where it happened. Annie explained.

We were then abruptly told that it was not their jurisdiction and, therefore, not their responsibility to fill out a police report for us. Which essentially means they didn’t feel like it and had enough justification to lay the work on somebody else. We told them straight out that we didn't expect to get anything back - I only needed the form so I could go first thing Monday morning to the Embassy and get a new passport. The conversation that ensued went something like this:
"We can't. It didn't happen in our district."
"It might have...she was on a bus."
"Yes, but it matters where she DISCOVERED it, not where it might have happened."
"So what do we have to do?"
"You have to go back to the spot where it happened, call for a police car, and have them take you to the appropriate police precinct. Then they will do that for you."
"You mean we have to go all the way back across town?"

To go all the way across town would not only have been a majorly time-consuming pain in our rear ends, but would also have wasted what precious shopping time we had left during the day. Sure, the day had somewhat of a hitch in it, but I still wanted to enjoy what was left of my birthday. So Annie and I decided to do the Chinese thing: improvise. We hopped a cab and headed toward the police district that was near her apartment, about ten minutes away. We would tell the same story with just a few minor alterations. This time, instead of a bus, it would be a cab (to ensure that the police wouldn’t try to pawn it off on someone else by saying that it was stolen somewhere along the route - which of course could once again mean it was someone else's jurisdiction; they could play that game all day and I would be stuck) and instead of all the way across town, it would have occurred a bit closer to home.

We went through the motions once again. We explained what had happened and - more important to the policemen - WHERE it had happened (apparently being robbed was not enough cause to muster some assistance, or at least a bit of empathy; being a foreigner means I deserve it). And once again, we were told we were in the wrong place. They redirected us once more to one more police station, where we went through the whole spiel ONE MORE TIME. And the guy interrogated us about the location of the crime like his career depended on it (now that I think about it, that might actually be true...).
"Where did you discover it missing?"
"I went to go buy something. My bag was opened and my wallet was gone."
"And you didn't just leave it somewhere?"
"No, I had to get money out to pay the fare, so I definitely had it then."
"And there's no way you just dropped it."
"No. I closed my bag when I was getting out."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes." (I almost went with a sarcastic “no” and an eye roll to this last one, but thought that might not be the wisest move if I wanted to actually get this thing done in a timely manner.)

Wait. Did he just say okay? Yes! Finally!
So the officer sat down and started asking me questions. But since he had what I call the "slurring" Beijing accent (where the beginning of the sentence is clear, but the end just becomes a jumble of moans and grunts), Annie had to explain half the questions to me. The officer then got up and went into the back office area while we waited.

What you have to understand, dear reader, is that by this point, we had been jumping from police station to police station for two and a half hours – we were tired and rather fed up by the apathy of most of these so-called "policemen" toward us and our situation. All that seemed to matter to them was keeping their "foreign robbery" numbers low and getting out of doing paperwork (or actual work of any sort, for that matter). There was little (if any) concern for the person who for all they know could be stuck in a foreign country whose language she doesn’t speak (I do - but they don't know that), with no money, no credit or bank cards, no passport, and no way of resolving the situation without their help.

But being the upbeat and well-adjusted human beings that we are, Annie and I started to see the humor in the whole ordeal. We had started taking "I'm so sad because my wallet's been stolen and we're here at the police station pictures" - though we tried not to do it in front of the officers because we thought that might make us appear a bit disingenuous, like we were just making fools out of them, and we really did need their help.

SO, back to the story: The guy comes back in and says that he spoke with some people on the phone at a place called the Dongcheng Fangju (a different branch of the police). He said we had to go to their office in Jiaodaokou and that they would be able to help us. He told us that he had explained our situation to them and they knew we were coming. After the events of the day thus far, it was hard to be optimistic about this next stop on our journey, but what choice did we really have?

So we hopped yet ANOTHER cab to the Dongcheng Fangju. We explained our situation and, shockingly enough, they produced forms! The forms were half-Chinese, half-English, and read "Certificate of Loss of Passport" and "Certificate of Loss of Property." SUCCESS!

They asked me some questions about myself: name, age, occupation, current address, what was taken, etc. Filled out the forms and voila! I was ready to go. By this point, it was already four o'clock, three hours since the "police document scavenger hunt" saga had begun. We went to a mall back near where we lived and wandered around a bit before heading back home to shower off the grime of the day and prepare for the party that night.

The evening festivities definitely belong in the record books. We managed to get "Jasper" on stage with a snake around his neck, "Ben" outshook the Uygher dancing girls, and "Mack" and I broke it down on stage while the Chinese girls attempting to dance behind us looked on in awe. The hips don't lie, baby! It was a fantastic night and we definitely brought the house down.

The next morning, I took off work to go get my passport stuff done since I also needed to apply for a new visa and time was running short. First thing, I went to a nearby internet café that I often passed, hoping they would have a printer so I could bring a hard copy of my passport to the embassy with me. Once that was finished, I hopped a bus to take me down to the embassy district and, after wandering the street aimlessly for a few minutes, decided to ask a guard at a gate on Guanghua Lu how to get to the American Embassy. Apparently, I had found it. I explained the situation, showing him the copy of my American passport and the certificate of loss of passport. He confirmed that I indeed did look something like my picture and let me in the gate. Once you get in the gate of the American Embassy here in Beijing, you still have a whole other block to walk inside the gates before you actually reach the building. I went through security, who made me leave my cell phone at the gate, took the number they gave me, and made my way through the second security outpost and into the American Citizen Services Office.

On my way in, I saw the triad of pictures hanging on the wall - George W., Dick Cheney, and Condi Rice. It was actually a bit strange, I have to say. Living overseas, you see American politics in the news and hear about it in discussion, but looking at that picture, I couldn't remember the last time I thought of the triad as "my government." Perhaps living in China has made me more Chinese than I thought. I doubt it. I don't have any particular allegiances to Mao or Hu, but perhaps I have become ambivalent about the whole concept without even noticing.

My number was called; I explained - for the zillionth time - my current situation. I filled out a form for a stolen passport and filled out the paperwork for a new passport. But when it came to payment time, I was short. Apparently it is 776 yuan (US$97) for a new passport. I can’t even IMAGINE what would happen if the money that was stolen was all the money I had in the world. I was riled up about the whole thing, but couldn't really get mad at the woman behind the window as it wasn't HER fault that we really are "foreign capitalist pigs." She said she would hold onto my paperwork and that I should go out get the money and come back. She also noted that my passport photos were not the right size and that I would need new ones, so may as well do those while I was out as well.

Okay. So, deciding that I didn't want to waste much more time, I hopped a cab home. We arrived at my apartment and I produced a 100RMB bill - and 100RMB bills, at that time, were all that I had since all of my small change had been in my wallet. The guy said he didn't have change. Knowing that sometimes the drivers just don't like to have to break a 100 yuan note, I reiterated that I had nothing else but this 100 note. He said he had no change. Wanting to be nice (which needs to change because apparently I need to be meaner to get things done in China), I went to a store (which said they had no change - probably untrue, but I wasn’t about to buy anything just to get change) and to a bank (who insisted that I had to wait on line with everyone else just to break the hundred). The people at the bank asked why I needed to break it. I told them I needed to pay the cab driver. They got really mad and told me that I should tell him off - cabbies are supposed to be able to break 100 yuan notes. If they can't, it's their fault.

I went out to the cab driver and told him that I wasn't about to waste 20 minutes waiting on line at the bank for change since I had things to do. He said, "why don't you go into the store?"
I replied, "Didn't you see? I already went in there! It's not my responsibility to find change for you!"
He just yelled, "Ok. Bye-bye!" rolled up his window and drove off.
I was mad that I even had to deal with this, especially when I was already stressed out enough about getting this passport stuff done. But on the bright side, I had gotten a free cab ride out of it!

Upstairs in my apartment, I grabbed the money I would need, and headed back down to grab another cab going back. After a short drive, we arrived at the corner near the embassy where I once again handed the cab driver the 100RMB note - the only type of bill I had.
"I have no change for that!" Here we go again.
"Fine. Pull over there and I'll ask the woman in the kiosk if she has change." See? Still too nice.
He crossed the intersection, pulled to the side of the road and, suddenly, produced a large black bag. He unzipped it and inside were wads of bills - 1's, 5's, 10's, 20's - all neatly rolled up. Are you KIDDING me?! The stress, the earlier idiot cabbie, and now this moron unleashed my inner gorgon as I started on a Chinese cursing rant.

"How the f#@$ could you tell me that you didn't have any f#$@ing change when you have an entire g@#damn wallet full of money?! You are such a f@#$ing a@$#hole!" I snatched the change he had made for me, threw the 100RMB note in his face and stormed off, slamming the taxi door behind me. Bear in mind, that cursing in China - especially when done by someone like me - is rather intense for the recipient, though cursing generally does not go over particularly well here no matter who is dishing it out. He left it be as I had already stormed off in the general direction of the embassy and I doubt he wanted any further firefight, having already been embarrassed in a public place by a Chinese-speaking foreigner.

I got back to the embassy, with no problems getting in this time around. On my way in, I came across a foreigner who was attempting - in English - to ask the Chinese guard where to get passport photos taken. "Perfect!" I thought. I needed to get those done too and, in my mental state at the time, probably would’ve forgotten all about it if I hadn’t heard him mention it. I walked up to the guard and asked him, in Chinese, where the place was to take the passport photos. The American man looked extremely grateful.

The guard directed us both over to the American Embassy's Service Hall across the way. The gentleman I met was from Illinois and we chatted while waiting for the photos to be processed. He had been living in Shaanxi Province, working with a coal mining company and had his passport stolen after someone broke into his car. We got our photos and walked back over to American Citizens' Services. Once again, I waited for my number to be called. I handed the woman my pictures and the money and was told to do what I do best - sit around and wait. Finally, another woman called me up and told me that because of my time crunch, I would be issued an emergency passport that would be ready that afternoon but was only good for one year. I would need a new visa (which I needed ANYWAY) and I could come back and pick up my new passport after 2PM.

So finally, things were looking like they were back on track. Don't worry - nothing bad happens. In fact, if I may say so, the story gets even more interesting from here. I hopped a bus back home and was walking over to a restaurant to buy some lunch when I received a phone call. It was Nirvana Gym (where I work out). Someone had found my stuff and had contacted them because my Nirvana membership card was the only thing in there with any sort of Chinese identification on it (since most of my cards, my driver's license, and passport are all in English). Nirvana then called me and gave me the contact number of the person who had found it.

I gave her a call and told her I would be right over to meet her, since I needed to get back to the American Embassy around two. I met her over by her office building, which turned out to be several blocks from where the incident had occurred. I didn't know exactly what she would have for me (the more the better, obviously), but it was worth getting back anything I could.

When I met up with her, she had in hand my passport, and a stack of cards. First of all, let me say that getting the passport back is a major shocker. You can get so much money for passports – American and European ones especially – on the black market (even if the person it was stolen from gets a new one and cancels the old one), so we're obviously not dealing with a criminal mastermind here. Included in the stack were my credit cards (which had been cancelled), my bank cards (two of which were still active, so at least now I could get money!), my insurance card, a $50 iTunes giftcard (essentially free money - as I said, not exactly a criminal mastermind), and my driver's license (which had expired, but was nice to have for two reasons: posterity and the knowledge that some Chinese pickpocket wasn't holding onto my home address).

She told me she had found them thrown over a fence next to her office and - especially seeing as there was a passport there - wanted to make sure it got back to me. She cautioned me to be careful, particularly in this area as thieves often target foreigners around this particular stop (and it's not like they can tell who is a tourist and who is a foreigner who lives here). I thanked her and headed home to grab some lunch.

That afternoon, I went back to the embassy to pick up my new passport. The deed had already been done, so I couldn't undo the cancellation of my previous passport, but at least now they could place it in the computer as 'recovered' and I could keep it (and the cool-looking visas and entry/exit stamps inside it) for posterity and for my records. Since then, I have finished getting my materials together to apply for my visa, found a reputable visa service through a friend, and am fully back on track.

So that is my birthday story. For pictures of ACTUAL events, see the post below. And - as always - thanks for reading!
posted by Rachel @ 12:07 PM  
"You're only young once, but you can be immature for a lifetime."
-John P. Grier

And here's the proof:

Wine and treats at Capone's.

Sophie gettin' flirty with Bobby Taylor of Motown fame (see picture below).

Our special Capone's guest star: Bobby Taylor of Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers (the guy who wrote ABC, I Want You Back, and Midnight Train to Georgia)!

Dinner at Hutong Pizza

Hanging out at the Black Sun Bar at Chaoyang Park's West Gate.

Kasper is introduced to the snake.

Kasper dancing while trying not to agitate the snake. He survived.

Me and Zach showing the Chinese girls how it's done.

Ken and his bootyshakin' skills (it looked better in person - he literally had the whole restaurant on their feet!).

The final group birthday pic. :o)

posted by Rachel @ 11:49 AM  
Friday, June 15, 2007
To Yield or Not To Yield...I Can't Believe That's the Question?
I cannot believe it's come to this.

As most of you know, I bike my commute on major roads of Beijing and I must admit, I have come to a cultural crossroads. Here is my predicament:

When you take to the road in Beijing you have two choices. Follow the "rules" or don't. And I put "rules" in quotes because, like black holes and the ghost of Elvis, I'm not even sure if they really exist. There is a traffic test to get your driver's license and I know they ask about traffic laws, so there is some semblance of a system, but I'VE never seen it.

Anyway, I've always claimed the mentality that if I act in a proper manner and teach rather then scorn, I will be assisting in the effort to even out the culture gap and form a modern, globalized Chinese society. But then, I get on my bike and I want to throw it all out the window.

No, wait. I take that back. I want to smash it with a sledgehammer, violently stuff it down a garbage chute with a broomstick, and shower it in last night's smelly tofu and curdled cabbage. A little graphic, I know. But necessary. Next time I'll be sure to include a warning for children under 12.

Seriously though, it's a horrible decision-making process to try to navigate. I want to follow the rules and be a good, traffic-law-abiding non-citizen. But then someone cuts me off and proceeds to halve their speed until I come to a near stand-still. Or a car driver that decides that waiting is for everyone else but him cuts off the entire bicycle lane trying to pull around traffic that ISN'T MOVING. Or a car nearly hits you when you have the "green light" (okay - the "green light" definitely DOES exist, but it might just as well not because green or red, it makes no bloody difference anyway). From there, it starts off with a little cursing (which no one here understands anyway). Then it segues into a pointed glare and fierce, squinty eyes. Finally, like the gradual transformation into The Hulk, the anger turns into full-force, Chinese style, horn honking, bell-ringing road rage.

By then, I'm long past "stooping to their level." So, do I continue to fight the urge or throw any and all knowledge of proper traffic etiquette out with the tofu and cabbage? I haven't really decided yet. Perhaps my brain will create some sort of weird hybrid. I'll let people pass me, but I'll curse and ring my bell at them while they do. Ack! What has life in Beijing done to me?!
posted by Rachel @ 11:51 AM  
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  
Friday, June 08, 2007
A Practical Treatise on the Global Networking Capacity of the Internet and the Paleo-Conservatives

As an American living in China, I often feel rather displaced from the goings-on in America. Yes, I know Paris Hilton went to prison (and was released early). And yes, I know that Larry Flint is intent on bringing yet ANOTHER sex scandal to our nation’s capital. But I find that - since it isn't exactly first page Chinese news - information on the presidential hopeful debates is sparse at best. Only top notch Chinese newspapers cover it well and, let's face it, my Chinese is not THAT good. And so, I get my information where everyone else does: the internet.

But the internet revolution that has taken place over the last five years has managed to create a true marketplace of information, unlike the previous decade's incarnation of the internet as a sounding board for those who had fallen off the deep-end. It used to be: "it's on the internet, so of course it must be true" accompanied by a sarcastic tone and a roll of the eyes. Now it really IS: "it's on the internet, so of course it must be true." Well, maybe not exactly. But I think we can muster: "it's on the internet, so there may be some kernel of truth to this that we can pursue and investigate." Sure, there are sites for ranting and raving, sites for venting bigotry and hatred, sites built by the ignorant for the ignorant. But with so many people currently relying on the internet as a resource for reference, exchange, and discussion, I find that the truth usually finds its way to the surface in the end.

And it's amazing what one is provided with once open to the power of the internet. On YouTube, I watch the debates firsthand. I read the candidates' webpages. I read the pundits' webpages. I read the pundits' pundits' webpages. I read opinion blogs, news blogs, credible blogs, and incredible blogs. I download The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Bill Maher, and other (usually comedic) "political roundtable" programs. As someone living abroad, far from home and far from the trappings of Western society, I maintain a full appreciation of the globally accessible, inter-connected web we weave.

For those who would ask about censorship and the internet in China, I will tell you that - at least as regards the sites I frequent - I find the constraints to be relatively limited. This is not to say that I condone censorship in any way, shape or form, but that the foreign media often over-hypes it to make a super-sized news story where there is perhaps only a medium-sized one. I hope that more internet freedoms arise in the future, but must concede that China is making a noticeable, though regulated, effort to limit restrictions and open more avenues of exchange.

As regards formulating my opinions on the candidates, I have to admit that my experience in China wields a heavy hand. This influence is not just a consequence of experiencing life from a different perspective on a foreign soil or an ability to view the United States objectively from abroad. Rather, it is largely the result of Beijing's international environment. People who come here to work, study, or travel come from all walks of life. Engaging in debate over U.S. policy (which, no matter where someone you meet hails from, happens the second I tell anyone I'm an American) has not changed my personal belief system. Rather, it has forced me to clarify my political leanings to make a more informed choice.

For those curious as to what that choice is, let me first say that (for those who do not know) I am a (paleo-conservative) Republican, though I have decidedly moderate leanings on social policy.

It was my social leanings that initially led me to the Giuliani camp. Amidst the initial contenders, Rudy seemed to have what I was looking for. But from what I've seen and heard thus far, there are holes in his rhetoric. Plus, a presidential candidate that is not open to and accommodating of the views of others sounds to me like a candidate prone to groupthink. That I will not have. At least not if I can help it. And in that respect, Rudy's not the only one either.

A penny for your thoughts - feel free to leave commentary on the issues or the candidates on this page or in my guestbook.

Wait a minute...sending a penny from China would probably cost, like, $30 FedEx.

So, $30.01 for your thoughts?

posted by Rachel @ 1:16 PM  
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
A Slice of American Pie

First there was humble pie. Then came its cousin, hypocritical pie. But what's the one we all know and love? American pie, baby. Don McLean, red-white-and-blue, Old Glory-style American pie. I know my audience gets a whole lot of China through this American's [gorgeous and all-seeing] eyes, but rarely on this blog do you - the viewers - get the flip side: the Chinese perspective on America.

I decided to ask a couple questions to get opinions on the current state of American pop culture and I swear to you, it turned into an episode of Jay-walking. Or I guess in this case, Rachel-walking. Nope. Doesn't sound as good. Don't worry - I'll think of something.

In the meanwhile, my "interviews" (which were conducted in Chinese, by the way - go me!) went something like this:

(the names have been abbreviated to protect the innocent)

Rachel: So what do you all think about Paris Hilton going to jail?
J: Who's Paris Hilton?
A: I think she's stupid. How do you not know that when your license is suspended, you're not supposed to drive? I barely speak any English and even I know that!
C: I think she's pretty but that she doesn't treat herself right. I'm sure parties are fun, and I know she's rich, but what about self-respect?
Rachel: Good question. I have no good answer.
C: She should come to China. I could teach her.
Rachel: Teach her what exactly?
C: How to be normal and nice to people and be part of a community.
Rachel: Do you think it's too late for that now?
C: Maybe. I mean she made that sex video and the DUI and that music CD she made.
Rachel: I like how you put her music in with her public image problems. Moving along, have any of you heard of Scientology?
All: No.
Rachel: It's a religion that's talked about a lot in the magazines. Tom Cruise and John Travolta are both in it. Here I'll try to explain it...

Insert: I spent about twenty-five minutes trying to explain all about Xenu and the falling to Earth and the e-meters, but I think somewhere along the way the explanation turned into a seventh installment of Star Wars in which Luke Skywalker joins a cult to subconciously lash out at the father who abandoned him and seeks to drain the universe of its financial solvency to support his new choice of "spiritual outlet."

Rachel: ...and so you see, Tom Cruise went all crazy and married Katie Holmes after interviewing her for a "movie role," and then some weird stuff happened. This led to an [hilarious] episode of the show South Park that further emphasized the public's view that Scientology followers are part of a crazy religion that only wants to grub money off its loyal worshippers, that are often celebrities.
C: That seems stupid.

Insert: I couldn't have said it better myself.

Rachel: Okay, next question. Have any of you seen stories about the Rosie O'Donnell-Donald Trump feud?
A: I read about that. Honestly, Donald Trump is ugly, so he shouldn't be so arrogant just because he can buy other people's love.
J: Isn't that the guy whose hair is falling off?
Rachel: Yep, that's the one.
J: He is ugly. But I like The Apprentice a lot. His daughter's hot.
C: Who's his daughter?
Rachel: Ivanka Trump.
J: Trust me, she's hot.
Rachel: Do any of you know about the fighting between him and Rosie O'Donnell? She's a comedienne who was on a show called The View where she made fun of him. Then they just started fighting in the news.
C: Was any of what they said true?
Rachel: I'm sure some of it was.
C: And they fought in public?
Rachel: Yep.
C: They need to find a hobby.
Rachel: You should tell THEM that. You'd be doing all of America a great service. Finally, what do you think of American music right now?
A: I like punk music. I like Blink-182 and Linkin Park.
J: I've been listening to that also. I love Blink-182. And Silverchair.
C: I like some of it, but I mostly listen to Chinese music. I don't understand English well enough.

Rachel plays Maroon 5's new single "Makes Me Wonder" and Lily Allen's "Ldn" for them.

C: I like the tunes, but I don't understand the song.
J: I like punk! The first one was okay, but the second one was too slow.
A: Yeah, it's too slow. Play punk rock!

Good thing I didn't break out the Dylan. If they dissed Bob Dylan for singing "too slow" I might've had to get physical.

So, there you have it. I like some of their responses quite a bit. Especially the one about Donald Trump's hair. Perhaps there's something to be said for being an objective observer. I sorta feel that way now. Whatever news I do read is from too far a distance to feel real. So this is "pop culture" at its finest, huh? Maybe I'll make this "Chinese man-on-the-street intervew" a regular installment. I mean, it's not like American pop culture will find itself in a stupidity shortage anytime soon.
posted by Rachel @ 1:33 PM  
Monday, June 04, 2007
Rachel's Modern Life: The Movie
We find ourselves underground. Enter with a wide shot - heads gently shaking with the movement of a subway car. We see Rachel, our protagonist, sitting with iPod buds in ears, nodding off with her head against the window. Enter the faint sound of singing, followed by a fading echo. A dirty, unkempt man begging for change shuffles by, singing into a microphone pack that is strapped to his back, stopping in front of each person and shaking his begging fists toward them as he goes. Rachel sits up and turns her head to face the window opposite. And there she sees a thirty-something male squeezed in between an elderly woman and a young girl. The man coughs. Then he coughs again. Rachel looks toward him and sees him doubled forward.

Wait. Those were chickens just outside the subway entrance. And he's coughing. Chicken. Coughing. Avian. Flu. Oh, god.

Rachel covers her mouth and turns away. Cue crowds of people mobbing the streets screaming and running for the airports and train stations.

Rachel exits the subway and notices an olive-green passenger van stuffed to capacity with thin Chinese teenagers in black uniforms. Bank guards? I suppose so. Another three Chinese officers bearing the same black uniform and armed with heavy artillery (think bazooka) stand outside the bank. They stare Rachel down as she walks by, making her feel guilty of a crime just for existing. And being foreign. Because foreigners are capitalist pig thiefs. Or at least that's what the stares tell her.

Just then a car comes screeching around the corner, speeding directly at the Chinese guards. The officers brace for what is OBVIOUSLY an attempted bank heist. They brandish their weapons and crouch, preparing for the onslaught. Except they have forgotten one thing. Beijing drivers are stupid and refuse to follow traffic laws. As soon as the offending vehicle rights itself, it continues driving on as if nothing has happened, leaving the seriously overstaffed, overprepared, and under-utilized Chinese guard sad that they, once again, managed to look "not cool." And you wonder why bao an are so goddamn difficult. Can anyone say "inferiority complex?"

Tune in for the next installment which will star George Clooney as the hunky doctor that manages to help Rachel find a single freakin' pharmacy in Beijing that sells Tylenol.
posted by Rachel @ 12:47 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.
What You May Have Missed
A Brief Disclaimer:
This is a satirical site intended for the entertainment of an online audience. None of the features on this site are real (except in my own distorted view of reality), nor are they intended to harm the subjects mentioned. This site uses fictional names in all its stories, except in cases when public figures are being satirized or when I choose to use this site as a platform for someone's public humiliation (usually my own). Any other use of real names is accidental and coincidental (or purposeful, but with good reason).

Despite the trivial nature of my random daily (sometimes weekly) musings, I hope you enjoy your stay at my site. If there is anything you need, don't hesitate to ring up the concierge, because I just travel in style like that. Have a pleasant stay and I hope that you will come see us again soon!

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