Friday, December 19, 2008

Christmas Vacation

So it's finally here! Christmas Vacation, and we are taking full advantage of the situation! We leave tomorrow morning to go to Chengdu, Tibet and Harbin. Pretty much we are covering the entire width of China. We will return to Shanghai on the afternoon of January 1, 2009.

A special thank you to my dear friend Valerie for the best Christmas present ever... another post will follow later about that with pictures.

If we have access to high-speed internet at our hotels, we are going to try to use Skype to contact friends and family. But there is a big emphasis on the 'if' at the beginning of that sentence.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone!!

Love, Jim & Rachel

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Falling into a new routine

We have settled into a routine of life since we are both working now. I had a funny experience the other day that is sort of the result of the monotonic pattern our lives have taken.

No one, not even the locals, trust the tap water in China, so almost everyone uses 5 gallon bottles. The only thing you can use the tap for is washing clothes, dishes and to shower. Everythng else you use bottled water for, even when you rinse your mouth after you brush your teeth. At our work places, you won't find water fountains that would be common in the states, but you have bottled water stations around almost every corner.

Since we have to use the 5 gallon bottles, we're never wasteful in our usage. The only problem is that we use more than 1 bottle of water per week, usually 1.5. So we don't have to worry about running short we keep three 5G water bottles at any time. We go to our apartment clubhouse (the management office) to order, pay for and set up delivery of the bottles.

We live in a large apartment complex. Speciffically we live at 1599 Ding Xiang Lu, Building 19, Apartment 1301. Yes, we live on floor 13, but thirteen isn't unlucky in China. Instead, four, 14, 24, etc are, because the word for 4 sounds like death.

To give meaning to this address let me say that there are at least 30 buildings in the complex, which each has 26 stories, and each floor in a building has 2 or 4 apartments per floor. I would estimate that about 1/6 of the buildings have 2-story apartments. At this point, the math teacher in me wants everyone to compute the minimum and maximum possible number of apartments in our complex. Hahaha...

Since the name of this blog is Shiner to Shanghai, its worth pointing out that there are more people who live in our apartment complex than do in Shiner. I'm not sure what the latest census results are for Lavaca County.... To add to the size of our complex, the developer is now in the process of building Phase II of the complex: it will be at 1399 Ding Xiang Lu and is almost equal in size to Phase I we live in.

So Monday night, after I got home from work I had to go order water bottles, a normal event in my life now. I was told they would be delivered by 7pm, which was more than an hour away. I was walking home from the clubhouse and walked into the building by catching the door from a family that was walking out. I held the elevator for a lady who entered the building behind me, and she was thankful. Once she was on, I tried to use my access card that was still in my wallet to access the other floors of the buiding. It didn't scan, which sometimes happens, so she scanned her card and hit the button for floor 21 and I hit the button for floor 13.

I stepped off the elevator at floor 13, and heard the elevator shut behind me. But it didn't look like our floor. I turned quickly to see what floor the sign by the elevator said, I was on floor 13. There was the sounds of a family resonating in the hallway from one of the apartments, which is typical on our floor. The smell of Chinese food, a normal smell on our floor, filled the air. I checked the sign again, still floor 13, but not our floor.

At this point, I start to think, "What's wrong? I'm in China. I'm in an apartment building. Is there a hole in the space-time continumum? Am I caught in a bad episode of The Twilight Zone? Or is it just that my flux capacitor is broke?"

I went to push the down button for the elevators, which were now on floors 21 and 6. While the one on 21 returned to 13, I waited anxiously, and tried to act suave. I tried to pretend like I was supposed to be there, like I was in control, all the while trying to ignore the thoughts that were racing through my head at an ever increasing rate. This entire act was for no one, as I was alone in the common area. The elevator arrived, I jumped on and hit the button for the ground floor. Once on solid ground I jetted out the front doors to inspect the building number. 26, not 19. I entered one building too soon.

I laughed it off as I continued what should have been my original stroll home. But I looked over my shoulder at the same time to make sure know one else was aware of my mistake. I was still alone, and felt confident that I had hid my own silliness.

The water arrived on schedule Monday night, but I honestly forgot to tell Jim about my time warp incident until Tuesday evening. He got a good laugh out of the situation. He almost made the same mistake once, but was unable to gain entry to building 26, and figured it out at that point. He couldn't beleive how long it took me to figure out what was wrong.

Hope you got a laugh out of it too.

Taxi Adventure in Xian

I've been meaning to post about this and in the last post, Jim alluded to our taxi adventure in Xian during the first weekend in October.

So we arrived at the Xian airport after our flight was delayed in Beijing, we collected our bags and made our way to the taxi line in front of the airport. We had printed the address of our hotel in Mandarin from the website we used to book all of our travel accomodations to give our taxi driver. (A tip given to us by other expats in the past.) The airport was about 40 km from the town, so we were anticipating somewhat of a drive to get to the center of Xian where we where staying.

As we approached the front of the line, the driver at the front was really excited to see us - which should have been a sign. Like I said, we anticiapted a drive, but the fare of the cab ride should have been considerably less than a similar ride in Shanghai, since Xian is a smaller city compared to the major metropolis of Shanghai. We saw from the sticker on the back window that the initial rate was less than that of Shanghai's; Shanghai's base rate is 11RMB, whereas I think Xian was 8RMB. (I don't recall exact numbers, because I have waited too long to post this... shame on me.)

We loaded our things into the trunk, hopped in the backseat and were headed towards the walled city of Xian. After about 7-10 minutes from my seat behind the driver, I noticed something was wrong with the meter that was supposed to be tracking our fare: the amount the fare was increasing by was not constant. At first we thought it had to do with the rate at which the driver was travelling since most cabs in China accrue fares by distance (when your moving) and time (when you are at a standstill). Maybe the cab's velocity wasn't contant, but we on a highway... and the jumps were still too sporadic for this to be the case. Sometimes the meter would increase by 2RMB, others by 7RMB (almost the base rate!), or some other amount in that range. Jim couldn't see the meter from his seat so, I was calling out the intervals the price was increasing, and we were both trying to deduce a pattern or something logical from the sequence I was muttering.

Then I noticed the meter did not have a fa piao printing from it. A fa piao is an official government issued Chinese receipt, that are used by all businesses in China; they are also used by the government to collect business taxes. Businesses pay the government their taxes and in return are given carbon triplicate booklets for the fa piaos. Taxis are given rolls what can be thought of as 'official adding machine tape' to use in the meter which are used for the fa piao. In Shanghai if a taxi driver cannot produce a fa piao, you are free to leave the taxi without paying.

So at this point in the story, we are on a highway somewhere in rural China, but near Xian, trying to deduce a pattern for the meter, find a reason as to why there is no fa piao, and figure out what our next step is. We realized that we were at the mercy of this driver until we were closer to Xian.

When we did arrive in a more densely populated area, since Jim's Mandarin is a bit better than mine, he started to tell the driver that something was wrong with the meter. The driver started talking to Jim as if he were a native Chinese language speaker, and kept driving us to our final destination.

Jim told the driver to stop the taxi, and we would get out. The driver pulled over, started to talk to us and kept the meter running, which was now around 100RMB. Jim brought up the issue of the fa piao, and the drive showed us that he had pre-printed fa piaos, similar to what you get in restaurants.

We would have just bailed and taken our stuff, except everything was in the trunk, with our passports - the only form of identification we have in China. Jim kept trying to talk to the guy and I tried to keep my blood pressure low. When the conversation of broken Mandarin wasn't going anywhere, the driver called his 'boss' who spoke English and put him on the phone with Jim.

Jim explained the situation slowly and calmly, and the boss tried to tell us we were almost there and the toll would be no more than 150RMB. (Recall the meter is still running and is now near 110RMB.)

By this time, I had had enough and decided to try something else I had learned from other expats. I pulled out my cell phone and called 110. 110 is the Chinese 911 for problems that require the police's attention. 112 is for fire, 114 for the ambulance; there are others but those are the important ones to know.

Once connected, I asked in Mandarin for someone who spoke English, and I got someone whose English was a tiny bit better, but who quickly reverted to Mandarin. So I just said "Yingyue (English)" into the phone until I got someone did speak English. I briefly and slowly explained the situation, and the man on the other end asked me to put the driver on the phone. (Jim was still on the phone with the boss.) I handed the phone to the driver and heard the police screaming at the driver. I was handed my cell phone back and told the driver was going to drive us to a taxi park and we were to only pay 100 RMB.

Jim handed the driver's phone back to him. Having quickly conversed about the situation, we decided it was best to cut our losses now. At this point I think the driver had been shamed pretty harshly by the police and was happy to end the ordeal as well. Jim paid the 100RMB, collected the fa piao and told me not to exit the taxi until he had gotten all our bags from the trunk.

Jim got the bags, I hopped out and another (legitimate) taxi was pulling up behind us. We got in and rode the rest of the way into Xian and paid another 15RMB.

Moral #1: Be wary of excited taxi drivers.
Moral #2: Always know the number of the police in a foreign country.