At last! After being here in Beijing for two whole months, I am finally the proud owner of my very own internet connection at home in my apartment.
Until this week I have had to take in my laptop to the office and piggy-back on the office wifi in order to read my eMails and do all the hundreds of unspeakable things I like to get up to on the web. It’s no use trying to use my official work computer as the techie boffins have disabled just about anything that could be deemed useful in any way whatsoever. (Why do techies tend to do this? Are they so insecure in their jobs that they need to exercise some kind of ultimate control over the hapless end user so they have to be called for even the most menial of tasks?)
The reason it took so long is that it is well nigh impossible to find anyone in a Chinese telecom company who speaks a word of English. So the obvious solution is to ‘borrow’ a friendly Chinese speaking friend to act as interlocutor. I’m lucky in that in the office is the perfect Chinese ‘geek’ – Andrew - who not only can interpret for me but also knows what he is talking about when it comes to things technical.
The problem, though, is that his job has taken him to the wilds of both Shanghai and Shenzhen in the past few weeks, and when he came back it was the wrong time to apply.
Wrong time? Oh yes; he is absolutely right. When you sign up to a service such as a simple internet connection here, you pay by the month; so it makes no sense to sign up near the end of the month and pay for a number of days that by definition you have not been able to use.
Eventually Andrew and I plump for an auspicious day, this being the 3rd of the month when we are both able to visit the China Unicom shop a short bus ride away from where we both work. We walk in, Andrew gets a queuing ticket, he finds out we are likely to be waiting around half an hour and we walk out so that he can light up his ‘fix’.
We go back in 20 minutes later to collect a clutch of forms all – naturally – written in Chinese. Andrew fills out the necessaries as I embarrass myself by showing him my passport photo and admitting my true age (39…. again!) which he double checks against my passport to make sure I am not pulling a fast one (who me????).
Our number is called. We wander over to the desk and a rapid quick fire of conversation ensues while I am totally ignored by the girl who is looking after us.
Andrew translates as the girl pauses for breath. I have struck lucky, it appears. Special offer: for a limited time only I can pay for a year and get two months subscription off. Far too good to be true. If I had come last week I would have had to pay an extra 330RMB – or just over £30; and that doesn’t include having to pay for the missed weeks at the beginning of the month. Lucky Brian!
But wait! The gods must really be smiling on me today. I am to be given a new landline too. No matter that I already have a company landline in my apartment. Now I will have two landlines to choose from and can presumably phone someone in stereo.
But it gets EVEN better. Another special deal especially for special little me means I will be given a special mobile SIM card. But I already have a Chinese SIM. No matter. This special one gives me 300 minutes of talk time every month for free to anyone in China. Not that I know anyone in China that I want to talk to for 300 minutes every month. But I tell myself not to be so precious and just to be grateful! Puh. Some people are never satisfied!
What? Can the gods really be making this my red letter day? For to top it all, I will ALSO be texted a special voucher worth 100 RMB off anything in a little mail order catalogue I am given.
Yeah, OK; the catalogue is all in Chinese; and the SMS will be in Chinese; and I would have to order online – in Chinese - and that’s not to mention the fact that my current mobile doesn’t display Chinese characters; but let’s not quibble. For I have been singled out by the powers above to be the lucky recipient of China Unicom’s largesse. Why can’t I just be grateful FGS?
Now, I should maybe point out at this juncture that applying for a Chinese internet connection should surely come with a health warning. For although I am blessed by China Unicom’s generosity, it does come at a price. And it’s called RSI. Sign here, I am asked; and here; and here; oh and don’t forget to sign here; and you’ll need to sign this document; and here; and also this one; and don’t forget to print your name next to this signature; and here; and here; and……. well, you get the drift.
Ten sheets of paper later and with my signature starting to look more and more like Chinese (traditional, not simplified) I am handed a large wad of paper; and an installation CD; and a SIM card; and a mail order catalogue (in Chinese); and a 2D instruction booklet (in Chinese). I can pick up an envelope at the reception desk, the girl informs Andrew as we stagger away from her, so as not to lose anything. But the envelope handed over to us is too small for the remains of the tree we have just used up, so I stuff it all into my ‘man bag’ and we go out into the sunshine once more.
Do you wanna open a bank account now, Andrew asks me? But it’s Saturday afternoon. No worries; the banks are open seven days a week in China. We head off to a branch of the China Merchants Bank that Andrew thinks well of.
We walk in and are met by a smiling receptionist who gives Andrew a couple of forms to fill out. Not for the first time am I reminded of an old programme for the disabled on BBC’s Radio 4 which was called “Does He Take Sugar” – a reference to the fact that disabled people tend to be totally ignored while their minders are asked all the relevant questions.
The bank is modern and pristine, and, Andrew adds (and I wonder if this is why he likes this bank so much) you get free orange juice and coffee. We have almost got to the stage of plonking our sit-upons in the comfortable chairs when our number is called.
This time there are only two forms to fill in; and I am asked to think of a six-figure security number for my bank card. The choice is easy. My staff number from BBC days of old has stayed in my memory for decades, so this, I decide, will be the number. Except…. Does it start 14 or 41? Oh, OK; got it now. I am asked to key the number in twice and a bank card is produced out of thin air. It doesn’t have my name on it. Instead it belongs to “Beijing 0 CN”. But I guess I can live with that.
I hand over a 50RMB note as my initial deposit, take a red sweetie out of a bowl lying enticingly in front of me, we thank the charming bank teller and head off to the coffee station.
Except there is no coffee today, although there are two jugs – one with an orangey coloured liquid and the other which looks a dark plum colour. Andrew tries the latter, just manages to stop himself spitting it out onto the floor and quickly pours himself some of the orange coloured liquid which passes for a feeble imitation of cat’s pee. He searches for somewhere to deposit the half filled cup while I read some of the user friendly notices pinned up by the management.
I am now weighed down with more paper as we head back, knowing that internet installation day is now scheduled for four days hence.
Can I contain my excitement? I guess I can. The installation man is due to arrive at 11 and Andrew is standing by at the other end of a telephone in case I have problems. But the only problem is that Mr Installer turns up at 1030 just after I have made myself a cup of tea which turns quietly tepid as my attention is taken up with other things.
He seems surprised to see I already have a landline. He tries dialling out on it but has no luck. How do you say in Chinese “try putting a zero at the front of your number my good fellow”? My mind turns temporarily blank as I struggle to find the right words.
He mimes to me that he is going downstairs to investigate and I mime to him that that is perfectly OK with me. He disappears; I slurp up some tepid tea; he reappears; I abandon the tea and help him pull back the bed behind which is the wall socket he needs to get to. He attaches his little grey box of tricks, punches in a few numbers and then produces an Ethernet wire and a router from a box. I point to the power socket on the floor; I point to the Ethernet input on the computer and we both grunt to show we understand one another. Perhaps his grunt is a little more practised than mine, but after all this is his profession and I am convinced he has done an awful lot of grunting with foreigners before. In terms of gruntability I must concede to this master grunter.
Before I know it my screen comes alive with google.co.uk. But to make really sure it is working, he punches in weibo.com, as you obviously can’t trust these foreign web sites. Sure enough, weibo comes in loud and clear. I am shown the little icon that has magically appeared on my screen. He double clicks it. Unsurprisingly a Wireless Network Connection Status box appears. He smiles and closes the box. He then insists I double click on the same icon. Unsurprisingly a Wireless Network Connection Status box appears. I smile and close the box. We both smile. He indicates another wire hanging out of the wall socket and in true Marcel Marceau fashion I am given to understand that this is where I plug in my telephone. The fact that I don’t have another handset isn’t of course his worry, so I nod eagerly to show I have got the gist of what he says.
I sign another three times on bits of paper, and am handed a blue sheet from a sheaf of pages onto which my signature has magically forced its way.
His job now done, my smiling technical engineer heads for the door. Xièxiè, I mutter feebly; Zàijiàn!
Byeebyee, says my new friend as he heads off towards the lift.