Friday, June 27, 2008

Paying the Bills

As much as my time here often feels like a surreal extended vacation, there is reality. And in reality I need to learn to do lots of new things, like pay bills. Yes, they are mundane, but they are a part of life and they must be done. I can't just walk around the lake, study Chinese, do yoga, read and go see films with my friends all of the time.

I am currently staying in a mid-sized (from a New York perspective) two bedroom apartment in a mostly Chinese complex in central Beijing, near the Lama Temple and the drum and bell towers, walking distance to both Houhai and Sanlitun, that is being rented by my friend C., who is currently out of China visiting friends and family in her country. There is running hot water, a western toilet (yay!), a shower, refrigerator, sofa, tv, dvd player, western beds, high speed internet, etc. There are two gas stove burners built into the countertop. As in most Chinese apartments, the stove has no oven, however C. bought an electric oven that sits on the countertop, large enough to toast two bagels or bake a small lasagna or pan of brownies (one of these days I'm going to have to find a baking pan).

Just like in most of the western world, tenants have to pay for water, electricity, phone and gas. Unlike in the U.S., I can't just log onto a website to do it or send a check through the mail. This is a cash based economy, people don't trust the internet with financial information and there is an avoidance of credit cards (which I've heard attributed to the high rates of tax evasion as well as to a lack of trust). To pay the bills it is necessary to take cash to the bank or another specially designated public outlet.

Yesterday I took the invoice for the water bill that had been slipped under the door earlier in the month and the name and phone number of the landlord (for the phone bill) and went to the Bank of Beijing (I am avoiding Bank of China after an uncomfortable situation at one of their locations earlier this week - some of the local people were getting so upset about having a long wait that they started yelling and the anxious -looking lobby guard had to call a more senior armed guard; one of the women explained to me afterwards that the wait was so long (1 hour +) because the Bank of China is handling ticketing issues for the Olympics, so windows normally used for customer services had been redesignated for Olympics-related transactions; she also told me that they normally treat their customers poorly anyway). As in most banks, in the Bank of Beijing there is a computerized kiosk at the entry where you enter the type of service you need then take a number. There was no option for 'pay bills' so I walked over to the guard and showed him the receipt to indicate my reason to be there, and he came to the machine to show me that I wanted 'Customer Services.' After a fifteen minute wait my number was called, and I saw it flashing on the electronic display above one of the tellers.

I sat at the chair in front of the window, with glass extending from the top of the window down to the counter, showed the water bill and the phone information to the teller, then slipped them to him through the sliding drawer at the bottom of the window.

The water bill covered a time period that was at least five months, possibly six months, and the amount was clearly stated on the invoice. The phone bill is calculated by the bank from computer records, and the teller puts a telephone company specific form into the printer for an invoice to be printed. The teller told me the total for the two bills and I slipped the cash to him through the drawer. He counted the money, put it aside, stamped the invoices for the water and phone bills with several different red stamps, then slipped copies of the paid invoices back to me under the window. "Xiexie" (thank you), I said, "zaijian" (goodbye).

So simple, really, but not like in the U.S.

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