Monday, February 4, 2013


The day began with another lost in translation (linguistically and culturally) moment: I could not register our passports with our districts police station since their receptionist and I could not understand one another. She genuinely tried to help me and she genuinely tried to understand my mimes but it was futile. The door to the station was open and people began to stream in, intrigued by our hand waving, finger pointing, and babbling. Total strangers pressed into me as they listened to our conversation, others tried to take my documents to look at them, and a few took my photograph with their telephones. A comment, smirk or a laugh was frequently interjected into the Tarzan-Jane-miming dialogue but nothing constructive was resolved. I was getting anxious and claustrophobic - umm, this is my private conversation so why are you here and why are you touching me!

After what seemed like hours, a woman emerged from the backroom and translated the steps of what was, in fact, quite a simple procedure. I moved away from the “Please Waiting” sign and smiled, eager for her to take my documents. She shook her head and pointed to her stomach, indicating that she was going on her lunch break. Right.

I left the station and met the real estate agent to view a few more apartments. Burdened with a list of administrative errands, I realized that he would be the perfect person to help me take of things. The only impediment was that helping me was not part of his job and that I risked offending him. And an offended real estate agent leads to very ugly apartment viewings.

So manipulation was in order. Disregarding all cultural norms and methods of negotiation that might best apply to China I focused instead on his gender and the universal laws of negotiation associated with his gender. I shifted my weight, half-smiled, ran my fingers through and giggled “ David, can you teach me to say a few things please?”

Even a middle-aged woman such as myself can succeed and almost immediately, we were driving around the city taking care of my errands. My pesky, time consuming, boring errands wrought with endless frustration. I struggled to get the attention of a salesclerk at China Mobile since all the women were occupied in the corner, giggling and chatting away like parakeets. My intense stare finally solicited a reaction from one of the salesgirls and she came slithering over. Employees earn an hourly salary and have little incentive to sell, so she was clearly irritated by all my questions. After I chose an SIM card and new phone, the salesclerk (through David’s translation) informed me that they would not accept a foreigner credit card. She lazily waved in the direction of the road, suggesting that I withdraw money from an ATM. Or so was translated to me by David but I suspect that she was asking me to leave the shop and leave her alone. Hit the road Jack. Either way, I said Thank you before leaving and she responded with a quizzical glance. David explained that it used to be considered strange to say ‘thank you’ in this country since a passing customer might assume that a client had received a discount or special privilege because there was no other reason to thank someone who was doing his job.

The corner ATM had no English option but we eventually found one with an English keyboard. It welcomed me to Shanghai by ripping my card to shreds before spitting it back from its electronic bowels onto the road, all the while accusing me of credit card fraud. Oh goodness, did I fail to tell my friends at Citibank that we were moving to Asia?

Since Carrefour accepted international credit cards, we ventured to this mega-shop and I hoped that American Express would be more amenable to my spending money. At the first vendor the model I chose was sold out so he suggested I try another vendor, three feet to the right. This vendor had the model but not the color and would charge me a 15% premium over the price of the first vendor. No explanation for this blatant theft offered and my Western attempt at logic was not met warmly.

Well. When pushed in a corner, fight or pay. I paid for the phone and he began to process the payment. He filled out one slip that was submitted to another person, who filled out another paper and submitted to two to a third party and this passing of the baton continued. In the interim, I glimpsed at the supermarket’s weekly bulletin. The French shop Carrefour had managed to localize as demonstrated by photos of hairy raw pigs feet (advertised at 11.60 for 500grams) or pile of scattered chicken claws (advertised at 5.60 for 500 grams). 

David’s nerves were a bit frazzled by later afternoon and he seemed relieved when my husband and his assistant Chris fetched me. We drove to the bank to open a bank account.  We were called to a bank teller’s desk almost immediately and Chris translated the procedures for us into English.  I tried to concentrate but rather, stared in awe at the Hello Kitty Mug and accessories that decorated (consumed) the desk of this middle aged bank teller.  This reminded me of an older man I saw at the hotel was writing notes into his Pokemon notebook.  Question - when do people in Shanghai outgrow cartoon accessories?

A few hours later, for the flash sales price of 4USD, I was the proud owner of a local bank account with zero balance.

No comments: