One of the biggest annoyances in the life of an expatriate is the difficulty to do something that should be simple. Buying a certain product in the market sometimes it is an impossible mission. Finding a service or place is like trying to find the city of Babylon. Clarifying a simple question or understanding an orientation in a public place is like being in the Tower of Babel when the confusion of languages happened.
I’ve lived in the same apartment for five years, it’s a large complex of buildings over 18 blocks in the city center. It is so large that it has three convenience stores, a hairdresser, a restaurant, a kindergarten, a tennis court, two badminton courts, and a swimming pool. The community has a team of employees for cleaning maintenance, handymen, landscaping, entrances, and parking, it has a water delivery service (those 20-liter gallons) just for the community among other services that I probably don’t know about. It’s well organized and clean.
As for expenses related to the house, the electricity is measured individually for each apartment, the bill does not arrive at your house, it is all online. You can leave an amount deposited and deducted throughout the year or pay at the beginning of the month, but the water is paid for by the community. Each apartment has a water meter that we report to the management and we pay them. My apartment has two water meters (don’t ask me why). As I said at the beginning, there is information that should be easy to clarify, but this is not the case here. Right after the first Chinese New Year living here, when I went to pay the condo as I do every month, I was asked about the water bill. Of course, the conversation was much more complex and was mediated by the cell phone translator. The conclusion was that I should take a picture of the meter and bring it to them the following month when I would go to pay the next condo fee.
A month went by and when I went to take the picture I noticed that on one of the watches it was impossible to read the numbers. It was blurry and like it was rusty, even though there was no metal in that area. I took the photo for them to see because I didn’t know what to do. In Brazil, I remember my mother saying that you couldn’t touch the meter because the water company might say you were changing the numbers and benefiting from it.
The only answer the attendant gave me was: “I can’t read the numbers”. It seemed a little obvious, but I suggested that someone should to my house to check. She said she would ask someone to check it out in person, or at least that’s what I understood.
Another month passed, and it was time to pay the maintenance again and no one had shown up at my house. Once again she inquired about the numbers to charge for the water and I showed her the picture and repeated that someone had to come to my house. Another month and no one showed up, but they also stopped asking anything on my next visits either.
I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. As I said, what should have been a simple question has become a mystery. I was just content to keep the money because I knew that at some point the bill would come.
Three years passed and I had even forgotten that people pay for their water consumption when someone knocked on my door. Finally, someone had come to check the meters. The guy wrote down the numbers on the first watch without any problems, on the second one he said he couldn’t see well, but in China, there is a culture of not solving problems and avoiding them as much as possible. He deciphered some numbers, repeated them aloud to see if I agreed, and I contented myself with saying “好!” (Okay!).
The following month, when I went to pay the condo I knew that the long-awaited bill would be waiting for me. I won’t say that I was looking forward to that moment, but I felt happy to resolve, even if temporarily, the situation. Between 2018 and 2021 my water bill was 1,803.00RMB (today $268,79), considering that it was 36 months I thought I was pretty cheap.
After that, they came back to my apartment at the end of the year, and the same scene was repeated, they couldn’t see the number, content themselves with guessing one, and left feeling satisfied. Seven months later I paid 342.00RMB ($50.99). It felt like everything was back to normal and that I wouldn’t have to save money for yet another astronomical account.
This year, when they came, the same situation, but when I went to pay for the water, the amount was very high, more than 800.00RMB ($119,26 for a period of only 4 months. Neither I nor the attendant were satisfied, she said she would send someone to check it again.
That same week someone else came, took pictures, said he couldn’t see and would call someone else. Two weeks until someone else came, this one looked and said the meter was broken but he didn’t know if it was my responsibility or the condo’s responsibility to buy a new one and that he would get back with the answer later, but he didn’t.
When I went to pay for the condo the attendant asked if I had bought the water meter and I replied saying that I didn’t know I had to buy one. It’s important to keep in mind that all interactions were in Chinese, so it’s impossible to be sure if I understood correctly. I believe it was my lucky day, almost everyone who came to my house to see the water meter was there at that time and they were super helpful in trying to explain that I should buy a new water meter and that there was a place where I could buy it not far away from here.
Of course, it should be easy, walk into the store, show probably a picture of what I wanted, pay, and leave. However, if you’ve ever been to a store that sells building supplies, and I’m not talking about Home Depot, you know how hard it is to find anything without help. The place they told me is actually a complex with several stores, which sell different house products and I had no idea which store I would find what I needed.
It was suggested that one of them should buy it, I had no idea how much it would cost and as much as I tried to use my translator I couldn’t make them understand that I just wanted to know the average price before letting them buy it. In the end, I went with the handyman to buy the water meter. The place was really close, but even he wasn’t sure which store he had to go to, but after a phone call, he seemed sure where we would find the product.
At the store, I barely had to say anything, the only question I had to answer was how long I had been in China and the payment method. I got my receipt, we went back to the condo, the person who went with me went to get the tools he needed, and he came with me to my apartment to change the meter.
The service must have taken 20 minutes, he changed what it needed, charged 30RMB for the service, and took the water meter saying he would take it to the management to verify the numbers, even though someone else had said the meter had completely stopped working.
The best part of this is not the fact that it took more than three years to change a meter that was clearly broken and could have been fixed in 20 minutes. Or the fact that I still don’t know how much my water bill will be for the last five months because I’m not going back there until the beginning of next month and the condo knows it. Not even the fact that during the three years that I didn’t pay the water bill, nobody said anything, there were no complaints, and they didn’t threaten to stop the water service. For me, the best part of the story is that if I were living in a country where I understood the language or if China didn’t have the culture of putting off as long as possible to solve a simple situation, I wouldn’t have this unusual story to share.