Today started out in a less than elegant manner. The last words I spoke to my driver as I stepped out of the car on Saturday afternoon were “Xingqiyi qi dian ban” or “Monday, 7:30 AM. “ So you can imagine my surprise when I went downstairs at 7:45 and he wasn’t there. This made twice in a row, Friday he was late because he stopped to buy gas apparently figuring gas buying time would be taken out of my commute instead of his. At 8:00 I sent him a text message which immediately bounced back – my phone was dead again. So I stood and waited until he showed up at 8:10 upon which my query as to his lateness was met with a “Sorry.” Yea, I bet he was. It’s an interesting thing having a chauffeur, you might think it’s liberating when in fact it’s incredibly restrictive. And I don’t like it a bit.

I arrived at work and put one of my local fellows to work figuring out what kind of cell phone plan I had that turned itself off at the start of every month. When I bought this phone back in November, I thought I understood what James my previous driver had gotten me into. I thought as long as there was a balance, I would be fine. And I started to check the balance religiously when the phone was dead upon my return in January. As of last Friday, I had 121 Yuan in my account so I was quite surprised when the phone was once again useless. After much yelling in Chinese my compatriot returned with the answer – I was on the 128 Yuan plan which meant I must keep a balance of at least that amount in order for the phone to continue to work. In other words my phone had been turned off for about $1.

We messed around for another hour or so trying to set up my local ATM card for internet purchasing which would in turn allow me to buy more time on the phone. That effort came to naught and so I was stuck with having to plan another trip to the China Mobile store to buy more time. Last time went so well I could only imagine how wonderful it would be this time around.

Having had a major communications failure that required being saved by an English speaking stranger back in January, I resolved to walk in this time with the proper question. I knew that waving my phone would help; I also knew that I needed to write my phone number down on a piece of paper. I put my phone in an easy access pocket access and I stuffed a note in with it and then asked around as to what the proper question would be. I had learned “Wo yao qin qian”, “I want to deposit money”, but none of the native speakers liked that approach. We finally closed on “Wo yao zhong zhi”, “I want to add value.”

I was dropped off at my hotel at 5:00, went upstairs collected some money and went back out to storm the China Mobile store, arriving about 5:15.

This time I knew the routine, I marched straight in past all the blue clad saleswomen who were staring at me gape-mouthed and went up to a young woman at the back counter. I waved my phone, pointed at my piece of paper and recited my lines. What I wasn’t prepared for was the response – some rapid fire Chinese followed by her return to whatever she was doing when I walked in. I tried again – no answer. By now, all of the saleswomen were staring at me and I was completely flummoxed. Looking around I saw a guy down the counter smiling so I took that as a sign of helpfulness and went there. More Chinese and I wasn’t getting it so he picked up a desk sign and pointed to the English in tiny letters on the reverse side, “Business is Suspended.” They were closed, even though they were open. I pretended to be hurt and then desperate and nothing helped. He just kept smiling and saying the same thing over and over. The best I could muster was to confirm that they closed at 5 PM and he responded with “yes.” Several women were now giggling uncontrollably behind the counters, I assume at me, and so I turned around and marched straight through the gantlet of laughter and right out the door.

I’d really had it this time. I stood out on the street corner for a solid 10 minutes trying to figure out what to do completely at a loss as to why this was so hard. I was beginning to understand why all my expat pals just send their driver off, but I refuse to give in to that solution. If I’m going to live here, I’m going to figure out how to do it. Of course, I could just come back tomorrow before 5, but I was tired of this place and my complete inability to do something that should be simple. Finally I decided to take another approach – I’d walk over to the An Sheng Mall and try my luck at their cell phone store.

The place was really busy but I managed to find a salesclerk who told me to forget it. This was a surprise because I had been told that you can purchase these little scratcher tickets in specific amounts to reload your phone and in fact, this was how I loaded it up the first time around. But not this time. She did indicate that I should go to the 3rd floor, so I figured “why not” and went out to the escalator trying to understand if the 3rd floor was really the 2nd floor as it is in countries where the 1st floor is really the ground floor.

I got off on the real 3rd floor and wandered about through women’s shoes and household appliances until I spotted a telltale blue China Mobile counter just past the sandals. I went over to a young woman near a computer (indicating some sort of money collection and data entry) and gave her my speech. She looked confused for a moment and then smiled and pointed to a young man down the counter. I went there and did it again and success – I’d solved the Riddle of the Phone. He got it, looked me up, pronounced my name, smiled, collected my 300 Yuan and printed me a receipt. I was on my way. Riding down the escalator I sent a message to check my balance and off it went into the ether.

I suppose that all of this goes to show that if you take your time, retain your wits and say the same thing over and over, eventually you will meet with success. But I think that’s only occasionally true – I think if you do all those things you might meet with success some small percentage of the time. I think it’s actually the luck of the draw; sometimes your persistence if going to pay off and the rest of the time you need to get your driver to do it.