Christmas is coming. We bought (spoiler alert!) a certain breakable gift for a certain set of grandparents, and I went to the Post Office to send it. The end. Just kidding! The Post Office won’t ship breakables outside China (even if you beg), so I went to UPS.
The taxi driver was silent for the first five minutes of our 40-minute journey. I was a little disappointed: if I’m going to be in the car for that long, I’d like to have a chat (especially since the pollution is so thick lately that there is literally nothing to see out the window). Lucky for me, he started up a conversation that lasted the entire ride. It went thusly:
Driver: “Where are you from?”
Me: “The U.S.”
Driver: “Oh! You are American. But…you aren’t black. I thought all Americans were black.”
Driver: “I need to ask you a question. In America, how do you eat steak? Which hand do you hold the knife with?”
[I explain, he grins and thanks me.]
Driver: “Does your kid have an ayi?”
Me: “Yeah, in the mornings.”
Driver: “Does she cook?”
Me: “Yes, twice a week.”
Driver: “Chinese food?
Driver: “And you…eat it?”
Driver: (laughs uncontrollably) “Do you use chopsticks?”
Driver: “Really!? You can eat Chinese food and you like it and you use chopsticks? Or do you use a spoon?”
Me: “No, I can use chopsticks. And I think Chinese food is yummy!”
Driver: “Wow. That is so cool! [pause] Can you cook Chinese food?”
Me: “Um, sort of.”
Driver: “If you cook Chinese food, will your husband eat it?”
Me: “My husband will eat anything.”
Driver: “Oh. Can you drive? If you don’t drive for a while, won’t you forget how to drive? In America, the steering wheel is on the other side of the car, right?”
Me: “Yes, I can drive. The steering wheel is on the same side in the U.S.”
Driver: “Wait, really? It’s the same? Wow. [brief pause] Do you like to drink alcohol? Me: “Not very much. Sometimes.”
Driver: “Oh, but you live right next to a bar.”
Then we were there, and the driver turned to face me. “There aren’t very many cabs here. I will wait for you.” “Hey, thanks, I really appreciate it,” I said as I paid him the fare. He undercharged me by 3 yuan (this is very rare).
UPS’s only location here is on the 4th floor of a dilapidated building way out in the northern sprawl of Hangzhou. Floors 1 through 3 are occupied by a cheap hotel. I pushed open the door and entered a drab office with cubicles, no shipping facility in sight. My heart sank. But then a man approached and stared at me. “I want to ship this.” He giggled. “It’s breakable, but if it breaks, it’s my fault, not yours.” “Okay,” he said, “Come with me.”
He led me out the back door and down to the basement, where the shipping trucks were parked. It was chilly and grey, so we went into the break room, where ten or so guys stood around drinking tea from various plastic bottles. The water cooler dispensed hot water, and they took advantage of it as they watched my guy unpack the box. (I had bought the gift online, and it arrived encased in a wooden coffin, nailed shut to protect the breakables.) He rummaged around and found a screwdriver and a length of thin metal piping to pry the thing open. Everyone stared, unblinking, until he completed the task. It took about 15 minutes. Then he lifted the box lid and everyone craned their neck to see inside. It was kind of what I imagine archeaologists experience when they open up a newly-discovered tomb. Satisfied that the contents were boring, they scattered. Then my guy started picking things up off the floor and shoving them inside the box, ostensibly to pad the breakables. A torn piece of foam, a stray bit of paper. He sent a tea-sipping man to get some newspapers, stuffed those in, too. He packed the thing so beautifully, and so painstakingly, that all I could do was nod heartily.
“Now come with me to weigh it,” he said. “Okay 7.7 kg. Let’s go upstairs to check the price.”
“How much will it be?” I ventured.
He winced, smiled the awkward Chinese smile of embarrassment.
“I don’t know. Expensive, I am afraid.”
“Um, how expensive?”
“I really do not know.”
We trudged back into the cubicle-filled office, where a man at a desk took out a binder filled with shipping rates. He scanned the chart, poker-faced, and whipped out a calculator. Did the math twice.
“That will be 2,900 RMB.”
(This is close to $500 U.S.)
And then we all burst out laughing. The two men were literally slapping their knees and the desktop with the hilarity of it. The seated man almost fell out of his chair. “That’s so expensive!” they cackled, eyes squeezing out laugh-tears.
When we all stopped laughing, they turned to me.
“You should take this to the Post Office. It will be cheaper there.”
I reminded them that I had tried that, with no luck.
“Oh, well, then…….” (the Chinese shrug/pause that means: “There is nothing I can do to help you, so please go away before this gets awkward.”)
Before I left, I tried to pay for the shipping materials, but he brushed me off with a series of forceful “No!”’s.
By some miracle, the taxi driver was still outside, waiting for me. Maybe he just wanted to see if I had succeeded. He cringed when I slid into the backseat with the box in my hands, and immediately got on his cell phone looking for another solution for me. He spent the whole ride back calling various shipping service companies, but they all offered astronomical rates, too. A sample conversation went like this: “Got an American here, wants to ship a 7.7 kg box. Her Chinese is okay but not great.” [Gets English speaker on the line, hands the phone to me.]
“Okay, try Chicago.”
“No…okay, try New York.”
“Oh! New York!”
As we drove the final block to our apartment, the taxi driver turned in his seat faced me, then murmured, “I am so, so sorry I couldn’t help you.” I assured him it was no problem, thanked him profusely, and when he tried to undercharge me again, I left him a tip. 20 RMB on a 46 RMB ride. This is the only time I’ve ever tipped in China.
Sometimes the adventure is good like this.