We’ve been back in Hangzhou a week now and things are going pretty well. It’s certainly a relief to be in a place that’s clean and dry and relatively warm, not to mention that sleeping in the same bed every night is a treat (for Owen, especially—being a bit of a prince and the pea, he does not take well to hard hotel beds).
We were in Southeast Asia for a full two weeks, and coming back to China has felt in many ways like a reset; that is to say, it felt fresh and new and not-annoying…for about two days. Then I tried to accomplish some basic tasks, and remembered that living here is a constant battle of wills. I share with you the following not to complain, but merely to remark on how China is constantly so different from what I expect it to be. Also, the outcome of both run-ins was fist-pumping success for me, so I have to brag.
Let’s begin three days ago. It was ayi’s first day back working for us, and we all had a happy reunion. (While we were traveling, she went home for a month to celebrate Spring Festival [Chinese New Year] with her family, and she arrived back in Hangzhou around the same time we did.) I proposed to her that we could do some cooking together one day a week, and she said, “Okay, but we are going to need a lot of oil. And a rice cooker.” Fine, fine I said. Let there be Chinese food.
The next day, yesterday, I set out to the supermarket, where I had to choose a machine from the three entire aisles stuffed with rice cookers. (Fully 20% of their inventory is rice cookers—big and small, fancy and plain, white with flowers and…white with flowers.) I chose a smallish one, priced at 129 yuan (around $20), reached the corresponding box on the top shelf, and went to the checkout counter. I had to wait while the old man in front of me in line paid for his bag of live bullfrogs, which jumped and croaked heartily while the checkout lady scanned them. Then it was my turn. She scanned my rice cooker and told me it would be 229 yuan. No, I said, it’s 129 yuan. She summoned the rice-cooker-aisle lady over by yelling at the top of her lungs. The rice-cooker-lady took my rice cooker and disappeared for 10 minutes. During this time, lots of people came up to the checkout counter and plopped their items down, only to be turned away with a hard glance. Damn foreigner, they surely thought. Doesn’t know how to buy a rice cooker. After forever, she returned, without the box. “Where is my rice cooker?” I asked, not too patiently. “It was mis-marked. You will have to pay 229 yuan.” “That’s f-ing ridiculous!” I yelled, in English. (Sometimes it feels good to just yell in English in these situations.) Then I switched back to Chinese and said, “The box said 129 yuan. It should cost me 129 yuan.” They looked at me like I was in way over my head. “Sorry, you will have to pay 229 yuan. It was mismarked.” We repeated this exact conversation 5 or 6 times, and finally I sighed theatrically and said, “Fine. 229 yuan. Just give me the rice cooker.” She hurried away and fetched my box, then presented it to me delicately. I took out my money and gave it to the cashier, and as I did I pulled my last-ditch-effort, my trump card: “Bu xing,” I mumbled unhappily. (Essentially, this means, “Not cool.”) She looked me in the (pink) eyes and adjusted the price on the computer, then charged me 129 yuan. “Thank you,” I said. The rice cooker aisle woman piped up from the other side of the counter, where she had stayed to watch the conclusion of our, um, exchange, “Don’t say thank you. It was my mistake. I’m the one that wrote it wrong.” And that was that. I honestly fist-pumped on my way out the door into the icy rain. And it makes the best rice.
Today I had a slightly trickier task, though it seemed straightforward enough. Since we started our trip in 20-degree Fahrenheit Hunan province and ended in 90-degree Manila, we had to shed some layers along the way. Thus, we sent home a box of our warmest clothes in Xiamen, about midway through our travels. The box was being held at the post office, and I had to take the packing slip there and pick it up. Just to be safe, I brought along my passport and Nick’s passport. It never hurts. I took a cab there, because, strangely, the box was being held at the third-closest post office to our house. Why they didn’t just bring it to the close one, we’ll never know. Anyway, I arrived at the post office, clutching my documents. The four workers all turned to watch me, the lone customer, as I began to explain my situation to the friendliest-looking one, a young man. He took one glance at my stuff and said, “I can’t give you the package, because the name on the packing slip is a Chinese name, and the name in the passport is an English name.” Thus began 45 minutes of wheedling and begging. I called Nick and had him talk to the guy, hoping that a real person on the line, a person swearing up and down that he was Hu Rui Li and also Nick Freeman, would help. I implored the man to look at the signature on the packing slip and the signature in Nick’s passport: the same! No, he told me, these don’t look the same. That is because you do not write English letters, I told him. No dice. The only way to resolve this, he told me at least 70 times, was to take the packing slip to Nick’s school and have them put a stamp on it, verifying his identity as the mysterious Hu Rui Li. (This process would be neither quick nor easy, and possibly a huge pain in the ass.) But he wasn’t turning me away, so I kept trying. “Can we open up the box? I can tell you what’s in it and you can check?” “No, we cannot open the box.” Long pause. Then, it hit me. The perfect argument to change a Chinese person’s mind (I hoped): “Please. Inside that box are my baby’s winter clothes. You can see that it’s cold outside. My baby is cold and he needs his clothes.” Here, I gestured to the cold rain out the door, and I engaged the other workers, who were watching curiously. I pleaded with them all at once, “My baby needs his warm clothes! Please help me.” The oldest woman of the bunch exchanged quick, low words with the young man, and he ran upstairs. I sat glumly in a chair, frustrated and contagious and heavy-lidded, until he returned 10 minutes later. He presented me with the form, on which he had transcribed Nick’s passport number (given to him on the phone just then by the post office in Xiamen). “Please write your name twice, and your husband’s name once.” I did as directed. He went to the back room and emerged with my package. “Next time, ma’am, write your English name, too.” “Yes, thank you.” “Oh, you’re welcome, have a nice day.” Fist pump #2.
So I’m getting things done, one arduous, contentious, repetitive, time-sucking back-and-forth at a time. It’s good to be home.