Friday, December 05, 2014

Chinese Cell Phones

After the bank, we took our clown car to the cell phone store.

There are two major cell phone providers here, China Mobile and China Unicom. Our kids were hoping we'd end up with China Unicom because, if you erase just a tiny bit of the letter M, it reads China Unicorn. (Okay, I was hoping.)

The good news: we ended up with China Unicorn. The bad news: everything else.

My wife's phone had stopped working just before we left America, so we knew she needed a new one, but we had hoped I would just need a new SIM card for my phone. But my phone doesn't work like that, because that would be allowing the customer to retain some consumer surplus. So we both needed new phones, a rather large expense to cover with just the money we had on hand until my first paycheck. My colleague said he'd been instructed to strongly recommend we limit ourselves to Apple, Samsung, and HTC. Translation: you Westerners are going to be thoroughly unimpressed with the quality of Chinese cell phones. Then they showed us the top-of-the-line phones which we couldn't afford.

Meanwhile, Leenoose, who couldn't open a bank account because he hadn't been told to bring sufficient cash for the minimum initial deposit, was being told that he couldn't just buy a Chinese SIM card for his iPhone, he'd have to buy a new iPhone. And he wouldn't be able to call Germany. He went outside to smoke until we were done.

Which was hours later.

Finally, they showed us the mid-range phones. We picked a model of Samsung phone. They didn't have it. But they didn't take the floor model off display. So we picked an HTC phone. Then they wanted us to pick our phone numbers from a list of available numbers. We said we didn't care, which seemed impossible to them. Finally, the clerk picked for us, giving us two numbers that are heavy on 4s, since 4 is an unlucky number here, so she had extra ones to give to people who weren't hung up on that.

So, so much paperwork later, we left with two cell phones with incredibly-limited plans. We cannot call internationally, we have 46 minutes of talk each month, and we have 240 text messages. Also, we have almost no mobile data before overages apply.

Evidently billing is not really a thing here. We signed a two-year contract, but we also had to pre-pay for a period of time. If we had paid for all two years at once, we would have received a discount, but since we didn't have cash for that, we paid for six months.

Immediately, we began receiving Chinese texts and phone calls we couldn't understand. We asked the Chinese colleague whose job it is to help with these things, but that was before we had learned that he wasn't actually going to help with these things. We were concerned that, with our severely-limited plan, these calls and texts were a real hardship. Finally, I got him to help remove me from the calling list. He took my phone, called a number, talked for a while, and then asked me for my passport number.

What? You need my passport number to not receive spam texts? After doing this once, he handed my phone back to me like he was done, even though the screen clearly showed several others that needed attention.

As best we could tell from the texts, my wife was close to going over her data limit towards the end of our first month here. I mentioned this to the woman who sits next to me at work, and she said she actually had gone over that month, and her phone had been turned off, even though she, like us, had given China Unicorn a giant pile of money. Evidently they do not apply your account credit to your account debit.

My work changed their wi-fi system, which made it so my phone says it's on the wi-fi network except that it's not. I became aware of this when my phone got turned off. We asked the Chinese colleague who's supposed to help us if he could translate the text messages for us. He said, "Call the phone company." At what number? And how would we speak to them? Finally, my colleague ended his reply e-mail with, "Let me know if I can help."

I went to see him. I said, "You say to let you know if you can help, be we did let you know exactly how you could help and you wouldn't do it." He said, "You still don't know what the texts say?" He told me quite condescendingly to call the text address (even though all other phone numbers here are 11 digits and the text address is five digits) and they have a menu option for speaking English (which we were supposed to assume, I guess, even though it's uncommon, and it's the mark of an "ugly American" to expect foreigners to speak English).

The woman on the phone told me to go to a newsstand and buy a pre-paid phone card, then call a different five-digit number, pick a different menu option for English, and enter the code to have the money applied to my past-due balance. But at the newsstand, they had a fancy-schmancy machine that just applied the money directly to my account. I got a text right then confirming that the money had been applied.

Unrelated follow-up: I saw Leenoose the other day, and he introduced himself to someone as Linus. But I still don't know if he ever got a bank account or a cell phone plan.

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