I bought a cell phone today.
It wasn't as easy as it sounds. I like to read the technical specifications on any type of technology that I'm going to buy, and know the going rate so that I don't overpay, and I'm functionally illiterate here. Over the last several days I've been in several cell phone shops and looked at various models, writing down the names of models that seem appropriate. Last night I stayed up late researching different phones on CNET, finding one I like, the Motorola Z3, a quad band GSM slider model, and making sure that it is listed on the Motorola China website. I couldn't read the specs there but I could read the CNET reviews and the Motorola USA website (as well as the Motorola UK website, which has a slightly different layout and a different ad campaign, but that's a completely different issue).
This afternoon I headed to Xidan, the shopping district, and the Xidan technology shopping center. There are a lot of shopping centers in Xidan, most of them focusing on clothes or jewelry. I went into a couple of different shops and saw the phone in a few places. I picked it up to weigh it, to make sure it wasn't too light and didn't feel flimsy, but also looked around at some other phones. Not being able to read about features reduced my willingness to seriously consider other models. The first place had the phone priced at about 1900RMB, but when the attendant went to check on availability told me that the phone is no longer available (or at least that was the general meaning of what they said - the conversation took much longer that necessary due to the ever-present language barrier). He tried to show me other phones, most of which were much more expensive (in the 6-7000RMB range) and had many more features than I'd actually use, and I became adept at saying "tai gui" - too expensive - or just saying 'bu' - no.
This took place in a couple more stores and I started to consider coming home empty handed. I found one more shop, a "PC Mall" on the fourth floor of another shopping center. After starting out looking at the Z3 there, then being told they don't cell them, the attendant helped me look at a number of other models. While I was looking at a Samsung phone that felt flimsy the attendant went to help someone else and his manager came over to help me. We looked at a number of phones together. I mimicked "my fingers are too big for this one," "this is going to break" and "this is too light" and he started looking at other phones and nixing them without any need for me to say the dreaded 'bu.'
The store manager realized that the phone I wanted was the only one that was going to work for me. We tried to have a conversation about it, which involved my pulling out my Mandarin notes for vocabulary reference. He was amused when he saw I had pages in my notebook that were filled up with my practicing writing Chinese characters. He showed my practice to all of his coworkers and read the characters aloud to them. I was thankful that he could read them - it meant I wrote them correctly. We had a laugh together, at my expense. This worked in my favor though - he made a few phone calls and located a working Motorola Z3 at one of the stores I'd visited earlier (where the price shown was over 1800RMB) and he sent one of the attendants over to get it. I didn't know exactly what was going on, he just had me sit and kept pointing to the floor model and to me, saying something and smiling. We tried to chat some more but it was frustrating.
At one point while we were waiting the man wrote out his name and phone number for me and wanted mine so that he could practice his English with me. My response was to say 'wo bu you' (I don't have) and point to the phone number. After all, I was trying to buy a phone. If I already had a phone - and number - I wouldn't be trying to buy one now. This conversation went on for quite some time and seemed futile.
After a box holding *my* new phone was delivered I had to go to another store with one of the clerks to pay for it. My final price was a little under 1500RMB - a little more than the same phone costs in the U.S. but less than they originally quoted me and much less than the prices I'd been quoted earlier, plus I know it's not a knockoff and I have a warranty (that's why I didn't buy off the street). I paid for the phone and then was taken to sit down with someone who spoke some English so that he could set up my phone for me. He opened it up and asked me for my number. Um, huh? "I don't *have* a number. Now that I have a phone I'm going to buy a SIM card."
Apparently this is not how it's done. In the U.S. I've never had to purchase a SIM card. Whenever I've purchased a phone it came pre-configured and for the last several years I've had phones with Verizon, which is behind the rest of the world and uses CMDA, not GSM, technology. The staff of the store here were in shock that I didn't know you are supposed to have your SIM card before you got your phone. (This is why the store manager thought I had a number earlier. Misunderstand now cleared up.) Oops. When I said that I was planning to get one they looked relieved and someone brought over a notebook with a list of SIM card numbers that were available.
(A side note about mobile phones here: most foreigners use pre-paid cards with cell phones. We aren't allowed to open up non-prepaid accounts unless we are sponsored by a Chinese citizen or a company and pay a deposit of approximately 5000RMB. The cell phone companies think that we'd run up huge international bills and then skip the country.)
I've been told that the Chinese are superstitious about numbers, and they avoid phone numbers that include the number four - the word in Mandarin is 'si' fourth tone, which sounds like the word for death - 'si' third tone. Buildings don't have fourth floors. I hadn't thought about how this affected the market for goods involving numbers. Phone numbers with auspicious numbers in them, like the number eight (eight is 'ba' first tone in Mandarin, which apparently sounds like a good luck word), cost more. Phone numbers with four in them cost less. The difference was 400RMB.
I *like* the number 4, always have. It's a square, a simple yet mathematically perfect number. My new phone number ends in 'death.' Mwah-hah-hah-haaaah.