Get comfy – this anecdote is five hours long.
One day in September we were sent a package from the U.S. It was packaged with care and sent to us at our correct Beijing address … International Priority, no less. One week after it was originally sent I checked the tracking number on the USPS website. All was well, the package was in China! However, four weeks later, I still had no package.
After waiting enough time for my package to get married and have babies, I finally got a US Customs slip delivered to me along with our monthly National Geographic (it was the only other mail we ever received in China). The slip was covered with official looking Chinese Post and customs stamps, all mixed up together so any one was impossible to read. Didn’t matter to me, it was all in Chinese characters anyway. My husband’s boss instructed me to go to the local special post office to pick it up. (Just so you know, foreigners have to go to a special designated area post office to receive international packages; after they show their passport, they can take the package home. Not all post offices in China receive international packages).
The morning was full of hope and promise as I trekked to the post office. An hour later, I waited in the dark in line at the post office. I don’t know why, but no lights were on that day. I know the electricity wasn’t out because the workers were using computers, but the dark only added to the existing atmosphere of doom as I clutched my customs slip expectantly. I made the same mistake again. I always did this! I was too optimistic.
This is how my conversation with the Post Office Lady went after I handed her my customs slip and passport. I couldn’t understand most of what she said, but I have translated it for you below:
Post Office Lady: Blah, Blah, Blah. Blah, your, Blah, blah, not here, blah, package, Blah.
Me: Oh. Why?
Post Office Lady (speaking loud and slow): Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, not here, blah blah.
(Then she pointed to one of the red stamps)
Me: Ok, what do I do now?
Post Office Lady: You go to Blah.
So, I left the Post Office feeling defeated and even more inept. It had not been a good Chinese speaking week for me anyway. Remember in Charlie Brown cartoons how the Teacher always sounded like a muffled and droning megaphone? Even now, when I hear Chinese being spoken that I don’t understand, my brain switches off and that’s what I hear instead.
Instead of going directly home where a return would be an acceptance of defeat, I asked my husband’s boss what the lady had said to me. Since I didn’t really know for sure, I just told him she had pointed to a certain red stamp a lot.
There were few occasions when I wanted to choke my husband’s boss … this was one of those times. For being such a nice and westernized guy, things sometimes went through one ear and out the other or over his head. After he looked at the red stamp for a minute, he says, “You need to go to the Customs Office of Beijing.” Then he realized he had told me to go to the wrong post office in the first place. He apologized profusely and gave me the address of the Customs Office.
After two and a half hours wasted already that morning, I decided to press on. I didn’t know where this fabled Customs office was, but I’d find it. It turned out the general area where I needed to go was south of where we lived, as was everything anyway. So I got to the nearest subway station, took a 45 minute ride, exited and started to ask for directions at the surface. The first couple of people I asked didn’t know and one lady sent me off in the wrong direction. Mercifully, I eventually got correct directions and found myself in front of a hideous, behemoth of concrete. I think Chinese government buildings are built to inspire awe and intimidate the lowly peons. I just think they’re ugly … too ugly to intimidate.
The two guards at the front of the building directed me to go to a side office where I was required to state my business and get a ticket to enter. After getting my ticket for the building I was directed to go up to the fourth floor, deep into the bowels of the Customs Services. The farther I went, the more I felt like I didn’t belong. It didn’t seem like the place to go to pick up a package. In fact, it looked a lot like my old work, long hallways with doors that open into rooms full of cubicles.
I pressed on …
I found a woman who seemed friendly enough. I approached her, handed over all my papers (which had grown to quite a little pile), and told her “I’m here for my package” (Blank look). Then she called another guy over and they talked in Chinese for awhile as they looked back at me every few seconds.
The man asked for my passport and visa and said in pretty good English, “Why did you get sent here? Do you know where you are? This isn’t the Post office. This is a government building. How did you even get in here? What’s in your package?”
I was apparently no threat and had a receipt for being inside, so he proceeded to write down for me where I was really supposed to go. Guess where? To the giant main international post office for Beijing in a place I was really familiar with.
If this had happened to me when I first arrived in China, I may have acted like one of those angry foreigners I would see sometimes having a melt-down and screaming in their native tongue how much they hated China … all with local Chinese people looking on wondering how these crazy people get admitted into their country. Lacking energy, I was past that and ready to go home and start cooking dinner. Besides, I still had to beat rush hour commuters and wasn’t in the mood to fight for a seat with breathing room on the crowded subway. I had done my time for the day.
So, in the end, five long hours later, I got my package and determined it wasn’t worth going through the hassle of receiving packages from back home. Now, when I get irked waiting in a long line at the store or hear people complain about going to the DMV, I remember the hassles in China and relax as a woman of patience.
See Myra’s personal blog: The Interactive Expat