Tuesday, October 14, 2008

At the Mercy

Even after a year in China, I still find it amusing how many things come laden with difficulty in my current life. As part of our expatriate package, Uncle H-- foots the bill to ship our entire family to the U.S. and back once a year. We have been at this task for about 2 weeks now.

First, we had to wait for October 1st. Uncle H--'s financial calendar runs from October 1 through September 30. We last went home in February of 2008, so our next run must fall fiduciarily into the following calendar year. Come October 1, we knocked on HR's electronic door with a quick note - Do we have the all clear to arrange for our flights home?

After a few days, we had the all clear. Uncle H-- need not purchase them. We could purchase our own tickets, and send the receipt to HR for reimbursement. This created challenge number two. China is very much a cash-based society. Debit cards from Chinese banks will be accepted at many chain stores and restaurants, but cash manages most work. Our travel agent functions on a purely cash basis, and purchasing 4 round-trip coach seats to the states would cost over 40,000 RMB. This is a pretty large chunk of cash for us to hand over, and then wait a month or more for reimbursement.

As our agent doesn't accept credit cards, we moved onto an airline website. It is this mother's humble opinion that American Airlines is currently the best way for a family to fly between Shanghai and Chicago. With all of those qualifiers, few people could argue - right? Quite simply, only American and United provide direct flights from Shanghai to Chicago - that limits our options to 2. Among the 2, American's planes promise an individual movie screen for each seat. At last check, United had not updated their cross-Pacific planes to make people mildly comfortable. Of course, neither airline or their staff seem to have any particular interest in the comfort of their riders - especially those sitting in the back of the plane, in the cheap seats of coach. But at least American does realize that business is booming and that international carriers are quickly picking up the slack that US carriers dropped long ago.

So, we pointed ourselves toward www.AA.com, who promptly re-directed us to www.AmericanAirlines.cn which quickly and efficiently offered us flights originating in China and at lower prices than those originating in the states. We felt like we were gliding along. And with permission to use the company credit card, there could be no stops ahead. We reserved 4 tickets on our dates of choice. We clicked American Express in the drop-down box and filled in the company's address. We entered the credit card number, and turned for that little ID number on the back. It was almost illegible. Almost, until Dave rubbed his finger over it and smeared it away entirely.

So our flights home will now wait a week or more while HR finds the time to request a new secret ID number for Dave's AmEx card. Because were we to purchase these with our own credit cards, we would be presented with two problems. First - our credit cards work in dollars. Dave receives wages in Yuan. For every major bill received in dollars, Dave must spend an hour or so at the Bank of China convincing them to transfer our RMB into dollars in our account at home. Second - AmericanAirlines.cn doesn't seem to offer fa pious. These are official receipts, recognized by the Chinese government and Chinese HR offices. If ever a person must submit a receipt, it must be a fa piou with a bright red stamp on it. Nothing doing. So we wait.

Wait, as I have for 7 weeks to have the repairs completed in our apartment. Wait to have the balcony scraped and painted, where large chips of old bronze paint chip off with the wind and fly against the newly installed bug screens. Wait for someone to safety-fy the windows - windows which currently open out, just like any door - where a child could step out just as simply. Wait for someone to repair the rods in the wardrobes, which fall down so often that 2 of the 4 have broken. After waiting, and yelling, and waiting, and being stood up, and yelling, and waiting some more, things finally began to happen today.

Two workmen showed up at my door this morning, ready to work. With our ayi, Wendy, at the ready to translate, these helpful men decorated our apartment by drilling 40 holes in the wall to hang our pictures and shelves. I paid them 5 RMB per hole, for a grand total of 200 RMB, or around $30 USD for nearly 5 hours of labor. When showed the wardrobes, they also went out and purchased new rods and fixed each one in no time flat. My heart rate remained steady through the entire day, as these men very carefully measured their holes and cleaned up their messes. Well, made an effort to clean up their messes.

Tomorrow, we expect the painter to fix the balcony flecked with silver and bronze. This same painter is apparently the safety-fier as well, and by the end of the day tomorrow I dare to hope that our home-work will be complete.

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