Another Year, Another Expat Experience…
[Despite the fact that we’re no longer in China and in the UK, I’m posting this to Sara in China because it’s half about China.]
Whenever anyone cautioned me this summer about the quirks of etiquette, lifestyle, and the ancient ways of Oxford, I laughed it off, countering with the logic that if I could get by last year dealing with the bureaucracies and inefficiencies of China, then whatever quirks I would find in the UK should seem merely quaint by comparison.
Even with expectations set as such, I have been surprised to discover just how hard it is to get things done here efficiently, particularly in light of our set-up experiences last year in Chongqing.
Visas. I suppose it’s not too surprising that the UK border system is built to keep people from taking advantage of the welfare system, but there were a lot more hoops we had to jump through, and it was a much confusing process getting our student visas for the UK. Yet, somehow both required rushed trips to New York for in-person, same day turn around service. Consulates are never fun, and never easy.
Banks. Opening a bank account during Week 0 is a clusterf***. All the banks are struggling to keep up with the student demand, and some of them are requiring booked appointments for account opening that are days or even a weeks out from when you first walk up. Thankfully I had done my research and had my registration sheet printed and stamped, thanks to some friendly and sympathetic college administrators (also! red seal stamps! just like China!), but I watched others being turned away because of policy changes in requirements for certain letters that had been implemented only that morning! And forget about opening a joint bank account as a student. Despite our recent change in marital status, student accounts are about as bare-bones as the banks can get away with. An unfortunate HSBC representative bore the brunt of my frustration with this system, but to be fair, he wasn’t directly answering my questions, and I wasn’t about to pay a monthly fee for his banks unaccomodating services!
Cell phones. Unless you want to pay exorbitant data rates to top up a pay-as-you-go SIM, you need to have a month to month plan in the UK. But a longer-term relationship requires a debit card with a chip in it. So even though I had picked up a UK SIM easily enough while I was visiting this summer, the first two weeks when we arrived I was sparingly conserving my data for email checking all-too-rapidly using up my credits until I received our debit card in the mail. In China, all it took to get a monthly SIM was a passport and some cash to open a similar, and cheaper account. And sadly, I’m still cringing using my unlocked 3GS (which is still on iOS 4.0 from my China jailbreak) while I wait for unlocked iPhone 5s to hit the market in US. Though it is readily available in the UK unlocked, in the US they are technically only selling provider-tied phones so far. More importantly, there’s about a $200 USD difference in price for the same unlocked model between here and the US, so I’m stubbornly, and stingily holding out. This is torture for a gadget lover like myself.
Broadband. It has been a great irony of my existence for these past two weeks: I came to Oxford to study the internet, and yet had none. The numbers say it all. In China, we were 9 days out from landing before our apartment was hooked up with broadband. In the UK, it was 14 days. We called first thing when we arrived, and weighed the options and timelines between providers (BT v. Virgin, Talk Talk, etc.) and it was two weeks before any of them could schedule an appointment to come and hook us up. And all but Virgin required a number rental fee because they run over the copper. One remains constant across our expat experiences: Starbucks is still the most reliable and consistent spot to make a wifi home away from home while we wait for broadband (though there are certainly more alternative spots to choose from in Oxford).
My biggest overall complaint: there’s just so much contingency in getting set up here. You can’t get a flat without a bank account, and you can’t get a bank account without a permanent address and a registration letter from your college. And there really aren’t many ways around it. Someone needs to make a flow chart, an order of operations diagram or something to explain to students the most efficient process of getting set up here.
With most of the big things all out of the way, my attention is now drawn to the little things that continue to make this country feel a little like a parallel universe. It’s the things that should be familiar, but just aren’t quite the same as home. They are most glaring in the grocery store: Where can I find corn syrup (crucial to creating the right texture in my fudgy eggless brownies)? Why is there so much ham in the deli? Why is there a whole section devoted to canned meat spreads? Why must they put mayonnaise on ALL of the prepared sandwiches? But I’m otherwise adapting well, peppering my speech with “meant” in place of “supposed to” and stating the date with the day first before the month.
Despite the slow start, we did manage streamline some elements of the setup. Zipcar and Ikea made setting up house a lot more efficient, and it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the Zipcar system is completely interoperable between the US and the UK (aside from the whole which-side-of-the-road-roundabout thing). And we learned our lesson about bed sizes and double measured to find sheets and duvets that fit our bed perfectly. Still, having missed the 6 PM closing time for all the stores in Oxford that first night, we had to sleep under our winter coats on a bare mattress in our new flat.
Mom promptly sends us our first piece of mail, in China and in the UK.
We’ve been overhearing lots of Mandarin around Oxford, perhaps unsurprisingly given the large student population. Somehow I managed to find us an apartment that is only a block away from what is effectively Oxford’s mini version of Chinatown, complete with an Asian grocer and a handful of regional cuisine restaurants. After checking out the woks and the daikon at the store, Nick and I walked by a group of Mandarin speakers, who apologized saying “sorry” for taking up the sidewalk as we passed, to which Nick replied “mei shi” or “it’s nothing.” They giggled, surprised to hear Chinese from the white guy, and the interaction suddenly felt strangely familiar. I thought to myself, how could it be that this feeling of foreignness from our time in China is now something that is comforting and suddenly the familiar thing in a yet another different, new place? When I pass by the Pizza Hut on George Street, I feel a pang of nostalgia for the comfort it provided in that other foreign place, and I’m not sure how long before it will be before I break down and go for old time’s sake.
Eating beef pho the other night I found it a little bland and so I added some spicy sauce from the tray. Then I realized: Chongqing spicy tastes broke me in!