As anyone who’s lived in China can attest, getting things done can often be difficult — certainly more difficult than WE think it should be. But getting things done can also be difficult for Chinese people; they even have special term: tuotuo lala (拖拖拉拉), which is literally translated as “push push pull pull.”
I had a tuotuo lala experience in Minnesota last week. My computer suddenly decided that it no longer wanted to communicate with my wireless network at home — no way no how was it going to connect. It took four long phone conversations with perky (yet mildly annoying) customer service reps at Comcast and Apple to solve the problem.
Somehow, at the end of the day, I managed to get through to a technician at Comcast who said “Oh, I know the problem. That’s easy to fix.” He pushed some buttons and said something about “channel 11″ and I was back in business.”
“Why couldn’t someone have put me through to you or someone in your department right from the get-go?” I whined.
“Yeah, that would have been a good idea,” he chuckled!
It reminded me of one of my all-time favorite tuotuo lala experiences in China — getting cable TV hooked up in my apartment in Changchun in 1998. Shortly before Thanksgiving (1997) I decided that I needed to get cable TV. Although I didn’t watch much TV, I was getting tired of not being able to receive China’s main TV station. You know the one I’m talking about — the one that has the nightly weather report and the weather map with flying clouds and smiling suns and sappy music. Cable TV will give me that station and, of course, much more!
Besides, my Chinese level was such that I could actually understand some things, and there were many shows I could tape to use in my language learning.
So, in the name of language development Catherine (my friend and tutor) and I set off to get me some cable TV!
We arrived at the downtown office of the Changchun Cable TV Company just as it was closing for the afternoon — at 2:45PM! We begged and pleaded with them to let us be the last ones to register for the day, but they could not be swayed. Come back tomorrow was the answer.
After some serious sucking of teeth and explaining that we had no time to come all the way back downtown tomorrow, they finally relinquished the information that, instead of registering there, we could go to a certain post office near my place and register.
we set out the next day and found the post office right away. Amazingly, it turned out to be a fairly easy process — fill out some forms, pay the money, and wait for the cable guys to show up. We asked when that might be and they assured me it would be sometime in December.
By January 6, there was still no sign of the cable guys. I was scheduled to leave town the following week, so was anxious that this be taken care of before I departed.
When Catherine came over that day, we decided to make it our mission to find out what was going on and when I might expect to see the cable guys.
We tried calling, but to no avail. We suspected that answering phones on Wednesday afternoons had been banned.
Not having any luck with the phone, we decided to go back to the post office where we had paid. When we got there, they of course said their only part in the whole process was collecting the money. We had to go directly to the installation office.
And where, pray tell is that?
At the Old Cadre’s Activity Center!
Off we go again!
Unfortunately, when we got there, we found out that we were at the wrong Old Cadre’s Activity Center. This was the Jilin Province Old Cadres Activity Center; we needed to be at the Changchun City Old Cadres Activity Center.
And where, pray tell, might that be?
They didn’t know.
“Go to the Jilin Province TV Station down the road. They will be able to help you.”
Off we go again!
The folks at the Jilin Province TV station were quite annoyed with us because they said we needed to be at the Changchun City TV Station. Fortunately, this time they could tell us where the place was.
Off we went again!
Sure enough, right there on the grounds of the Changchun City Old Cadre’s Activity Center was the cable TV office. Go figure.
Once in the building, we had to do a bit of hunting to find the right office, but in the end, we were successful. It was one of those typical Chinese government offices–a thick blue haze hanging in the air over 4 totally empty desks around which stood 6 people doing absolutely nothing more than contributing to the blue haze.
The woman sitting at the desk glared at us as if we had a sign over our heads that declared, “We are here to annoy you,” and sort of hissed at us.
For some reason I decided to hang back and not reveal the fact that I was a human foreigner, which is to say a foreigner who speaks Chinese. That piece of information is often best held as a trump card to be played when absolutely needed.
Catherine explained the situation; that I had paid, waited, was leaving soon, and wanted to know when my cable would be hooked up.
More scowling, more hissing; then the evil woman passed the papers to another smoker on the other side of the desk. Lots of chatter, nothing said. Finally the guy told Catherine to tell the foreigner that they’d come tomorrow.
It was time to make my move.
“But I won’t be home tomorrow afternoon.”
I watched as the words floated out and joined the blue smoke hanging in the air.
That got everyone’s attention. Whoah!! This barbarian can talk!!! A few scowls turned to smiles.
“Why not come on Friday afternoon,” I said, “I promise I’ll be home on Friday afternoon.”
“Well, you’ll have to call me tomorrow, then,” he said.
“But we called all afternoon and couldn’t get through. That’s why we’re here! Besides, if you’re going to come Friday afternoon, why in the world do I need to call you tomorrow?” I queried.
“Because I might forget to come!”
“WELL DON’T FORGET TO COME; JUST DO IT,” I replied, quite sternly.
By this time all the smokers in the room were up in arms at the talking barbarian with the (sort of) blonde hair. They are loving every minute of it. Meanwhile, Catherine had faded into the background to watch the carnage!
After some more dickering about whether or not this guy was going to remember to come or not, I finally just blurted out, “I paid 400 kuai 6 weeks ago, and what do I have to show for it?”
And with that, the Barbarian showed her true colors. Not content to handle this in the usual indirect Chinese way (it was getting us nowhere), she went in for the kill and brought up MONEY!!!
Fortunately, that managed to put their faces on the line just enough to make them decide they needed to take care of me today.
So before we could say “how many channels will I have?”, Catherine and I found ourselves in the back of a blue exhaust-spitting three-wheeler careening down the ice-covered streets of Changchun, something that was even a first for Catherine! (Hey, you hang with foreigners long enough and you experience strange things!)
30 minutes later, I had a brand new hole in my house (they drilled through 2 feet of brick), and access to 20 new channels!
In all, we had made 3 trips to 5 different locations on 3 different days to find these guys and get the thing installed!
toutu lala. Push push, pull pull.