How many Chinese people does it take to change a light bulb? Change a lock? Pay a cable bill?

This is not the first line of a joke. Or maybe the joke is on me. But the answer is four. It takes four Chinese people.

Maybe you are asking yourself, “isn’t the better question: why can’t you just change the light bulb yourself?” To you I say, there are no simple answers even regarding seemingly simple tasks.

Two of the lights were recessed lights on the ceiling and one was in a chandelier. So even if I were able to reach the lights to unscrew them, I wouldn’t be able to read the writing on a new box to figure out if I was buying the same bulb. Okay, yes, I suppose I could have just brought it somewhere and asked for more of the same but it was a lot easier to make a phone call downstairs.

This apparently, is not an unusual request. Within minutes, one of the maintenance guys comes up with nothing in hand, no ladder, no bulbs, just a smile with lots of missing teeth. He looks to me to be at least 60, maybe older. I point out the lights that need replacing and he nods and says something to Jiang. She points to our dining room chair and he nods. She brings the chair over. He looks at it, looks at the light. Says something else to her. She pauses and disappears into the bathroom. She comes back with Hunter’s step stool and he waves her over. She puts the step stool on the padded chair and up he goes, teetering away.

He still can’t reach. Some more looking around the room and then points to a pillow on the couch. He then puts the pillow on the padded chair, the stool on the pillow and I am convinced we’re either going to end up in the ER or in tears because Hunter, too, will want to climb like “the guy.” Sure enough, he slips slightly but with her catlike reflexes, Jiang swoops in to hold the stool. Hunter laughs and claps. The guy leaves with our old bulbs.

He comes back maybe a half hour later with some new bulbs. What about a ladder? Thank you, that was my question exactly. Surely there must be a small ladder for these occasions. Back up on the stool, on the pillow, on the chair he goes. This time Jiang is there holding everything in place. He leaves without incident and having successfully replaced the lights.So that’s two Chinese people to change a light.

Oh, but wait, there’s more.

Later that night, when I turn the light on in the living room, the one that was just replaced is still out. Jiang calls again the next day and two other guys come. This time they have a ladder and a shopping bag of what appears to be bulbs from the Land of Misfit Bulbs. None are in boxes. The ladder appears to be held together with cloth wrapped around the joints, secured with tape – not even duct tape which, as my father will have you know, could probably hold three story buildings together. One of the men holds the ladder with what looks like quite a bit of strength (like the cloth and tape are just for show) and the smaller of the men changes the light, again. Why didn’t the first change take? We’ll never know. But that makes four Chinese people to change a light.

When we left to come home for the holidays, I had amassed a list of all the things I would like to try to bring back with me because it’s either difficult to find the item here or it is very expensive. Some of these items included baby food, sunscreen, vitamins, etc. Then I dutifully made another list of all the things we were going to pack in the boys’ suitcases, and another list of all the things I was going to pack in my suitcase, and another list of “if there is room…”. It’s taken me many years but I’ve come to appreciate list making.

The problem this fairly new list maker has, it seems, is not including the obvious…like keys to the apartment. Yes friends, left to my own devices, me and my two young children would have conquered a 24 hours trip halfway across the world only to discover we’d have to sleep in the lobby of our apartment.

Luckily, I have chosen a responsible partner in life.

So one of my first tasks when we returned was to get an extra key made. (Okay. An extra couple of keys seeing as I also lost one in a taxi cab months ago. That was a fun day.) To my responsible partner in life, I quip, “no worries, I’ll just get the key copied. We’ll have it done tomorrow.” But oh, just a few weeks away and how quickly we forget the quirks of Shanghai.

Using my trusty translator, I say to Jiang, “need more keys.” She gives me her, “you are so foolish,” face then shakes her head and says, “no.” I’ve come to not be discouraged by this no however, because often it just means we need to talk through things some more. After about 15 minutes of a back and forth about finding a “hardware store” (which I’m pretty sure does not translate), asking building services, calling the landlord, Jiang finishes with, “not possible.”

Not possible to get an extra key made? Surely, there are similarly absentminded Chinese mothers who forget keys in faraway lands or in not so faraway taxis? So I send an email to the agency through which we hired Jiang. We work with a women there who sort of speaks English and helps when we come to an impasse such as this. She tells me we will need to work something out with the landlord or change the locks. We have a “special key” that cannot be copied. But of course.

A few days later instead of spending a few minutes just getting a couple of extra keys made, I have to have a guy come up and spend nearly and hour changing our oddly sophisticated lock. (It beeps and clicks and locks and unlocks with a mind of its own. Endless amusement for a 2 year old. The good news in all of this? The new lock comes with 7 extra keys. Plenty for me to lose and misplace.

The last part of my “getting things done in China” is never simple blog, involves the cable bill. For about $5 per month we can watch CCTV channels 1-50 and boy do we get our $5 worth. I’ll have to devote a whole post to the television but for now, all you need to know we have to pay for cable.

We were thinking the cable box in the bedroom was broken. When you turn on certain channels, an exclamation point in a yellow triangle pops up with Chinese writing that seems to be saying, “something very bad will happen if you do not change the channel immediately.” But we can watch those same channels in the living room. So I showed Jiang, she looked confused and I asked her to call the cable company. She did (I think). She called someone and talked for maybe 5 minutes. She hung up and pointed to the two cable boxes which are different but have the same company logo on them. Through a series of charades and bad translations, we settle on the explanation that they are different cable boxes…so, yeah.

Fast forward a week, and the women I work with at Jiang’s agency sends me an email. She says that Jiang received a phone call that we didn’t pay our cable bill but  we could send her to go pay it. Yes, let that settle in.

Our Ayi received a call about our cable bill? How did they know her number? Did she give it to them when she called last week? Why didn’t they call me or George? Why didn’t they just send a bill? And how much is this bill?

A probe a little further only to learn that their is no invoice or bill, we won’t know how much to pay until we go to the appropriate office and it is approximately a 25 RMB ($4) cab ride away to said office. I can however, get a receipt after we pay.

So just to recap: In Shanghai, it takes four people to change a light bulb, get keys copied is not possible and paying your cable bill is like getting a call from a sketchy solicitor. To redeem your prize, send $400,000 to Nairobi. (Or rather, someone who works for you getting a call from that sketchy solicitor…)



2 thoughts on “How many Chinese people does it take to change a light bulb? Change a lock? Pay a cable bill?”

  1. This is TOO funny….love reading about your adventures….glad you’re taking it all in stride! Have you read any of the Stephanie Plum books? Her writing style reminds me so much of yours and I think you’d like this “easy read” series. Start with One For the Money…you’ll enjoy it!


  2. You are so funny, but I<m sure it wasn't funny to you at the time. Your writings and your phrasings are so good, I look forward to them. Iwish the whole world could savor your thoughts on your adventures. YOU NEED TO BE PUBLISHED!!! Love Ma


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