Sometimes living in a foreign culture puts you in touch with the less pleasant parts of your personality especially when your patience gets tested and even more so when you are not a very patient person to begin with.
When we returned to China after our little Christmas break in Europe, things just weren’t the same. With my appetite gone and my previous enthusiasm for learning Chinese evaporated into thin air, they all started turning against me… or so it seemed.
I’m not sure exactly when it started (with the boiler breaking once again, with spending an hour doing paperwork at the bank, or maybe with not being able to have a normal conversation at the doctor’s office due to construction work next door) but I’m pretty sure it reached its peak with the attempted return of the coffee machine we purchased. After two weeks of being sick and indoors it was nice to be out again and even nicer to finally buy a new espresso machine having blown the transformer we brought from our stint in the US (try getting your head around input and output…). The machine we purchased was not terrible but for some reason (bad design, functionality and mediocre tasting coffee thus paying more than it turned out to be worth) I decided to return it.
On Sunday I went back to the fancy department store where we purchased it the day before. It came in a big box which was quite awkward to carry, so I didn’t really want to drag it on the metro. While I waited for a taxi on the main road, there was a lady sweeping water into the drain. She kept looking at me and after a while stopped in front of me looking at the box. She didn’t say anything but started rubbing her fingers together suggesting what was in the box must have been expensive. I got saved by a taxi pulling up however as soon as I explained to the driver where I was going he told me he could not take me there. His apologies did not help me understand the reason for his refusal. I succumbed to taking the box on the metro and then carried it two blocks down a half-broken up busy city centre street (potential reason for the taxi driver…).
After walking the length and breadth of the badly designed department store, I arrived at the fifth floor household section with my box. The lady who sold us the machine was still there and looked at me bewildered. As she did not have any English, I tried to explain with my limited Chinese that I was not happy with the machine and wanted to return it. That’s where the fun started. She first took the machine out of the box and started cleaning it. This took about ten minutes. After that she ran off twice for about ten minutes without explanation other than the standard ‘deng yidian’ meaning wait a little. When she returned she put everything back in the box and told me to follow her which I did. The trip took us through the restaurant, the mens clothes department and up one floor to arrive at what seemed like the returns desk as a lot of people were returning stuff.
The sales girl started talking to one of the girls behind the desk who then asked me in broken English what was wrong with the machine. I tried to explain that the machine worked but that I simply was not happy with it and wanted to return it. Desk girl then explained this to sales girl (I think) but she seemed to be having none of it and stormed off again leaving the machine behind. When I asked desk girl where she was going I was told she went to get coffee. In my mind I ran through a few sarcastic things to say but then decided they would be lost on the poor girl. I was also getting impatient as I knew sales girl would have to walk down one floor, through the mens department and the restaurant, get the coffee and make the return journey. That would be another ten minutes at a minimum. In the meantime I tried to explain to desk girl that there was no need to make coffee as I was not claiming that the machine did not work. I had simply changed my mind. I continued explaining this until sales girl came back and all the way through her finding a socket to plug in the machine, finding water, and making the actual coffee.
After proving that the machine worked sales girl disappeared again and now desk girl did not know where she had gone. Eventually sales girl returned once again and started talking to desk girl who in the end told me you cannot return electrical appliances unless they fail to work. I had gathered that much at that stage and as I had been in the store for over an hour I was done arguing. Their stubbornness had outlasted mine (imagine). So after I told them to just put it back in the box, sales girl of course cleaning it first, I went back the way I came except more angry.
As I walked into the metro I dropped my scarf. Someone picked it up for me and put it on top of the box I was holding in front of me. I did manage a thank you and registered in my head that this must be a nice person but it was to no avail. I was just done with China.
Then this week I was finally able to return to class and still a little angry I started my last beginner module. The anger melted away as my lovely teacher presented me with a present and a very kind handwritten card to welcome me back and wish me a happy year of the snake. The present was a character writing book with a little exercise book on which she had written my name. Back to learning characters, I was very pleased. Anger gone. Back to being happy in China. The coffee machine however still lives in its box.3