A few weeks ago I got a message from my global network of reconnaissance teams and provocateurs that loosely translated into, Be on the lookout for a package! When it arrived at my doorstep, it came in a nondescript, thick, shopworn bag. Inside was a telephone. A Chinese telephone. A telephone to ensure that when I arrived in Shanghai, China, that I would hit the ground running.
As soon as the phone connected it lit up like a Christmas tree. After 19 hours of down-time on the airplane, I was back to being a wheelin’, dealin’, limousine ridin’, jet flyin’, kiss stealin’, intercontinental businessman extraordinaire again.
Before my driver could even pull away from the airport I was making a call, when just before it rang on the other end I heard “BING! Your account balance is low, please recharge your phone.” After living in a few other cities I was familiar with the concept of having to add minutes of talk time to my phone as opposed to purchasing a phone plan with a major company. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten how things worked on this side of the planet.
With the few credits left on the phone, I called a friend who has lived in Shanghai for a few years to ask where was the nearest retail phone store where I could buy minutes and he said Just go out, turn left for two blocks, and then turn right. It’ll be on your right hand side. No problem.
After following his directions and not finding the retail store, I decided to follow the same directions in every direction in case my inner-compass was off. I went in all four directions, North, South, East, and West. Still no phone shop. On my last trip around the block I did find a phone retailer, unfortunately it was not for the same kind of phone I had. In fact, it was owned and operated by their direct competitors. I didn’t know that as I walked in and smiled as the salesman walked over to help me. He spoke excellent English and knew what I needed. Then he took my phone to read the number I needed to add money to and his face just changed. I don’t often fart in polite company, but when I do, they make the same face he just did. He informed me that he couldn’t help me unless I wanted to switch companies. His once lively, cheerful eyes had turned to pitch-black coals that were bereft of all compassion.
I smiled, bowed, and backed out slowly.
By this time, I was living the difference between being lost, and not knowing where I was. I had no idea where I was, but I knew where I lived, so I could always get back home once my mission was complete. There was no way I was going to invest all that time in walking around my neighborhood and come back empty handed.
A few blocks later I saw another phone shop, not wanting to relive the experience I’d just had with charcoal-eyes-of-hatred a few minutes ago, I just walked in, smiled, and politely asked for directions to the phone shop I needed. They were more than happy to help. The manager even took out his phone and looked up how far it was from where we were. He said Go right, keep straight for 700 Meters, then turn left for one block.
Back home in the U.S. of A., we don’t study the metric system. 700 Meters could equal a short trip from his door to the shop across the street, or it could be the equivalent to the morning warm-up run that an African, long distance running, Olympic Gold Medalist does before breakfast! In hindsight, a quick conversion table online let me know that 700 meters = 0.434959835 miles. I got lucky. His directions were perfect.
I saw the sign for the phone retailer I needed, I walked in and stood in line. While I was waiting, the phone next to me rings, it didn’t just ring an ordinary ring tone either. It rang “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town!”. Anybody that knows me knows I like Christmas day, but I hate Christmas time! Especially the same, repetitive, crappy Christmas music! I knew that I had to stifle my dry heaving long enough for her to answer her phone, but I didn’t realize that she liked the song so much that she decided not to pick it up so that the song could play all the way through! Whoever called her had to call back a second time for her to answer. Just thinking about Christmas carols makes me nauseous.
While Madame-Crappy-Christmas-Tunes walked up to the customer service center, I decided to take a seat. There was a shiny, red, 1970’s chic chair next to the counter, it looked like a great place to sit down and wait. So I sat down, and heard a faint…crack. I knew that the chair must have been a trap, a trap for foreigners like me who were foolish enough to think that we could sit anywhere we chose without repercussion. A trap that I fell for. I stepped into it like a weary bear searching for a den, only to be ensnared by a cruel poacher.
I decided to roll the dice and stand up as fast as I could. Just when I’d gathered my wits, two disturbingly cheerful women with nametags came over and in perfect unison said HelloHowAreYouTodayCanIHelpYou!? I can’t tell which was more disturbing, their ability to not take a single breath between words or that they were able to deliver their opening in perfect unison. I decided to stay in the chair, smile, tell them what I needed and when the business was done, just tell them I was going to make a few calls before I got up to leave. That way if things didn’t go well for me when I got off of the chair, I could escape without an audience watching me have to pull myself up off of the hard cold floor.
“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men…”
The first step of the plan worked like a charm, I smiled. Then everything went off the rails. Apparently, smiling causes my molecules to shift on a microscopic level. When they shifted, my center of mass changed just enough to ensure that I added enough weight to the chair to turn the faint whisper of a crack that I heard earlier into a roar to rival the sound of the mighty Niagara Falls! As the chair lost its structural integrity and began to collapse like a damaged NASA space shuttle re-entering the earth’s atmosphere on a bad trajectory, I managed to stand up. The chair disintegrated into splintered shards of red glass. Not just in the chair either, a chunk of plastic hit the ground and rattled like a snake warning men not to take a single step closer.
The two women who came to help had lost all composure. One was doubled over with cramps she was laughing so hard. The other was reeling back on her heels laughing so hard that she had snot bubble coming out of her nose! To make matters worse, the security guard came over to me with a serious look on his face, indicating with his hands that I would have to pay for the chair. Then he broke down and started howling with laughter. I was laughing too. Laughter is a contagion, and everyone around the store was having a good chuckle as it spread, including me.
Finally, after the disfigured chair was removed and the bits that had fallen had been swept away I was asked to explain what I needed. They all looked at me with a nervous, slightly aggravated look. Then one piped up to inform me that what I needed wasn’t in their department, and that I needed to go upstairs to get what I wanted done.
I smiled, thanked them, and began the journey upstairs to the land of wailing and gnashing of teeth.
I’ll tell you more about that another time.