BARGAIN HUNTING: For foreigners, getting to know the way things work in China needs an open mind and lots of help from others
Living in Beijing, without speaking or writing Mandarin, can make one feel as helpless as a newborn baby. To paraphrase Blanche Dubois, the fragile and faded southern belle in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, "I depend on the kindness of (friends) and strangers." When I unexpectedly needed new contact lenses, it was Fei, a Beijing native and wife of a co-worker, who came with me to the optometrist's. "Tell me when you see the two lines come together," the technician said in Chinese to Fei, who relayed to me in English. "Not yet. Not yet. Closer. Now!" went the conversation traveling in reverse course.
I met the most important man in my Beijing life, my hairdresser, through my Chinese-speaking friend Sherry. At our first meeting, she helped identify the shade of blond and the dark "highlights" and "lowlights," apparently not being a term used by my guy, that would keep me looking stylish and youthful. Sherry is only a cellphone call away when other questions arise regarding shampoo, schedules and intensive hair masks.
Obtaining, maintaining and using my cellphone have also required a group effort. Rose, the daughter of a friend, took me to buy my phone-speaking two languages I didn't understand, Mandarin and "cellphone." When it is time to add minutes to my phone, it is the clerk at the local cigarette and liquor store who comes to my rescue, scratching off the silver paint revealing the secret code, punching in the magical numbers and following the directions of customer service that allow me to once again talk to friends. Being of an age and temperament that missed out on the apparent insertion of a technology gene into my strand of DNA, I arrived in China unable to text message. It took many young friends, with lots of patience, to make me a competent text messenger. When my cellphone inextricably died, it was my co-worker Nicole, who answered my plaintive whine "I don't even know where in Beijing to take my phone to be fixed." Though her Chinese is no more advanced than mine, a total of about 12 words, she did remember that there was a Motorola store near her home and offered to take my phone, point to the battery and say "zhege (this)." Lo and behold, it was the charger that was on the fritz and I am once again available to all who can patiently wait for my slow text replies.
And then there is the bank. The other day I went to the bank with Sherry as my "talker," intending to wire money back home. I had with me my Bank of China passbook, the all-important PIN number, my U.S. account number and the bank routing number. What I didn't have was the "swift" number. A phone call to yet another friend, Randy, back in the States, who then called the bank and e-mailed me the missing digits, put me on the right path and I was now fully prepared to fill out the form that Sherry and I had taken with us. One look at the form, supposedly self-explanatory with English directions, and I knew I was in trouble. I headed downstairs to the school office where, Tina, head of human resources and our financial officer was there to help. I was hoping, that between the English and the Chinese, the instructions would make sense. They didn't. Two phone calls to the branch office later, all of the addresses, phone numbers, bank numbers and passport numbers were entered. After four official red stamps in triplicate and five more signatures, my money is on its way, we hope, to the Wells Fargo Bank around the corner from my home in New Mexico.
Until I got the hang of the local money, the clerks at April Gourmet would patiently pick out the required coins from my outstretched hand. English-speaking businessmen in my building have been called in to explain to me why the front desk is mysteriously handing me what appears to be a bill for "shui" ("water" for those of you who are even less well versed in Chinese than I). Stacy, my Chinese co-worker, has written me notes to present to the cab driver when I needed to make my first trip to the airport, or to the bank clerk to transfer money to my landlady's account.
Certainly, with time, I have gotten better at some things. I can bargain with the storekeepers at Yashow and Panjiayuan markets, and direct my cab driver home, but perhaps the Beatles said it best, "I get by with a little help from my friends." It is the theme song of my year in Beijing.