The Danger of Overconfidence

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Today marks the one month anniversary of our arrival in Beijing. It has certainly been one of the more interesting months of our lives. In many ways things are going well. We're especially happy to have made so many new friends (and eaten so much good food!) We have had a very smooth transition into China and have largely avoided the horror stories of other expats. We were getting pretty smug about it, thinking we had passed the critical first month painlessly.

Then today we had a brush with the complexity of living here. Late this afternoon, I ran into Carol, the woman who has been helping us with our relocation. She was in a bit of a panic saying that she had just spoken to the owner of the house we will be renting. Apparently the power and gas were off at the house, and the pipes were in danger of freezing. She told us we had to go immediately pay for more gas and electricity. The only thing was, I didn't really know how to do this.

First, it's worth explaining that gas, water, and electricity are pre-paid here. You have cards like a Starbucks gift card that you charge up with money somewhere and then put it into your gas, power, or water meter to keep the goods flowing. We received the cards with our house keys and were told we could charge them at the management office of our neighborhood.

So, I loaded up the family and starting trucking over to the house at 4:00pm, the start of evening rush hour, when I received a call from Carol saying that she had just called the management office and learned we couldn't do it there. We'd have to go to the Bank of Beijing to add money to the gas card and to the Bank of China to add money to the electricity card (because of course it couldn't be the same bank...). What's more, we'd need to open a bank account at the Bank of Beijing before we could add money. I knew we'd need our passports to do this, so we turned around back to the apartment to get Michelle's passport (mine is with the customs people who are inspecting our air and sea shipments.) I was nervous that the banks might close at 5:00pm, preventing us from adding money to our cards and potentially risking burst pipes at the house. A quick call confirmed that both banks would close at 5:00.

At 4:40pm I had the passports, and we raced over to the nearby Jianwai SOHO (a huge tower/office/shopping complex) where there were branches of both banks. As our masterful driver (more on him in another post) twisted and squeaked our way through the traffic, I asked Carol to meet us at the Bank of Beijing. As soon as we arrived at 4:55, I ran to the Bank of China while Michelle drove a few buildings over to the Bank of Beijing.

I burst into the bank and grabbed a number; while I was waiting I noticed a sign over a machine saying I could pay my electricity bill there (thank God the sign had English on it!) I asked the young guard if I really could pay my bill there (apologizing like I always do that my Chinese is bad and that I can't read). He took pity on my and very kindly helped me walk through the Chinese menus on the keypad. With his help, I was done quickly and on my way over to meet Michelle and Carol after asking the guards to raise the metal bar screen they were were lowering over the doors.

When I found them they were finishing at the bank counter and headed over to a machine. Apparently, we didn't need to create an account (and hence didn't need our passports), but you have to go to a machine to get the status of the card, then go to a teller and pay for the additional credits, then go back out to the machine to put the credits on the card. Even though the machine is outside the building and says "self-service" on it, there's apparently no way to add credits to your card without going inside and talking to a teller. Hm.

Anyway, we headed out to the house next and were confronted with a dark, cold house. After I fumbled through the bag of keys we received (we got something like 45 keys to the house -- multiple copies of keys for the front door, side door, gate, bathroom, bedroom, mailbox, etc.) by the light of my cellphone, I unlocked the door to our house for the first time and clicked on the lights. Or at least I tried to. The house was completely powerless.

I went to the box in front of the house and put the power card in. Michelle went back in but no luck. Just then, a maintenance guy from the complex came over and started talking at me in a very thick Beijing accent. He looked in the box, the lights came on, and he started yelling something at me. I didn't make out much besides his condescending tone (I think he said something like the Chinese equivalent of "Of course it doesn't work if you do that, you dumbass..."), but whatever, the lights were on. I'm not really convinced he did anything; I think it just took a minute for everything to register.

A much nicer guy came over to show me where to charge up the gas meter inside. We then turned on the heat in the freezing house (the thermostats read 0 degrees C.) The water all ran fine so we're hopeful everything is OK.

We finished off the evening at a German restaurant near our house. This was a bit of a surreal (but fun) experience. We were the only ones in the restaurant, trying to order German food in Chinese (easier in German than Chinese as it turns out), and then singing Hotel California and Sweet Home Alabama with the Filipino band. We're definitely not in Bellevue anymore...

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