Archive for February, 2012

Hello? Is that United Airlines? It’s the 80s. They want their processes back…

This weekend I fly to Barcelona for the Mobile World Congress. I’m really pleased to be going to the show after a few years’ absence and am really looking forward to catching up with old friends and new technologies but the flight isn’t going to be much fun.  It’s a long way from Shanghai, particularly if you are in the back of the plane, and I admit it, I’ve acquired quite a taste for the sharp end over the last few years.

My airline status is linked to United so I tend to try to fly with them when possible (I really am a sucker for those long haul upgrades). However, Shanghai to Barcelona on United involved four flights so I booked with Lufthansa. Easy so far. The next part of the plan was to ask United to apply a couple of my Systemwide upgrades to the flights – they are both part of the joined up Star Alliance happy family after all.

So I called United to ask them to apply my upgrades. No problem – they said. Great, that was easy.

But this is United Airlines we are talking about.

Like an idiot I assumed that they would just press a button that would send the request for upgrade waitlisting to Lufthansa – it was an eticket that was booked online after all. That would clearly be the most obvious way of doing things so of course that’s not at all how it works.

Instead of using the wonders of the Internet to magically transmit this information from one company to another, United has a slightly different process. They print out actual certificates and send them. Even worse, they printed out certificates in America and then sent them to me in China. They didn’t even use Fedex to send them as they had promised, they used regular mail. This took just over 3 weeks to arrive (actually that was pretty impressive – I just received a card this week sent FROM CHINA before Christmas).

Here’s what the little beauties look like:

I’ve had a theory for some while about United. I think that new planes are equipped with shiny new cabin crew, which then ages slowly with the same plane (although presumably with fewer parts replacements). That would explain the pensioners they have serving business and first class. Seriously, some of them just dodder around during the flight – so much for being there “for your safety”.  I now suspect the same thing happens with United’s processes. The printing things off and posting them worked just fine in the 1980s, so why should they be changed now?

That said I felt like I’d just received one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets when they arrived. Now at least I’m in with a tiny chance of comfort (although United business seats flatten to a rather jaunty angle that makes you constantly feel like you are sliding off feet first….)

I’ll find out tomorrow if this has all been worth it. Tomorrow I take my shiny new certificates to check in where I will have to ask them nicely to consider me for an upgrade. In my experience the Pudong airport check in staff have not been terrifically customer service focused, or indeed interested in human beings in general so wish me luck!


**UPDATE** I got my upgrade. There was some consternation at the check in desk but got a business class seat. OK the seat in question was one of those that is described as “flat” suggesting horizontal, but actually is flat at a rather jaunty angle – I imagine that if you reversed the head and feet that it would be the perfect angle for waterboarding. I digress…the weird paper based certificate resulted in me having a rather nice seat and mostly recognisable food items. Happy days.


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How hard can it be? Part II


Yesterday I went to buy some replacement contact lenses. I went to an optician that has boxes of all sorts of contact lenses literally lining the walls. I brought my empty box with me so they had all the type, size, prescription info.

When I asked the sales assistants (for some reason they had FIVE people to help simultaneously) for some of the same they said they didn’t have any. And they couldn’t order any either.

I went back over to one of the huge display cases – It seemed a little hard to believe that not one single box was going to be appropriate. I asked them if they had anything similar, on account of needing lenses to see. No.

OK, so what do they have? They rummaged around for a bit and came up with some daily lenses (I asked for 2 weekly), from some random Chinese brand (clearly dodgy) and for a prescription for someone who is very nearly totally blind (I’m not).

Realising that I was going to have to compromise, I then asked for Acuvue brand lenses if possible but said that dailies were ok.

After a small amount of rummaging, they brought out the below box. This is for a lens that is ALMOST IDENTICAL to the ones that I had asked for. I think the only difference was that mine were “Advance Plus” and the others are just “Advance”.

It’s a total mystery to me why they couldn’t have found these the first time around. Why is everything so difficult? And why is the first answer and the second answer (at least) always no. Urgh.


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How hard can it be? Part I

Why is everything so bloody difficult here? It’s driving me crazy that even the tiny things can ridiculously difficult.

[it turns out that this is a bit of a rant – if you don’t want to read a rant – then the general gist is that it’s really difficult to get anything done here. ]

For example, how difficult do you think it is to get a remote control fixed? Extremely difficult as it turns out. So it isn’t actually ridiculous  asking for a working remote- we’re in a serviced apartment where they own and manage all of our TV/ audio equipment . On the whole fairly responsive to requests.

Anyway, in September the video remote control mostly stopped working, that is, some of the buttons stopped working no matter how hard we pressed them. This isn’t just a case of needing the remote to save walking those annoying 3 metres to the DVD player to press play. No. As the TV here is indescribably awful (and those are the bits that aren’t Chinese) we watch quite a few films and TV series on DVD (I’ll admit to having developed a bit of a “House” addiction since moving here.) In any case, most of these DVDs have options for scene/ episode selection which you can’t select from the machine – you need the remote.

So I dropped the remote control back with the building management and explained that some of the buttons didn’t work. A day later the remote was returned with the batteries replaced but no working buttons.

OK so maybe I didn’t explain this properly. I went back, explained at length exactly what the problem was and the next day had my remote returned. Not working but with new batteries.

So it went back again. Some days later it was explained to me that actually the problem was that my DVD was bad. “What all of them?” Apparently yes. Huh?

It went back.  This time it came back with an apology. Apparently there were no replacements available. I find this quite difficult to believe in China, where all manner of electronics is available for next to nothing.

I took a break from trying to get it repaired over Christmas but renewed my efforts in January (clearly I have too much time on my hands…). This time they said that they had a “special spray” that would help. Hallelujah it this actually worked. For about four days.

So I took it back.

Finally, last week I received a new remote. New to me in any case – it’s battered and scratched but it WORKS!

It took FIVE MONTHS to fix. I’ll leave you to imagine how hard it is to make the bigger things happen. It seems that the easiest answer to almost anything is No.

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First impressions of Hong Kong

As I mentioned the other day, I was recently in Hong Kong. It was my first visit (not counting various transits through the airport) so I thought I’d share some first impressions.

The first thing you notice is that it’s growing. You notice this first as you land at the airport as it is on reclaimed land. Over the years I have heard many stories about the old airport, where on final approach you could make eye contact with the old ladies hanging their washing outside their high rise apartments. I’d like to have experienced that. Maybe just once. It’s certainly not just the airport that’s on new land-  along many bits of the shoreline you can see how building work is expanding the space available.  For example, the Royal Yacht Club was once on an island but now forms part of a large peninsula. I wonder when they will stop.

That said, there’s still a lot of water. In fact the Bay completely dominates the city. And just like other cities dominated by water, it is fairly laid back. People work long hours, but the vibe of the place is a lot closer to Sydney than New York. Maybe it’s also the weather – maybe you need some real cold to generate real uptightness.

One area that was particularly laid back was Lamma Island. We took a ferry from downtown and 20 minutes later we were on the island – which was a world away – full of organic veg and people on bicycles. I bet the Birkenstock index is through the roof there too. Actually I love the fact that it’s a major international city with seven or so million people packed in, mostly vertically, but take a ferry for 20 minutes, or take a short drive out of town and it gets jungle-y really quickly, complete with monkeys and a completely different atmosphere.

I’ve heard it is slowly diminishing but you really can still and feel the English influence. It’s mostly in little things – buildings have a ground floor, there are many places to have afternoon tea and people queue (that’s probably the weirdest part – people wait for others to get off a train before piling on and the queue for Starbucks was an actual, organised LINE!). Most people speak English – even the taxi drivers – hallelujah! People drive on the left in right hand drive cars and the plugs are the three point UK ones. However one thing that stands out in its distinct un-Englishness is the public transport system which seems to be extremely efficient.

One thing I didn’t experience is the local favourite pastime which appears to be shopping. Everyone seems to go mad for it. There are many, many, many shops – an interesting mixture of European, Asian, Austrialian and US brands. Even Marks and Spencers! I didn’t check if they carried anything larger than a SMALL not least of all because I was at least twice the size of anyone I saw shopping and it’s never good to feel like a heffalump. It’s so much easier to shop in the US where heffalumps are far more common 😉

All that shopping stimulates the appetite though, which explains the second favourite pastime of locals – which is eating. There are soooo many places to eat and the ones I tries were really rather good. We managed to sample a real cross section from a mad Chinese diner where we had breakfast to a really rather chi-chi international restaurant where we had one of the most beautifully presented meals I’ve ever had.

So now I understand why everybody goes to Hong Kong to shop, but actually it’s a great city to just hang out it. It’s not as packed with “must see” locations as for example, London, but it’s still a great place. I’m sure I’ll be back.





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Built in mittens and gaffer tape

It gets pretty chilly in Shanghai which translates into freezing hands when scooting about town. (I can’t express quite how much I miss the heated handlebars of my BMW). My solution to the problem is to wear my skiing mittens but the locals have a much better solution. They have mittens pre-wrapped around the handlebars. Some are pretty fancy like the ones in the picture. These even look like this was what they are designed to do. Many others are distinctly DIY. Think bits of cardboard and miles of gaffer tape. For that matter, there are thousands of scooters out there that are entirely held together by gaffer tape. Reassuring…NOT.

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A rose by any other name….?

The other day I took the first step towards getting my Chinese driving licence  – I went to a translation agency to get an official translation of my current one. Simples! you might say. Well, mostly.

The first thing they asked me to do is to write down my Chinese name. “I don’t have one.” I said. They looked at me as if I were crazy . “But you have to have a Chinese name…” I didn’t mention it, but it hasn’t been an issue before, what with living in Pennsylvania and bits of Western Europe.

Unfortunately there was no getting round it. Fortunately they had a reference book. A weighty tome with many thousands of names and their translations. Except mine of course.They did have my Surname, or near enough but no first name.

So after some discussion they came up with one. I have no idea what it means. Names are a BIG DEAL in China. There is a huge amount of superstition tied up with the number of characters involved and how many strokes they comprise even before you get to the meaning of the characters. I know that people have spent ages helping foreigners create appropriate Chinese names. Well I had some girl at the translation agency sort something out for me in about 30 secs. Great.

I haven’t dared look up what my new name means yet. I really hope it isn’t something like “Giant Horse’s Arse”. Still, it’s unlikely to be as completely bonkers as some of the names the Chinese give themselves. Maybe I should just ask for “Teapot Chambers” or something like that. That actually has a nice ring to it…

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Who knew dryers have their own drawers?

I can’t pretend that I’ve ever been remotely interested in washing machines or tumble dryers. Obviously I like to have them in the house so I don’t have to walk to a launderette but other than that I’m not really bothered. I know ex-USA expats have a hard time coming to terms with the smaller front loaders we have in Europe and, indeed China but I’m fine with them (although I have to say I do like the idea of being able to do a gargantuan amount of washing at once but ho hum).

So once installed in the apartment in Shanghai I happily washed and dried clothes in the two relevant appliances. Until the dryer stopped working and sprouted a new flashing orange light that is. Now I know that orange flashing lights are not good generally. That made me actually look at the thing.

After some poking around it turned out that the top drawer – usually absent in a dryer I think – is actually where the water that’s extracted from the clothes goes. The drawer actually runs the length of the dryer. When it fills up, the orange light comes on and you have to take the container out and empty it.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that isn’t plumbed to the outside somehow.

OK not Earth shattering – but I thought mildly strange all the same. Here it is.

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Plane Bonkers

Every internal flight in China I have been on, or indeed any flight that originated in China started with an announcement in multiple different languages along the lines of: “We are ready to go but we need everyone to SIT DOWN before we can push back off the stand.” This is repeated with increasing levels of tension and volume until finally people sit down. When in the past I have looked along the aisles, there are people just wandering around, hanging out, generally doing anything except sitting in their seats. It’s SO much worse on arrival though….

You know how, when you are on a plane and it’s time to leave you get up, wait for the people in front of you to gather their belongings before you take yours and make your way to the exit? It’s generally fairly civilised with an unwritten “people in front first” rule that everybody abides to.

It’s not really like that in China. People jump up and often start wandering around pretty much seconds after the plane has landed (sometimes before) and while the plan is still taxiing to the gate. On today’s flight,fellow passengers waited several whole seconds after the announcement that says “please stay seated, with your seatbelt fastened until the aircraft has come to a complete stop…”

When it comes to getting out into the aisle, nobody will stand politely by while you faff with your stuff. You have to physically muscle your way out of your seat and into the surge of people. Under no circumstances will someone wait for you. If you have a bag to retrieve from the overhead locker, you have to be careful as, when you turn sideways, you present a smaller surface area. People will pretty much climb over you unless you are large enough to block the entire aisle, and even then they will probably try. (My trick is to always make sure to put my rucksack on if I have one before turning sideways.)

Then when you are in the aisle with your belongings, it’s still not over.  As you take a step towards the front of the plane, the person behind you will bang his/ her bag hard into your Achilles. You turn and give the bag a hard look just to make it clear that it was a bit of you and not, say a chair, that it bashed. Anywhere else in the world the person behind would look a little sheepish and maybe even apologise. Not in China. Every subsequent step you take will be accompanied by another equally unapologetic bash from behind.

The crazy crush to get out of the plane continues, very much not helped by the people who exit then for reasons I fail to fathom, procede to stand RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE DOORWAY.

Then they pile off quickly to then STAND on the miles of travelators that lead to Immigration. All that hurrying and now they are standing on a bit of rubber moving at approximately 0.5 mph. (Obviously they stand on both sides) I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.

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Dragon-friendly buildings

One of the many things that I love about the Chinese is their appreciation of the needs of dragons. Dragons living in mountains will of course want to fly down to the sea, which is increasingly problematic for them as the waterfront acquires more and more high rise buildings, for example in Hong Kong. So what do you do if you want to build a building in the dragon’s flight path? You leave gaps in it so the dragons can fly through, naturally.

I saw this building from the ferry on the way to Lamma Island. Pretty much all the flight paths are covered but I can’t help wondering how the floors of that building are arranged around the gap. I’m guessing they need a lift either side for a start…

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Hear no evil

Since I moved to China, I’ve had a Chinese iPhone. This behaved mostly as I expected until a few months ago when it spontaneously acquired a custom ringtone. Not as you might think the sound I hear when people call me… No. Nothing that mundane.

When people called me, rather than the expected ring-ring they were subjected to what might most accurately be described as a “Chinese Maria Carey ballad”.  Oh the humiliation. People might think that I actually SELECTED this horrific screeching.  I have no idea why this started, or indeed any idea how to stop it or at least change the music. The only possible solution was to throw myself at my phone when it rang to pick up as quickly as possible to minimise potential exposure to the caterwauling. Thank goodness not that many people have my Chinese number.

I believe this is what the Chinese operators consider to be a “value-added feature” and it’s surprisingly popular. I recently called a local company to have a proper, serious business discussion, only to be greeted by a ring tone that sounded like a demented ice cream van. Not a great start to a professional interaction.

Actually the best example of a customised phone tone I have experienced was by a company I used to deal with in the UK. They played Monty Python sketches rather than hold music so when someone actually answered I was sometimes a little disappointed. More people should do something like that.

Actually what am I saying? I am now imagining being subjected to Chinese Monty Python while on hold. On second thoughts, forget I ever brought it up. Please….

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