2005.09.07 Kashgar, China
Morals are supposed to come at the end of the story, but I'll provide one up front: "Internet access is hard to come by in China." No, that's not quite right. Perhaps, something along the lines of, "Don't sweat the small stuff," would be more appropriate.
I didn't think I had to work on taking that idea to heart, though this tale may prove otherwise. My patience is strained here in strange ways.
Late yesterday evening I went to an Internet cafe to log on. I was expecting word from Joyce, due to cross the Khunjerab Pass from Pakistan and meet me, Nisagul, and Tiffany here in Kashgar. Additionally, the trip since coming down from Urumqi had been eventful enough (in positive, fun ways I'll have to leave for the next entry) that I considered adding an update to this website.
So, I dropped into the same Internet cafe I had been to the previous night and asked to log on for a couple hours.
Attendant: "How long do you want to log on for?"
Me: "Two hours."
Attendant: "Do you have an Internet usage card?"
Me: "No, I don't."
Attendant: "Well, you have to have a card to log on."
Me: "But you let me log on yesterday without a card."
Attendant: "I wasn't supposed to. You'll need a card to log on."
Me: "How much is the card?"
Attendant: "15 yuan."
Me: "Can I return the card when I'm done with it and get any money back?"
Me: "Well, no thanks. I'll go somewhere else."
I wandered down the street and found another Internet cafe around the corner, not two minutes' walk from the first place.
Me: "How much is it per hour to log on?"
Attendant II: "2 yuan."
Me: "Okay, I'd like to use a computer for two hours."
Attendant II: "Do you have a card?"
Me: "No. "
Attendant II: "How about a passport?"
Me: "How about my Chinese student card?"
I wasn't about to give my passport up for collateral to use a computer. The attendant flipped through the small booklet issued by Xinjiang University. Upon finding my passport number he copied it down and handed it back. I handed him 5 yuan, then sat down at the computer he directed me to.
After about a minute I asked him where my change was. The standard price to use computers around Xinjiang is 2 yuan per hour. I told him I wanted to log on for two hours, so should have received 1 yuan in change. (The majority of Internet cafes will simply take your money, then register the amount you have paid to use their computer with a central program. When time already paid for is about to expire, a warning message flashes onto the screen. Without paying more money the computer will automatically lock up when time finally does expire.)
Attendant II: "Oh, the 5 yuan? That's a deposit. When you're done with your time we'll refund you the balance."
I have encountered Internet cafes in China that work this way, but only in the cities back east, such as Beijing and Shenzhen. Still, it seemed reasonable enough--I sat down while the computer booted up.
After an extraordinarly long time booting up, I found the computer unusable. It was too slow to run any program. When attempting to run a web browser the machine crashed, displaying a bright blue screen with an error message. No combination of keystrokes was able to return the computer to an operational state, so I rebooted the machine again. The second attempt brought the computer to an identical state of inoperability.
I finally gave up and asked for my money back. The attendant handed me 3 yuan.
Me: "I gave you 5 yuan. This is only three."
Attendant II: "You used the computer for 12 minutes. The minimum charge is 2 yuan."
Me: "The computer has a problem. I wasn't able to use it for any time at all. The entire time was spent watching it boot up and crash. Look at this blue screen over here--it's impossible to do anything."
Attendant II: "Mei banfa."
In Chinese "mei banfa" literally means something along the lines of, "There is no recourse," or, "No way." In actual usage it's more synonymous with, "You're shit-out-of-luck." While it might be heard in a situation when there really is nothing that can be done, that's often not truly the case. It seems to be the main phrase used by the laziest of employees or those who most rigidly stick to regulations they enforce, but do not understand.
We spent the next five minutes going back forth. I futilely attempted in broken Chinese to explain why watching a computer reboot and crash twice is not equivalent to using it. He just kept pointing to the 12 minutes of usage shown on his central computer, while gesturing to the "2 yuan minimum charge" sign taped to the wall. He was wholly uninterested in dealing with the situation, seldom taking the energy to even take his cigarette out of his mouth when speaking. "Mei banfa," he would mumble, with cigarette caught loosely between lips.
I can't explain why an argument over U.S. 25¢ is worth having. The sense that, "It's the principle of the matter," doesn't go halfway to explaining why I felt as pissed-off as I did. I think what bothered me was a combination of principle, along with the frequency of such petty encounters around China. Adding in the "mei banfa" bit of indifference just got me all the more riled up.
So, in the end, I realized he was right--there really was nothing that could be done about the 2 yuan he wouldn't refund. I asked for the money back; he gave me 3 yuan in grubby notes, several in lower 5-mao denominations. I took them and tore them into the tiniest shreds possible, then threw them in his face. "You were right," I told him. "Mei banfa."