Flip that switch and what do you get?

Remember “Schoolhouse Rock”?  …When you’re in the dark and you want to see, You need uh… Electricity, Electricity.  Flip that switch and what do you get?  You get uh… Electricity, Electricity… and so on.  Well, for the first year and more in our apartment, we felt at risk of flipping that switch and not getting a darn thing.

We moved in last summer, May 2010.  At that time, the agent told us about the electricity in the building.  We were given a small metal card, the size of a credit card, but thicker.  Here’s how it worked.  You take the card to the Riverside (neighborhood) office to add money to your account.  This process took two computers, one of which had to be a Commodore from 1992.  There was also a card-charging contraption, but it might have been the floppy drive.  Once it is charged, you take the card back to your building and get a key from the security guard.  This key opens a dark closet on your floor.  You find the light switch, hopefully, and you see four meters on the wall, one for each apartment.  Thankfully, someone has written A, B, C and D next to them so you don’t charge your neighbor’s machine by mistake.  You put your card in the right meter, watch the digital numbers whirl, then take the card out.  Lock the closet, take the key back to the security guard, then go on about your day.

You might wonder how you know when you have to pay your bill.  I did, and I never got a solid answer, short of borrowing that key from the security guard periodically and taking a look.  But one day, a couple weeks after we moved in, about 10:00 in the morning, the electricity went out in our apartment.  That was my answer.  I took my card and began this little electricity adventure.  I asked the office clerk how much I should add.  She said she didn’t know because it depends on how much electricity you use.  Really?  I gave her 200RMB, about $30.  Three weeks later, the electricity went out again.  This time, I gave 300RMB and marked my calendar for the following month.

Over the next few weeks, I noticed workmen in that little dark closet a couple of times, but I didn’t think anything of it.  Ha!  The following month, July, before the air conditioner crippled to a halt, I was off to pay the electric bill in a timely manner.  Except that the office clerk told me there was no more need for this card.  She was able to squeak out “no card” in English. I stuttered “why” in Chinese.  The explanation that followed was lost on me though, so I went home and emailed our agent.  It seems the electric company (State Grid) had changed the system and we would receive a bill from that point on.  Okay.  Sounds good, right?

Two months later, September, we don’t have a bill.  I sent another email.  “Don’t worry.  They will send a bill when it is ready.”  Okay.

Two months later, November, no bill.  This time, I was told that the State Grid was building a database of customers and it would take some time.  “Don’t worry. They will send a bill when it is ready.”  Okay.

Seven months later, June, one year since I had last paid for electricity, still no bill.  I was told the same thing about the database and blah blah blah.  I guess one person was entering all the data for 7.5 million people in the city.

Then one day in September, yes September 2011, I came home to find a strip of paper from a dot matrix printer taped to our door.  It was one line of writing, mostly Chinese characters and a few numbers.  The other three apartments on our floor had their own paper.  Could this be?  A mere 15 months later… an electric bill!  So how much do you think it was?  I’ll save the drama.  It was about $650.  Not too bad for 1.5 summers of air conditioning, plus lights, washing machine, dishwasher, etc.  The other three apartments on our floor – about $300 each.  Oh, and there was also a sign in the elevator telling us that we had to pay it in 5 days.

I went to the office to ask about paying with my debit card, but was told I needed to pay in cash.  “I must go to the bank and come back,” I explained in Chinese.  The office clerk said “okay” and the other man in line made some comment about foreigners speaking Chinese… whatever.  The next day, I went to the bank to withdraw 5000RMB ($750).  The bank machines are kind of funny in China.  You can withdraw up to 20,000RMB per day, but you have to do it 2,500 at a time.  Okay.  Then I’m walking down the street with 5000RMB in my purse, and I see a man who has decided, on this day, to expose his penis and pubic hair to the world.  Awesome.  No, I did not take a picture.

The next day, my brain still a little singed from the crazy man on the street, Tim and I stopped at the office on our way out of the neighborhood.  I pulled out the bill and the 4500RMB.  Two days before, when I said that I’d be back, maybe she didn’t understand that after all.  You don’t pay this massive electric bill at the neighborhood office.  You have to go to the State Grid office.  We had no clue where to go.  I asked her to write down the address so we could give it to the taxi driver.  She was kind enough to do this and handed us a piece of paper full of Chinese characters.  We walked to the street to get a taxi, still no idea where we were going.  Fifteen minutes later, we pull up at one of the 20 State Grid buildings in this city.  Walking in, I’m pretty sure the older woman in front of us had a jaw dropping experience seeing foreigners in that place.  The clerk couldn’t really get over it either.  But anyway, bill paid, receipt given, air conditioner still on.

And another magical story about life in Shenyang.

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I started this blog in 2010 as we prepared to move to Shenyang China. Since coming back to the US in 2015, my writing has been less consistent. Trying to find a voice here...

One thought on “Flip that switch and what do you get?”

  1. So glad you shared this story and accompanying pictures! It’s even better with the visual supports! 🙂

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