The Ecphorizer

A Telephone Installer In China
Tod Wicks

Issue #56 (April 1986)

I work in the international division of a large supplier of electronic private telephone exchanges (PBXs) and recently volunteered for duty in China. After going to Hongkong to get oriented, I arrived in Hangzhou, the first stop on my three-month assignment in China installing and training people

My room was about six feet across by 30 feet long...

in various hotels in the use of our private telephone exchanges.

[quoteright]"We are now arriving at Hangzhou International Airport. On behalf of Captain Chen, we thank you for choosing CAAC for this flight." That's what our flight attendant announced, in English, as we arrived. When she thanked us for choosing CAAC, she didn't mention that it was the ONLY airline that flew from Hongkong to Hangzhou. CAAC is the Civil Aviation Authority of China. There's a story that it was originally "Chinese Authority of Civil Aviation" (it still is in Mandarin) until it was pointed out that the acronym was somewhat scatological in English. It operates most of the airplanes that fly domestic routes. It also has a monopoly on certain international routes into China.

Despite being an international airport, Hangzhou terminal resembled a small county airfield. Our plane had landed on the only runway, made a U-turn at the end, and used the runway as a taxiway up to the ramp leading to the terminal. The only other planes on the ground were ancient-looking air force jets. The main building itself was quite small, and there was an even smaller customs hall that resembled a barn or warehouse. We entered as loudspeakers played folk songs of the early 60's (Joan Baez; Peter, Paul, and Mary). We had our passports checked. Then all 70 or so of us were crowded into a small area waiting for baggage. There was no carousel; the cart onto which luggage was loaded from the plane was wheeled into this room and we all grabbed our own. Then we lined up at a gate where an official told us each which customs inspector to see.

As you enter China, you have to declare just about anything other than clothing, listing its model number, manufacturer, and country of origin. This applies to watches, calculators, jewelry, cameras, audio and video recorders, refrigerators, and washers. Travelers must also confirm that they are taking out of China the same items. This form also lists various items not to be brought into China — the usual rules about explosives, corrosives, man-eating tigers, etc., and on the exit form, a list of things not to be taken out of China: cultural relics, currency, state secrets...

This form seems to cover everything. On another flight, I arrived in Kunming from Hongkong and noticed a very new-looking 757 on the ground near the terminal. The chap in front of me turned and remarked that he had flown that plane from Seattle to Kunming just the week before. It turned out that he was a company pilot for Boeing, delivering planes to CAAC. I couldn't resist asking how he declared it on his customs form: "Jet Airliner, Boeing, 757, to be left in China."

I was traveling with an engineer from our Hongkong office, K. C. Ho, and we had at least a dozen boxes of equipment, manuals, and tools for our job of installing private telephone exchanges. Most of that stuff we left with customs to be cleared the next day or so, as it was to remain in China.

When we emerged from the customs shed, we were greeted by our contact at the local PTT (Post, Telephone, and Telegraph — the phone company). We drove through the late wintry countryside into Hangzhou. As we rode toward the city, I was astounded by the numbers of people traveling alongside the road pulling carts, bicycling, or just walking. There were few cars; all I could see were mostly buses, coaches, and trucks.

The farmlands seemed to stretch in all directions. Then suddenly we were in the city. I discovered that towns and cities in China do not have suburbs. One minute you're passing rice fields; the next you're into town with industrial buildings and apartment houses rising left and right. We made our way through town until our driver pulled into a small parking lot next to our hotel, the "Wanghu bin guan" (Lake View Guest House).

My first impression was that of starkness and austerity. We entered a vast open lobby devoid of furniture, plants, or other of the usual furnishings encountered in tourist hotels. This feeling was later reinforced as we were shown to our rooms. My room was about six feet across by 30 feet long; just large enough to contain a small bed, a small desk (on which stood a color TV), and a chair. My window overlooked the back court of the hotel where all the deliveries were made. I felt like Jimmy Stewart in "Rear Window" as I watched the comings and goings across the court that housed the hotel laundry facility, the staff canteen, and the staff shower/locker rooms. I could never get my window shut; thus I was treated to all the noises throughout the day from 5:30 in the morning to well after 11 at night. I could set my clock by the sounds of the late shift using the showers — I couldn't actually hear the showers but that telltale scream of "woo-hoo-hoo" was unmistakable. (This is a scream that transcends the language barrier; it is the sound you make when standing under a warm shower and the water suddenly turns cold.)

I had been comparing my surroundings to an army barracks when we went down to the mess hall, uh, dining room, for dinner. This experience only served to reinforce the "army" feeling — it was one huge room with no atmosphere. Meals were served at set hours during the day; if you missed dinner, tough luck fella, no room service here! Oh, well, I hadn't encountered any real hardships yet, and I felt pretty good. I just told myself to be philosophical about it, and enjoy the trip. After all, I was going to be in China for twelve weeks...

[To be continued] 

Globetrotting engineer TOD WICKS recently blew in from Tibet, wearing a fur hat and complaining that they don't brew yak-butter tea like they used to. He may or may not be off to Australia shortly, depending on whether or not they need more telephones.

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