Saturday, June 22, 2013

Chinese phone conversations

By Kevin

I have a confession to make. I hate making phone calls, particularly to strangers.

It was one of my least favorite parts about being a journalist. I hated being the interruption to somebody's day. I hated the impersonal nature of it. But it was a necessary evil. If I wanted the story, I had to make dozens of calls a day. So I sucked it up and did it. For an introvert like me, it was always a task. It wasn't something I did on the spur of the moment. It took deliberation. It was a means to an end. I even got to the point where I didn't mind it so much because I can type much more quickly (and legibly) than I can take notes by hand.

If I hated making phone calls in America, imagine my hesitation in China. For my first year in China, I didn't even have a cell phone. I enjoyed the freedom of being able to go for a hike in the hills behind campus and not have to worry about it ringing with some pressing need. My students and superiors all had my home number. That was good enough.

I only broke down and bought one because Ruth and I were dating and I wanted another way to talk to her on the days when our Internet in Tonghua cut off at 11 p.m., making Skype useless. I also decided I'd need something I case I needed help getting out of inevitable travel difficulties on my first solo domestic China trip to see her in Yangzhou. But I only spoke English. Only to friends. In fact, the only people I gave my number to were friends -- and if they were my friend, at that time, they could speak English. If someone on an unrecognized number spoke Chinese to me, I apologized, told them I was a foreigner and my Chinese was bad, and hung up. If it was important, they'd find an English speaker to help them call again.

Year three, when we moved to Weinan, I was forced to pick up the phone and call my first Chinese stranger: the water delivery company. In China, you can't drink the tap water, so you must purify your own water with a boiler or filter or buy bottles of purified water (a bit like those 5-gallon Sparkletts bottles you can sign up for in the States). The first words out of my mouth (in Chinese) were: "I am a foreigner." Then, reading from a script, I informed them that we needed them to deliver a bottle of purified water to my door. I crossed my fingers and hoped that they'd understood. Thankfully, the water company had gotten the routine down from the previous foreigners who lived there, so as soon as they saw our telephone number on their caller ID, they knew the drill. Before long, I just had to tell them I was the foreigner on the third floor. An hour later, water would magically appear. Success. I could speak Chinese. As long as it was written out in script form. If they varied from the script, I was utterly lost. I usually just went back to the top and repeated myself. In Tonghua, this wasn't an issue mainly because I had a water purifier in my apartment, so I never had to order water delivery. This continued for years three through five. My Chinese improved incrementally in that span of time, but not enough to branch out beyond the now memorize script, plus a few variations.

Year six in Yinchuan was the start of language school. Day one, we repeated the water ordering routine we'd established in Weinan, first informing them I was a foreigner, then explaining our need for water and where we lived.

A month later, one of our homework assignments was to call information and ask for a particular phone number. I was so spooked when the operator asked me to repeat my request (the name of a park) that I had to call back a second time to get the number right. I continued to avoid phone calls.

Halfway through the year, I signed up for a Taobao account (kinda like an of China, though China also has I figured it would be easy, I'd use Google translate to sort out any problems I had with ordering, then the items would arrive. The delivery guy would either call or send a message upon arrival (most domestic deliveries in China don't arrive via the standard postal service), but it wouldn't be too difficult, even with beginner Chinese. Then one of the orders was bad. Apparently sometimes Taobao merchants continue to list items that are out of stock. So one day, after ordering something, the merchant called to explain to me that they didn't have the item. It took me awhile to figure out that she was asking if I wanted another similar item or if they should return the money. Eventually I figured out to just ask for a refund. It didn't make me enjoy talking on the phone any more.

An aversion to talking on the phone isn't exactly a great trait to have as a language student. Some students might relish the challenge of a phone conversation. They might be excited to see how well they can communicate. They may be excited to see if the other speaker is able to guess that they aren't Chinese. Generally that isn't me. I just want utility. Usually talking on the phone is nothing more than a necessary evil.

The one highlight to my phone experience in China was when one day, I had to order more propane. Our apartment has a small 10 gallon propane tank underneath the counter to run our stove burner. It needs a refil every 8 months or so. Anyway, when the delivery guy arrived, he was shocked that I was a foreigner. It was the ultimate compliment: I hadn't made enough pronunciation or grammar mistakes in my short phone conversation to reveal myself as a non-native speaker. I was ecstatic.

I should probably put today's phone calls in the "language win" column. After all, in the end I was successful at completing my task. I think. But after a rash of miscommunication, it feels like it belongs in the "loss column."

Let me explain. We will be moving next week. Ruth is 6 months pregnant and I fell down while jogging two weeks ago. Nothing was broken, but I scraped the knuckles of my left pinke badly enough that I still can't bend it and sprained my wrist badly enough that twisting bottles and lifting heavy boxes is out of the question. Not ideal timing for us to move. Since we live on the sixth floor and will be moving to the third, we need to hire movers to do the heavy lifting. Thankfully hiring movers plus a van here costs less than renting a moving van in the States.

So I called up some movers recommended by my Korean classmate (who ironically taught at the same college in Tonghua as I did the year after I left -- but that's a different story). My classmate said they charged them 200 RMB for the move, which is half of what some American friends paid for their move. The caveat -- their new building has an elevator. So the operator answered and cut quickly to the chase: where were we moving from and to, how much stuff and what floors. She didn't recognize the new apartment complex, so I explained that it's just across the street from our campus gate. I explained that we have very little furniture, just a wardrobe and a crib and 40 or so boxes of various sizes. Then the floor - sixth to third. It took her a few seconds and she gave me a quote: 350 RMB. Reasonable, but I figured I'd try another mover.

Yesterday, my classmate Kevin -- whose apartment we will be moving into -- had arranged to move some other furniture and boxes belonging to our friend Kaylene into his apartment at Cai Xiao (the name of the complex). Kaylene had to leave early last year for medical reasons and plans to return to a different city in China after she recovers. So we packed up her stuff, bought some of her furniture (since our new apartment is mostly unfurnished) and decided to store it all in our apartment while we are in the States awaiting the birth of baby #2.

Kevin had also bought some of her stuff, so he called the movers and got a quote that he could move the stuff -- from floor 2 to floor 3 of Cai Xiao -- for 260 RMB per truckload. Plus, the movers would charge a little extra for big stuff like refrigerators and giant wardrobes. He set it up for Tuesday morning. Kevin said the guy's Chinese was a bit hard to understand, but he'd worked things out fine. Granted, of everyone in our class, Kevin's Chinese is the best. Every semester he gets the award for being the best student in class.

So, since I also needed movers, today, I sent the same mover a text message with the details of our move and asking for a quote, hoping to avoid a phone conversation that would immediately reveal me as a foreigner. But when he hadn't replied after an hour, I decided to give him a call.

I asked if he'd received my text message and told him I wanted to move from Ning Da to Cai Xiao (our new complex). Immediately, he seemed confused. "You called earlier about moving on Tuesday, right?" he asked. I feigned ignorance."No. That must be someone else." I didn't want to admit that I was a foreigner. Often the price quoted to a foreigner is significantly higher than that offered to a Chinese. I didn't want to be a target for being cheated. I just told him that I wanted to move on Friday. I didn't mention that my friend had spoken with him yesterday. He said that he'd already said that it would be 260 because He charges by the truckload.

A couple hours later, he called me back. "I just saw your text message," he said. "If it's not the second floor to the third floor, but the sixth to the third, it is more agonizing (Sometimes Chinese is a bit melodramatic -- word used to explain difficulty -- 痛苦 -- literally means pain and bitterness). "The price will be 350 RMB." So, a bit more than 20 RMB extra per extra floor.

Then he asked, "Aren't you the international friend I spoke with yesterday?" I told him I wasn't. I'd been foiled. So had Kevin. How he figured it out I'll never know. Was it my limited vocabulary or my repeated requests for him to repeat himself. Who was I kidding? I'd mostly hoped he would think I was someone from a different province, whose Mandarin was poor. "But you are moving to Cai Xiao also, right?" "Yes." I gave in. "Yes, my friend spoke with you before. He is moving from another apartment to Cai Xiao on Tuesday. I am moving from Ning Da to Cai Xiao on Friday."

We'd thoroughly confused the poor guy. I was afraid that might happen. Now I'm hoping he still shows up on Tuesday. Maybe I'll wait till then to decide if it goes in the "language win" or "language loss" column.

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