28 March 2008

In medias res

Getting adjusted to living in Xiaoshan is presenting its own set of challenges. One pressing issue has been that of dealing with my housing. Even though the contract to work in the Xiaoshan branch included an apartment, what the manager of the school really meant to offer me (which only became incrementally clear to all parties involved) was a housing stipend just it is offered to the teachers in Hangzhou. There is a "Chinese characteristic" of legal contracts in China: it's not what is written but what is intended by the person in power. Even the school's general director apologized that I had been forced to sign for the apartment (I met her only after working here for a month and asking to be introduced), I get the impression that this contract discrepancy is really not a priority in her overall business plan.

In the meantime, I am still confused about how to pay the utilities. I was originally under the impression that the school had subscribed to them for me. How else could I have water, natural gas, and electricity, and even cable TV all functioning smoothly, thought I? It turns out that it's fairly easy in China, which has a 'pay as one goes' for everything from mobile telephone contracts to household utilities. I learned of this when I arrived one evening to discover that my electricity had been turned off. I still cannot sufficiently describe the school's reaction to the snafu. A kind of collective scrambling to cover asses ensued when I explained my circumstances. The people in the school would eventually explain to me that they weren't quite certain how and where I needed to pay for my utilities, and, oh, the building maintenance fees. Any other bills coming due, folks?

I was in a fix needing a quick repair until somebody suggested that I could just turn the electricity back on by myself. Oh, if only it life were so easy, I was about to opine. But this is China. 这是中国。I had been wondering what lay behind the panels in the stairwell of my apartment. Now I had a pretext to snoop around. It was easy enough to find which switch was connected to my apartment. That big switch was the only one out of line with the others, and it had been meticulously labeled by the last electrician. A somewhat oddly disturbing feeling arose that the general public has such easy access to everybody's electric power supply, a little scarier that these swtiches seem underrated for an entire household load. But who am I to complain now after switching it all back on as easily it had been switched off? Take that, Mr. Utility Man!