Steps to Purchasing Paper and Plastic Files

This morning I found myself in the Zhengyuan Office Supply Supermarket in Beijing.  The sign above the door said "Office Max," but I knew better.  Ripping off names is a cottage industry here.  I simply needed to pick up some computer paper and plastic file folders, so I thought it would be quick.  The important piece that I’d forgotten (from previous visits to this store) was that, despite having the name "supermarket" in its name, it’s not a market, and it’s definitely not super.  It is a state-run store, one of those last bastions of surly socialism.  Upon entering, the telltale signs are immediate.  There were uniformed clerks everywhere, easily outnumbering the customers 3-to1. Many items (including, for some reason the plastic file folders) were safely tucked away behind counters.  The clerks form a scrum around the customers, ready to fill out their little forms on each item selected.  And in the corner is the dreaded shou yin tai (the cashier’s desk), the place where every customer must go to pay.  Except for the fact that the items on sale were distinctly 21st century (iPods, videocams, shredders, etc), I still had the feeling of stepping back to 1984.

Never mind.  I had paper and plastic files to purchase, and these are the steps that were required:

Step 1:  Find the counter with the paper.

Step 2:  Clerk #1 fills out a ticket (in triplicate), noting that I am purchasing a ream of paper. She gives me the bright pink copy, and tells me to go to the cashier.

Step 3: Walk across the store to the plastic file folder counter.

Step 4: Clerk #2 walks over to clerk # 3, who is sitting at a computer.  They exchange information.

Step 5: Clerk #3 enters a bunch of data into her computer, and then the printer spits out a fancy ticket (in triplicate, of course).

Step 6:  Clerk # 3 gives the ticket to Clerk #2.

Step 7:  Clerk # 2 gives me the ticket and directs me to the cashier on the other side of the room.

Step 8:  I give Clerk #4 (at the cashier’s desk) my bright pink, hand-written ticket and the computer-generated ticket.

Step 9:  Clerk #4 is not at all pleased with the old fashioned pink ticket. She hands it across the desk to Clerk #5, who is sitting at a computer.

Step 10:  Clerk #5 enters a bunch of data into her computer, and then the printer spits out a fancy ticket (in triplicate, of course).  This now replaces the pink ticket.

Step 11:  Clerk #5 hands the printed ticket back to Clerk #4.

Step 12:  Clerk #4 totals it all up and tells me how much to pay.

Step 13:  I fork over the money to Clerk #4.

Step 14:  Clerk # 4 hands the cash to Clerk #6, who is sitting beside her at the cashier’s desk.

Step 15:  Clerk #6 makes change, and hands it to Clerk #4.

Step 16:  Clerk #4 stamps all 6 pieces of paper that have now been generated (2 tickets in triplicate).

Step 17:  Clerk #4 hands the stack of now-separated tickets back to me and sends me on my way back to the respective counters.

Step 18:  I return to the plastic file folder counter, where Clerk #2 is waiting for me, with my folders already in a bag.

Step 19:  I give her the tickets and she give me the folders.

Step 20:  Clerk # 1 (remember her???) runs into the back room and comes out with a ream of paper for me, which I get from her once I give her back her tickets.

Exhausted, I stagger back onto the street, and head home!

The Guns Go Silent

As the clock strikes midnight here in the Middle Kingdom, the quiet slowly begins.  After an evening of "grand finale" fireworks being shot off from the parking lot (no, the BMW’s never did get blown up) next to my building, it is all, finally, coming to an end. As of right now, shooting off fireworks in this city is no longer forbidden. How do I know this?  Well, this afternoon I got a friendly text message from the city government.  Here’s a rough translation:  The city Party Committee and the City Government would like to thank you for understanding and supporting the safety regulations regarding fireworks, and to remind you that as of midnight tonight, it is prohibited to set off fireworks within the 5th ring road. 

Until next year, The Year of the Ox!

Last Chance

Today marks the final day of the 2 weeks of celebrations surrounding Chinese New Year.  It all started with a bang on New Year’s Eve and will end with a bang tonight, Lantern Festival.  That means tonight is the last chance to blow things up until next year.  Something tells me it’s going to be noisy.  Kaboom!

Casualty Figures

Today the government released the fireworks casualty figures
for the week-long Lunar New Year holiday in Beijing:
1 dead, 434 injured, and 143 fires started. A friend and I almost made it onto
that list the other night.  It was the 5th night of the new year, which I
guess is another particularly auspicious night for blowing things up;
nevertheless my friend and I decided we wanted some Peking Duck at a nearby
restaurant within walking distance of my house.  Going over wasn’t so bad,
but coming home we were the ones ducking and running from the explosions in the
streets, on the sidewalks, in the alleyways, and in the parking lot of my
complex.  One of the historical/cultural reasons for the fireworks at the
new year was to scare away the ghosts.  My guess is that after a week of
explosions all the ghosts have been chased out of town, and those that haven’t
are not bothered by the noise.   Actually, it’s a lot quieter
tonight–kind of like there’s been a cease-fire.  Lots of people went back
to work today, so I guess they are just too tired to blow things up
tonight.  No protest from me, that’s for sure!

Seven Percent

That was the relative humidity here in Beijing yesterday, a very cold and blustery day.  7%!!!  No wonder my skin feels like sandpaper and I am perpetually thirsty and my heels have cracks in them the size of the Grand Canyon.

Goodbye Pig, Hello Rat

Today marks the first day of the new year according to the Chinese lunar calendar. The Year of the Pig ended last night with bang, and now it’s the Year of the Rat.  My housing complex was like a war zone last night with roman candles and bottle rockets being shot off everywhere.  I had a great view from my living room window on the 5th floor. My personal favorite was the group lighting off huge boxes of fireworks from between the cars.  I just kept waiting for those two BMWs to go flying.  Maybe tonight.  Maybe tomorrow night.  Maybe next week.  This will go on now for 14 days, until the Lantern Festival which marks the official end of the 14 days of celebrations.

Happy New Year!

Be Patriotic–Don’t Spit!

Sometimes articles in The People’s Daily have to be read twice to make sure they are not spoofs.  Yesterday there was one about the success of the recent ‘civilization campaigns’ that have been launched to improve the manners of us Beijingers. A recent survey suggests that our behavior is, indeed improving.  "This is a result of patriotism and widespread participation in preparing for the Olympic Games." I guess there’s something here called a "civilization index which gauges our behavior. Last year our score was 73.38 (out of 100).  That was a 4.32 improvement over 2006, and an 8.17 point improvement over 2005. Come on Beijingers, with only 184 more days until the start of the Olympics, we should be able to reach 100.

Does this mean I’m only 73.38% civilized?  A scary thought!

Rats in a Maze

Last night a friend and I made a foray across town to the Beijing Ikea, a giant store that is the size of a small nation (I’m thinking Lichtenstein here).  It opened a couple of years ago, and even though I used to shop at Ikea quite regularly, the fact that this one is so far away and that I’d heard horror stories of how crowded it usually is, this was actually my first visit.  We figured that on the Monday before Chinese New Year, most shoppers would be in department or grocery stores stocking up on the popular gift items of wine, fruit boxes, and candy and thus would not likely be out buying home furnishings.  We were right.  It was pleasantly uncrowded.


That’s not to say, however, that visiting the Beijing Ikea was an entirely pleasant experience.  This Ikea seems to have been designed by an evil Swedish madman.  I know, I know—they all are, but given the size of this one the potential for evil to be manifested grows exponentially. And if you think that somehow “Swedish” and “evil” are two words that normally do not go together, then you have obviously never heard of the Vikings (or lutefisk, for that matter). We felt like rats in a maze, part of an experiment to reprogram our brains to allow us to do one thing only: BUY!  As we trudged through each department on each floor, we could feel the resistance giving way as the senses were bombarded with reduced prices of kvartals, vinks, lyckligs,  skubbs, and ordnings (I eventually broke down and purchased one of those). There was simply no escape. Sure we occasionally spotted shortcuts from our location over to the next aisles, but there were workers in yellow and blue coats with tasers to keep us from deviating from the path assigned by the Swedish madman.  YOU MAY NOT SKIP THE ELVERDAMS.  KEEP GOING.

Upon reaching the first floor (ordning in hand by now), we committed a major blunder.  Rather than proceeding to the checkout counter with our souls and wallets still in tact, we decided that we wanted to return to the 3rd floor cafe for some cheesecake and coffee.  We thought we could outsmart the system by taking the elevator straight back up to the 3rd floor.  Apparantly this is verboten (or however you say it in Swedish). The elevator we got on only went to the 2nd floor.  The elevator from the 2nd to the third floor was at the other end of the store, back through the skamts, sirligs, and isils. Imagine the horror if you were to miss the special prices on those! We asked a clerk if there was a shortcut up to the 3rd floor cafe, and he gave us a stern look that said YOUR ARE ASKING TO VIOLATE THE ORDER OF THE  UNIVERSE AND I MAY BE SACRIFICED TO THE NORDIC GODS FOR TELLING YOU BUT I WILL JUST THIS ONCE–GO BACK TO THE MONGSTAD AND TURN RIGHT UNTIL YOU GET TO THE JOKKMOKK.  DUCK BEHIND THE BJURSTAS AND THERE YOU WILL FIND A SECRET ELEVATOR.  NOW GO AND TELL NO ONE I SPOKE TO YOU.  We did as he said and found our cheescake and coffee which gave us the energy for the remainder of the journey to the checkout counter and back to the west side of Beijing. By the time we staggered out of the store we were beating back our own thoughts of burning and pillaging.

Who knew that the socialist Swedes and the socialist Chinese could conspire to produce such a grand spectacle of capitalist frenzy!  Sven, Ollie, and The Great Helmsman–together at last!