Thursday, November 7, 2013

October 14, Suzhou

 Monday, October 14, Suzhou

I have had such an interesting day!

This morning I thought I'd have breakfast in the hotel even though it would be expensive, because I figured I'd eat a lot and not be hungry later in Tongli, a “water town” near Suzhou I was planning to visit today. But when they told me breakfast would cost 147 RMB, which equals about $25, no way was I going to do that! So I went back to “my” bakery from yesterday for a breakfast – sort of a French-toastized ham and cheese half-club-sandwich – for 16 RMB, about $2.50. Something I wanted to eat was hard to find: the Chinese like really sweet pastries for breakfast, yuk. That far I won't go! They are getting used to me there, too, and now I know the routine (take tray, take a pair of pincer things, choose what I want, place it directly on the tray, go to counter, order coffee, pay, sit and eat) and I feel like a regular.

Yesterday I finally figured out that China is blocking blog sites – I knew there is Internet censorship here but never imagined it might apply to me. Pretty naïve! This is why I've been sending out reports via email, with limited pictures. Several of you then wrote suggesting the same thing. Although a couple of you proposed work-arounds, especially my son Mark, I am thinking that since email seems to work I will simply continue to use that. I only got one returned-mail message, so my emails got through to 56 of the 57 of you. Of course, they might have gone into your Spam boxes but they didn't come back to me. And I wrote to the one person without sufficient bandwidth, or memory, or whatever the hell it is, to receive it.

After breakfast I spent a long time in the lobby waiting for my email to come through, and ran out of patience before it did. This means that if you reply – and I LOVE reading your replies! – please be sure NOT to include my pictures in your reply. In fact, delete my whole email before replying. The hotel I am in now has wireless only in the lobby and it's slow; I imagine there will be situations like this in subsequent hotels. If you include my entire email it takes FOREVER for my little MacBook Air to download your reply, so please try to remember this.

Okay, my day.

I took a taxi to Tongli, 80 km. away, because it is a thousand-year-old town criss-crossed with canals. I was eager to see its surviving architecture and looking forward to a leisurely boat ride through the town from which to see it. I'm sure you can already sense the experience was quite different.

First, it cost 100 RMB even to enter the town, about $17.

Meaning, for the privilege of looking at the town and the canals, and especially for the privilege of buying things in the shops, they were charging $17. That stung. Having been yesterday in the Pingjiang District of Suzhou, the ambiance and the stores felt very familiar. Oh well, there was still my boat ride. But the boat turned out to cost another 91 RMB, maybe $15, and, adding insult to injury, lasts all of 25 minutes. 

Screw that! There's a line where you feel like a stooge being taken advantage of, and they crossed it. I did find a shop that sold lovely silk things at reasonable prices but the cash I had would have wiped me out so I needed more. Little shops take cash, not credit cards (like Mexico!) They pointed out the ATM. I went there to withdraw cash and discovered that my ATM card wasn't where it belonged. I searched my entire purse: not there.

I am in China by myself with 290 RMB in my wallet, less than $50, and I'd need at least a third of it to get back to Suzhou. And no debit card for cash. And only big hotels take credit cards. And I am taking the train tomorrow to Hangzhou and back to Shanghai on Wednesday. Forcing myself to think calmly, I figured out that I must have left the debit card in the ATM around the corner from the Shanghai hotel on Saturday morning before I took the train to Suzhou.

Well, okay. I continued to stroll around Tongli and tried to decide if my negative attitude to the town – such a ripoff, so many stores selling so much stuff people don't need (I have never been a shopper, obviously) – came directly from the experience itself or if it was a sublimated form of panic over the cash situation. Both, probably. But dammit, I was determined not to miss the interesting things to see there.

I came across a couple in amazing clothes.

I came across a young girl who paid to dress up in old-fashioned Chinese clothes and have her picture taken, something that is a common Chinese entertainment in many tourist locations.

I came across someone selling goose eggs (huge!) and some sort of three-dimensional triangular fruit and my son's favorite thing from China, tea eggs, sold hot.

And a bowl of tetrahedron-shaped fruits that were beautiful but I don't know what they are.

I came across beautiful ornate hair ornaments for women with long black straight elegant Chinese hair.

They did allow me to go into a garden without paying extra. Compared to the gardens I've seen here in Suzhou, even I could tell it was derisory. Not worth a single photo.

In the main plaza there were several groups of young women dancing, which was very instructive.

I watched a few groups of them. It was like a cross between dancing and tai chi – their movements were what I can only call sedate. Well rehearsed, all done in unison, but minimalist movements. And it struck me that this characterizes Chinese traffic too. Lines that divide lanes are only suggestions. Cutting someone off as you turn left or right is normal. Pedestrians weave around cars and cars weave around pedestrians, as do all the motorbikes and scooters and bicycles in their lanes. And there are vast numbers of cars, two-wheeled vehicles, and pedestrians. You'd think there would be accidents galore, but I've seen nothing even close. The reason is that everyone drives sedately! They go slowly enough for everyone else to get out of their way and to take evasive action themselves.

Well, enough of Tongli. Time to go back to Suzhou and fix my money problem.

Back at my hotel, thank goodness I had made a friend of the assistant concierge. “Allen,” his English name, has worked at the hotel since it opened 15 years ago. His English is not as good as my Spanish, so you can imagine how halting it is. He's about 40, as tall and thin as Ichabod Crane: a strong wind would blow him over. He has teeth that would be perfect for a Before picture if only there were an After picture. But he is sincere and kind and friendly and helpful. I explained my problem to him, and this whole thing became a fascinating study in problem-solving. He enlisted another hotel employee to help..

Their proposed solution #1: put my credit card into the ATM machine. I tried to explain why it wouldn't work – there is no password with a credit card – but they didn't get it so I “tried,” with the predictable result.

My proposed solution #2: cash a paper check on my Washington State bank at the hotel. Nope, they can't do that.

Their proposed solution #3: go to a bank and get an advance on my credit card. Allen drives me 200 meters in an airport-style electric cart, we jaywalk like mad across half a dozen lanes of various kinds of traffic, and we go to the bank. He carefully explains the problem to an employee. LONG discussion between them. Finally, no: the bank will not give me an advance on my credit card. Something to do with the presence or absence of some chip, who knows?

My proposed solution #4: what if I overpay my bill to the hotel and they give me the balance in cash? Okay, Allen drives us back to another part of the hotel which may cater to upper-income guests: more English spoken, apparently classier in that part. Two women understand the problem perfectly and slowly and methodically they piece together what happened. The Shanghai hotel's card had a map on the back, so I was able to point out the exact location of the Bank of China branch where I had changed money and left the debit card. I had kept the receipt from the cash transaction, too. With these and a lot of time, they called the bank and determined the debit card was indeed there. Normally banks mail such things back to where they came from but now they are holding the card for my return. That is a huge relief! But the problem with cash now? Still not: it is against hotel policy to advance cash to customers in the way I suggested. All very regretfully! They really felt for me.

My proposed solution #5: Is there a manager high enough up in the hierarchy to make a one-time exception to their policy? Bingo! And they were willing to give me cash against the credit card right then, not when I check out tomorrow. This of course took even more time and they apologized for having to charge 50 RMB for giving me 1,000 RMB in cash, but I thanked them effusively. They printed out a form for me to sign, took a copy of my passport, and gave me 1,000 RMB in cash, more than enough for the next couple of days.

I think this whole process was fascinating in many ways. First, Allen and the other hotel employees were all so eager to help. Even the bank employee was eager to help. They were all so apologetic when they couldn't because their institutions' rules forbade helping. Second, I was the one to come up with the solution: perhaps within an institution it's hard to see around its rules? Or maybe it's the can-do American in me vs. the follow-the-rules Chinese in them? And third, to me the most fascinating of all, was that I was in no way freaking out. I was patient and good-humored and grateful for all the kindness people were so obviously demonstrating to me. Especially once I knew the debit card was safe, I was positive that with all this help surely we'd find some way to get me some cash. And that being the case – and it was! – what was the downside? Missing a couple of hours when I could have been visiting another beautiful Chinese garden? I could live with that. Truly, I do not believe I would have been capable of such equanimity under equal circumstances 20 or 30 years ago, maybe even 10 years ago. A wonderful demonstration of one of the many advantages of getting older. If you can feel the waves of self-congratulation emanating from me, you are absolutely right.

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