Monday, August 01, 2005

Down and out in Guangzhou

Last week was not what you would describe as having a great week. Certainly not catastrophic or anything like that – I have at this moment no sense that the universe is actually plotting against me, in spite of my fleeting suspicions – but in the grand scheme of things, not the best.

Well. After a year of hearing stories of rampant thievery and lawlessness from friends long resident in China (not to mention Taiwan), I finally got a taste of it myself. This weekend I was hit by an extraordinarily adept pickpocket, who managed to unzip my purse and remove my wallet without my knowledge, and all in the space of a few minutes (i.e. from when I knew I had it to when I discovered my purse open and the wallet gone).

I want you all to know that I take great comfort in the fact that this person was that good. It would be rather disheartening to lose one’s belongings to a thief who is merely mediocre. A stolen wallet is unpleasant under any circumstances, but China being China means that I’m faced with a few extra, bonus complexities. I lost:

1. The Citibank ATM card that after all the blood, sweat, and tears finally showed up here to replace my expired card. The irony is almost overwhelming. Fortunately for me, and proof, in my mind, that things happen for a reason, the ridiculous confusion surrounding the replacement ATM card operation that led them to mail not one but three new cards to China meant that I actually had a spare one – the stolen one was the second, and the third could still be activated to replace it. So at least I don’t have to live on instant noodles while I deal with all this. Whew.
2. My Bank of China ATM card, which, of course, was for a Nanjing account- which means that if I want to replace it or ever see the money in the account again, I have to come up with a way to get myself bodily back to Nanjing. Fabulous. I have less than a week left in Guangzhou now, and then three days in Beijing in August before I fly home. This is like being in Washington for three days and needing to run over to Chicago to go to the bank. Sure. If I can’t make it back, I’ll have to take comfort in the fact that some day I will go back to Nanjing, and when I do, there’s about $200 waiting for me there.
3. My Citibank Mastercard, which by itself would not be a huge loss, except for the fact that I bought an e-ticket for Taipei on Eva Airlines, and they have this unique regulation that when you check in you must present the exact card that you used to book the flight. I remember thinking when I booked the ticket, "Gee, what happens if you lose the card?" Serves me right for thinking.
Apparently, without this card I have to purchase a new ticket at the airport, and then apply for one of the tickets to be refunded once I get to Taipei… or something like that. I’m still not clear on the details and the first time I tried to call, they reacted as if there has never been a lost or stolen credit card in all of history.
4. My driver’s license, which of course I can replace once I’m back in the US, but this is complicated by the fact that I moved out of the DC address on the card in April, 2004 and don’t have a new address and on’t for some time, and of course, there are no guarantees the new address once I have one, it will be n DC and not Virginia or Maryland.
5. My Nanjing University and National Library library cards. The latter I’ll need to replace if I want to check back on materials when I return to Beijing. Not a big deal, really, but I’m padding the list a bit to play up the sympathy angle.
6. My kimchi store frequent customer card. Hands down the most irreplaceable item on this list, and most definitely not list-padding. Now I’m going to have to buy all kinds of kimchi before I can start getting the sexy 10% discount again. There’s just not time. Talk about adding insult to injury.
7. About 350 RMB (divide by 8, about US $40) which is, frankly, the least of my concerns. Of course, that is what the thief was most likely after; it is quite possible that after taking the cash, the rest of the belongings that mean so much more to me found their way into a roadside trash can.
8. My wallet. As much as this pains me, the fact that I had purchased it for about US $2 on the street in Hong Kong probably means this does not qualify as having anything but sentimental value. But it was the perfect size, with a strong zipper and a handy ID window on the outside. I mourn.

The really frustrating thing is that aside from the cash, there is no real reason to have any of these things in my wallet at all, other than force of habit. But we will dwell no further on that point. Grrrrr.

Dealing with the fallout from the stolen wallet was complicated by the fact that I have no international phone line. I have no way of setting one up, either. The best solution I had was to try a phone card and a phone booth, but the first few times I tried this the phone card didn’t work; I ended up going back to where

I bought the phone card and got one of the proprietors, a college student, to accompany me to the phone booth to work it out. The two of us tried 5 phone booths before we found one that could connect internationally, and then all of the Citibank international toll-free numbers did not work.

There was only one thing left to do, and that was to appear before my dear friend Louis of Citibank Guangzhou first thing the next morning and ask to use the phone there to call the US Citibank line.

I just want to say, I love Louis. Good thing, too, because I’ll be seeing him next week when I head in to pick up the UPS’ed replacement card. Perhaps I should bring flowers.

At the end of the day, there are worse things in the world than losing your wallet. For example:

1. Losing your passport with its residence permit and absolutely vital reentry visas
2. Losing your computer (though I am fastidious about backups and mail CDs of information home to Minnesota periodically)
3. Losing a limb or an eye (I actually put myself in some minor danger of losing an eye last month in Yangshuo, when I was putting on some bug spray. I held the bottle right up to my upper arm and pushed down on the nozzle. It was not until the spray hit my face that I realized I was holding the bottle backwards. As uncomfortable as flushing out ones eye is generally, it is even worse with bad unfiltered, undrinkable water. That hurt more than the bug spray going in, but I felt a little Chinese water torture was worth enduring for the sake of the greater good of preserving my sight.)

Of course, I’m being slowly driven mad by the number of people around here (mostly archives staff, actually) who hear the wallet story and come up with the brilliant advice that, "you should really be more careful."

Ya think? Granted it’s me, but there is just the slightest chance that I might have managed to reach that conclusion all on my own without having it pointed out to me. Noting that having my wallet stolen is really more my own fault than anything is so remarkably NOT helpful. It may be true, mind you, but that does not make it helpful. The two are at times mutually exclusive, and I must insist - INSIST - that this is one of those times. Outrage and condemnation for the world of petty thievery would be so much better.

Two days after the wallet’s disappearance, and long before I’d managed to handle all the fallout, I had another adventure thrust upon me. (You know, as in, "some choose adventures, others have adventures thrust upon them." I have always fallen squarely into the latter category.)

When I came home from the archives for lunch the other day, my power was out. At first I didn’t think much of it; I wondered if burn-outs aren’t common with all the air-con blasting in Guangzhou this time of year. Then, of course, it occurred to me (as you knew it would eventually), that I had taken the elevator up to my 16th floor abode, so the power outage might not be general, but might instead be just me.

I went down to the doorman, and he explained that the building cut off the power to apartments with long overdue power bills. Having moved in last month, I wondered if the "long overdue" bill didn’t predate me.

In fact, I have no control over any of the utilities – I’m supposed to settle with my landlady when I leave, and before that she’s supposed to take care of it. My hunch proved correct, however, and it was eventually revealed that the bill hadn’t been paid in almost a year – the entire time the last tenant lived here.

(The question here is, how does it not occur to anyone that a long period of time has passed without that particular bill coming through? Does one live a happy-go-lucky existence in which power is free? Just how out of touch with reality do you have to be to be financially solvent and still not pay the power bill for a year at a time??)

My landlady called late in the day to say that she’d gone and paid the bill, but that power would not be restored until the next day. She felt bad, though, so she offered to take me to dinner, and then had arranged for me to sleep in the spare bedroom of one of her other tenants’ apartments, just two blocks away (the key being the air-con – its hot and muggy and still this week, so trying to sleep in my oven-like apartment would likely not do me much good in the long run).

We met down in a Hunan style restaurant, where she and a friend had already ordered an array of delicacies for my dining pleasure. She ordered two of the house specialties just for me: fish head and shredded beef stomach (I know, I know, hadn’t I suffered enough? Apparently not).
After dinner I went back upstairs to take a quick shower in the dark. All the light I had was what was floating up from the street, again, 16 sories below. In the light of the next day, I glanced over my bathroom shelf and was struck with a deep suspicion that I had mistakenly washed my hair with sunscreen, but that is no longer important now. (And, to be honest, that might have no connection to the darkness. Just today I absently doused all of my dirty dishes with olive oil before I realized that the dish soap is in the *other* green bottle. Whoops.)

The girl whose guest room was offered me did not get home until after 11. She had no bedding, just a spare bed and an air conditioner, but that was enough for me. I wrapped up a sheet and stuffed it down my pillow case, and headed out. The bewildered look on the night watchman’s face when I trudged out the door at 11:30 in comfortable clothes and clutching my pillow to my chest could be matched only by the one on the face of the morning guard who stared as I padded back in at 7 am.

It took until around 9 the following night to get my power back on, and then only after I had lost my temper and yelled at my landlord over the phone (the problem here was not that it was all her fault-although it was- but rather that she said she’d been "too busy" to follow up on getting my power restored like she promised, and was now out to dinner and pretending I didn’t exist. This annoyed me) and spent some quality time with the night guard (he seemed to figure out what I was doing with the pillow the night before when I told him my power was still out, though perhaps not where exactly I went) while he searched for a maintenance man.

When the lights finally blinked on and my refrigerator began to buzz once more (not before absolutely everything inside had spoiled, but at least I had an opportunity to defrost my freezer), I was filled with that greatest and purest of joys, the one that comes from the restoration of something important often taken for granted until it is lost.

Even with the power back on, the apartment continues to astound and impress. The kitchen faucet came off in my hand the other day, leaving a small geyser of water shooting up from a hole in the countertop. It would have taken much less time for me to get it screwed back on had I:

a) remembered to turn the water off first or
b) not been laughing almost hysterically at the sight.

Every time I plug something (most often my computer) into the same outlet the TV is plugged into, there is a bright spark and the TV spontaneously turns off or on. The air conditioner will only change temperature in groups of two or three degrees at a time. This place is, in a word, quirky. I suspect it suits me.

This is, once again, not about Yangshuo. But I wanted to share while the events were still recent, and with Yangshuo it is already much too late for that. So I promise, this week – as in, in the next six days before I head off to Taipei – there will be an email with my tree story. I swear it.

1 Comments:

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