Sunday, August 28, 2011

An Electrical Adventure

By Kevin

Our first goal upon arrival in Yinchuan was simple: get the power turned on. Or so we thought. As often happens in China, a simple task turned into a bit of an adventure.

In America, paying your electric bill is a fairly straightforward proposition. Someone from the electric company comes, reads your meter, then you wait for your bill to arrive by mail and send the company a check. If you don't pay, they send you a warning, then eventually shut off your power.

As teachers in China, dealing with utilities was simple because our school footed the bill. Occasionally, we saw a paper posted on our building in Weinan listing the electricity charges for each apartment, but the school paid it. We didn't have to concern ourselves with the process, so we didn't know how it worked.

We knew coming into Yinchuan that we likely wouldn't have power when we got here, but we had no clue how to solve the problem. Upon arrival at our apartment in Yinchuan, after five trips hauling our luggage up and down six flights of stairs, I flipped the light switch. Sure enough we had no power. So I enlisted the help of Angel, the Chinese friend who met us at the airport, to pay the electric bill.

Naturally, being fresh out of college and never living on her own, she didn't know what to do. So, she knocked on the neighbors door and asked them where to pay. They told us to bring the prepaid electricity card, which the landlord had left for us, and to set off for a building across campus. We had to stop a couple times along the way to ask directions, but eventually, we found ourselves walking down an empty alleyway adjacent to the Muslim dining hall. At first, we walked right past it because it isn't clearly marked, but someone pointed us in the right direction. Naturally, the door was locked. A faded sign was posted listing hours: 5-6 pm. Apparently the office is only open for an hour per day to pay for electricity.

Thankfully 5 pm was only ten minutes away, so we waited. When the worker arrived, she opened the dingy door, pulled the cold weather flaps to the side and let us in. She headed for a desk and removed the dust covers from the computer and a handful of other devices.

She plugged our electricity card into the computer and frowned, saying something about it not working. Then she declared that we needed to go back to our apartment an plug the card into the electricity meter before we could add money to the card. Apparently it had been inactive too long to add money to the chip on the card.

Ok. So we went back to apartment, plugged the card in, flipped a switch and
VoilĂ ! It worked. There were still 104 of whatever unit of electricity they measure electrical use by on the card (kWh perhaps?).

Since by this time, it was 5:30 and we were exhausted, we decided to just wait and add more money later.

After about 10 days, we noticed that the amount of power was beginning to get low. We were down to a quarter of that original number – 27 kWh. So, on Wednesday night, I decided to go ahead and add money to the card, thinking it would be an easy process. I was walking across campus to pay the bill, bumped into Harmony, so I asked if she would mind coming with me just in case there were any problems.

When we arrived, I was surprised that the office was closed, even though it was 5:30 p.m.. “Angel said it's open from 5-6,” I told her, pointing to the sign.

She read the weathered print-out posted next to the door. “It is only open from 5-6 on Tuesdays and Fridays,” she said.

Angel didn't mention that,” I muttered.

These are the summer hours, which run through Friday.”

We might have a problem,” I told her. We had already made plans to go to dinner as a team at an Inner Mongolian restaurant across town on Friday night at that time. “But we'll run out of electricity before Monday.”

She tried calling a phone number written on the sign to ask if there is another place we could pay. Naturally, one of the numbers was illegible because it had been torn off. We couldn't tell if it was an 8, a 6, a 5 or a 3 (the bottom, which was all that was left, was rounded). She tried these numbers, but figured that someone in Dalian or Chongqing wouldn't be able to help us.

So she called up our landlord and asked if there was another place we could pay. He directed us to the Bank of Ningxia, across the street from campus.

When I went to the bank the next day, we were down to 18 kWh.

Seeing several long lines, I asked the manager where I should pay my electrical bill. Thankfully, hearing my poor Chinese, he started speaking English. “You can't do it now,” he said. “Follow me.”

He walked me out of the building and down the street to the State Grid (the power company), repeatedly grabbing my hand and saying “follow me.” “Five years, I study English,” he said. “Where you from?” he asked. “New York? Chicago?” “California,” I told him. “Ahh, California. Very good.” The woman at the State Grid plugged the card into her machine, frowned and said something about how I couldn't add money to it there because I lived on the university campus. I'd have to pay somewhere else.

The helpful bank manager walked me back, saying “Come back to bank, six time,” which I interpreted to mean to come back to the bank at 6 p.m.

I thanked him and went home. “Still no power,” I declared to Ruth.

That night, I went back to the bank. I waited as several people deposited large stacks of bills. When I got to the front, I said I wanted to pay for electricity and handed the teller my electricity card and some money.

She plugged the card into the “adding money machine” and frowned. She pulled it back out and tried reinserting it into the machine several more times, each time followed by a frown. Then she handed the card back to me, declaring something about it not working.

My mind was blank. I did the math – at the current rate of power consumption we'd run out on Friday or Saturday. Then I remembered – I'd forgotten to plug the card into our meter immediately before coming to the bank – maybe that was the problem.

So I ran home, declared to Ruth that we still had no power, plugged the card into our meter, then hurried back to the bank. When I got to the front, the teller didn't even try plugging it in. Exasperated, she repeated the same phrase she uttered earlier. For the second time, I didn't understand much more than a the words “electricity” and “not able.” I tried to explain that I had talked to the manager earlier and he told me to return. She called out a manager who spoke some English, who told me that my card was broken, so I needed to go to the State Grid during business hours. They would give me a new card and solve my problem. She too insisted upon walking me down the street to show me where the State Grid office was located. I thanked her and called Harmony, who contacted the landlord. I wanted to make sure it was OK with him if I got his card replaced.

The landlord insisted that the card worked fine. I should just go back to the place on campus to buy more electricity.

I told Ruth the news. “Still no power. I think we need to turn off all non-essential items.”

We were down to 16 kWh.

By this point we were relatively sure that we would run out of power sometime Saturday, but since we weren't sure if the power company office on campus would be open on Saturday or not, we decided we'd take our chances and run to the office at 5 p.m. We would have to be late to dinner, but our food would go bad without a working refrigerator.

I plugged the card in: 9 kWh left. I rushed over to the on-campus electricity office fifteen minutes early and waited. I anxiously hurried in when she opened the door and whirred the computer to life along with two other students. I got nervous when she turned the other students away. I went ahead with it. I handed her the card and the money. This time it worked. 400 RMB bought us about 850 kWh. That should last us for at least a few months, I figured. Relieved I hurried to meet Ruth and Harmony so we could head off for dinner. “It works. We have power.”

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