Thursday, February 23, 2006

A Vicious Cycle

In a society where your credit history determines what sort of services you are entitled to, if any at all, the person, with a stellar credit history back home, but new to this country, will rank as low as a flea. I found this out the hard way.

My application for a home phone line and broadband internet connection was rejected due to my low credit rating. And this is for a service which is not locked into a contract and which the service provider can terminate at any point, if they so deem that I am not a desirable customer. I pointed this out to them and the response was even so, this situation was outside of their credit policy. I sorely wanted to tell them that their credit policy sucked and made no sense. However, I held my tongue because I still want those services and was told that I can reapply with more information to increase my credit rating. So the second time round, I re-positioned myself as a long-term employee who has been relocated from my home country to this wonderful place, and hopefully, this second application meets with their credit criteria and gets approved. At least the guy who dealt with my re-application agreed to record the fact that I hold credit cards even though they were not issued here, the first guy decided that the response to that question was negative and probably degraded my credit rating by a whole lot with that.

A uni mate told me that her application to buy a mobile phone with a pre-paid card was also stringently scrutinised and was told that she had no credit history. The fact that she showed them a hefty bank account statement didn't help. The fact that it's a pre-paid card which means her money is already given to the phone company in advance also didn't help. Another situation which simply reeks of a lack of application of common sense.

Now, if people who come to this country, are denied basic services such as phones, internet, apartments leases, due to the fact that they are new to this country and hence do not have a credit history on file, how are they expected to live here and start establishing some sort of existence, let alone a credit history? If their bank statements, foreign credit cards are not accepted as proof of their credit worthiness, what else can they show? Are foreign banks and credit providers not as reputable as the ones here, that's why these cannot be accepted as evidence of a person's credit worthiness? If so, that is a really myopic view to take.

Protecting one's company from credit risks is a given in the commercial world, but doing so blindly, without any flexibility and common sense, only serves to harm the company's reputation, and in the end, the reputation of that country. Every newcomer will undoubtedly start life here, with a view that this first-world country is so mired in its own overly and blindly regulated bureaucracy that it lacks the pragmatism and common sense to apply these regulations in reality. Since there is no point fighting this, one has to start developing strategies to get around the red tape... and a tip - leave all comparisons of efficiency one is used to back home, at home.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Virtual Open House

It's a nice feeling when reality turns out better than your memories. Very often, it's the other way round. Our minds have a funny way of filtering the bad stuff and leaving us with a sterilised (or romanticised, depending on how you view it) version of things. And so this was the pleasant situation when I finally turned the key and opened the door. The 5 minutes I had spent viewing this apartment previously really was cursory. I realised that the apartment was bigger than what I had thought it to be - perhaps 350 square feet. I hadn't noticed the white leather armchair the last time either. Everything in soothing green and brown. Good thing green has been one of my favourite colours these couple years.

I sniff the sheets, the pillows, the towels. They smell freshly laundered. I give the floor a quick wipe down. And then I brace myself to go through the inventory list. A whole lot of stuff in there, including a French Linguaphone course. Ok I can learn French in my free time. Or bake, as there were measuring spoons, a measuring cup, sieve, baking tins, pastry brush. This looks promising. I poke around somemore. There was a toaster, a blender, a sandwich maker even. Some wine glasses, a pair of champagne flutes, square plates - just the sort I like. This is beginning to look really good.

I pop in a DVD "Bourne Identity" and test out the DVD player and the flat screen tv, they both work. All right, for a quiet night in, rent a movie, make some popcorn and we're set.

Finally, the bathroom. Ooh, a rain shower. Ok test the water pressure, mmm yes that will do. And so it seems, that I am all set, and ready to go...

End of virtual tour.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

An Expensive Lesson in Futility

I made the most expensive local phone call in my life today, $8.20 for a 22 minute call which didn't even get me a resolution. The call only concluded because my phone credits ran out. In my haste to ensure that my electricity connection comes on tomorrow when I get the keys to my new apartment, I forgot my mental reminder to myself that I made earlier, to use a public phone to call the electric company. Expensive mistake. I was put on hold most of that time as my online application, which triggered an acknowledgement email 2 days ago to me, cannot be found in their database. So I waited while the girl checks the address, my name and then tells me that perhaps in their system, they indicate a different address especially if the building was at a corner of 2 streets, and what other street is my building on? Gee, I really don't know - all I know is that I've given the official street address of this apartment. How would I know how their internal system categorises addresses? The girl offers to call my real estate agent on the other line while I wait. So I do, and then after more waiting, I get cut off.

End of call 1, an expensive lesson in futility.

I knew I had a right to be sceptical. I didn't expect the electricity connection to go as smoothly as the impression the online application gave. And yes, the application had fallen into the big blackhole of the bureaucratic churn. But for the email acknowledgement I had received, it never existed in their system...

After recovering from the shock of how much that call had cost me, I made a beeline for the nearest public phone. I get another customer service person and we go through the whole rigmarole again. Another 20 minutes of holding, but this time, on $0.40 only. Finally, the big conclusion - the application cannot be traced. But wait, this girl offers some useful advice. Apparently, the electric company doesn't cut of the power supply even after the previous tenant closes his account at the premises and before the new tenant opens his. There is just a lacuna where no one gets billed, but power stays on. Now that was a piece of good news indeed. So I will be able to test that the electric appliances work tomorrow, I won't be stranded without power when I move on Saturday, all I have to do now, is to go check the meter number and call the electric company again and re-apply. I may even get free electricity for a day.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

It's That Time of The Year Again

It's that time of the year again. With prices of roses shooting sky high, dinners for two costing an arm and a leg, advertisements cajolling you to buy jewellery, lingerie, spa treatments for your loved ones. Strangely enough, over here things are rather silent. I went for a walk at the neighbourhood mall and I wasn't assaulted by the usual, blatant commercialism I was used to back home. Nothing screamed out "Happy Valentine's Day" or more so "Buy, Buy, Buy!".

All was calm and serene here. Back home, couples were reminded to buy each other nice (expensive) gifts to reaffirm their love for each other. Singles were reminded that yet again, they have no one to spend the day with and that they will not be receiving bouquets of flowers at work to arouse envy in their colleagues.

The difference in mood and tone is pretty obvious. And I really like it. It's such a cliche to say that every day can be Valentine's Day if you make it so, but I suppose it is true. You don't need to wait for a special day to tell the people who matter (significant others, parents, siblings, friends) that you love and care about them.

So to everyone out there who matter to me (and you know who you are), just remember that I love and care about you guys, no matter where I am...

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Every Nook and Cranny

Today I put a holding deposit on the apartment while the lease is being prepared. The apartment will be professionally cleaned and handed over next Friday. Excellent. A big load off my mind.

On my way back from the real estate agency, I walked passed a furniture shop aptly named "Loot" selling stuff from the 60s, 70s and 80s. There was a beautiful, red Eames plywood chair I spotted. Price: $690, slightly scratched as it was used on a film set. It is apparently even signed on the back. It felt really comfortable as I sank my body into it, and the shape was seductively organic. I said I would think about it. That was about 2.5 weeks' rent. But wait, even if I were willing to blow 2.5 weeks of rent on this beautiful piece of furniture, there was no space in the studio. I exercised restraint and walked on by.

There was a quaint, little dim sum restaurant called "The Mahjong Room", I doubled back to get a better look at the ang mohs in there, 4 to a table playing mahjong. Apparently for $32, you get a dim sum set menu, and a 3-hour mahjong game, mahjong set provided. Very interesting.

This is looking to be a neighbourhood with lots of little, pleasant surprises, tucked in every nook and cranny. I am looking forward to exploring...

Thursday, February 09, 2006

You Gotta Have Faith

A picture speaks a thousand words.

When someone tries to describe how wonderful this person whom they are trying to set you up with, is, you ask for a photo. When someone raves and rants about their last holiday in a beautiful beach resort, you ask for photos. When someone tells you about their new condominium they just bought, you ask to see it. Everyone needs a visual in order to comprehend and digest the extent of what you are trying to tell them.

Similarly in my great apartment search, I focused on online ads which put up photos. I needed an idea of what the place looked like before I even committed myself to making an appointment to view it. Using this rule of thumb, I viewed 5 apartments (plus 7 on my last trip in December) and found each of them sadly falling far below reasonable expectations (how can a 12 sq m broom closet be passed off as a studio for instance?).

I'm not even sure why I responded to this ad with no photos, and just 3 lines of print. Maybe I was disillusioned by the photos and let down by the real estate I've seen, or maybe the description "chic studio" caught my eye. So I turned up, with no preconceived notions of how this apartment looked like. Or maybe that's it, no visual image means no mental expectation of the apartment measuring up to its photos. But it turned out to be an apartment which I could easily see myself living in. The area was leafy and residential, instead of drunk, homeless people hassling you for a cigarette, people were walking their dogs. There was no bars or clubs which I could see along the street. The building was solid red-brick instead of glass and steel. There was even a homely clothes line at the back of the yard.

The apartment was reasonable in size and was neat and tidy. The nicely made up bed with matching duvet and pillow cases was inviting. Natural light flooded the studio and windows almost all around would ensure good air circulation. A white counter segregated the kitchen from the sleeping area, and a solid teak bench with green cushions made for a perch for you to have your meals or work on the laptop at the counter. And if one plans to invite friends over, you could easily push up the murphy bed and there would be plenty of space. It was all rather attractive - even without the photos.

So sometimes, you just gotta take it on faith.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

What You Thought You Wanted

Life is strange. Sometimes, you think you know what you want, and you have such great conviction that this is exactly what you want, you plan and scheme on getting your hands on it, you pray and hope that you get it. Then, when it's almost within your grasp, what you thought you want is just ... not.

Well, I was so desperate to lay hands on that apartment, I emailed everyone I thought who could help me get in touch with the agent who wouldn't reply to my emails and just in case, to inspect the apartment by proxy before I arrived. I was convinced it was what I had wanted. So very badly. I was obsessing a little even.

Then I viewed the place when I arrived, with 4 other competitors. We interrogated the agent as to how soon we could put in our applications, I had even wanted to go to the real estate agency with him there and then, unfortunately (or fortunately), he had other viewings to attend to and we all had to fax in our applications on Monday. And suddenly after leaving the apartment, the scales fell from my eyes. I started having more second thoughts. Then I started to look at older art deco style apartments in a new light. True, they had no air conditioning nor heating built in (but the recent cool weather was promising), they would tax my poor knees dearly if the apartment were situated any higher than the 2nd floor and they were generally old. But the lure of bigger space, tastefully furnished for around the same rent, was a definite plus at this point in time.

I hesitated. I paused. I hemmed and I hawed.

What I had found so appropriate, so ideal, with such great conviction, suddenly didn't look so wonderful after all. Our wants and needs and priorities in life change, sometimes quicker than others. Some things trivial, some not so trivial. Some things make a small dent in our lives, some have significant impact when we change our minds - just like that. I guess the important thing to remember is not to hold on too tightly to what one thinks is one's ideals, needs, priorities. Sometimes, things change very quickly and you just have to go with the flow - don't fight it, just float...

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Excess Baggage

Today is the day before. Late last night, in a bid to be compliant with the airline's baggage weight limit policy, I attempted to remove some clothes and repack the bags to make everything I need in the next 18 months fit. In the end, I think the 3 garments I removed hardly made a difference. In my mind's eye, I contemplated every item of clothing I had packed, everything seemed to be things that I wear regularly and not "just in case" outfits. What else could I remove? It looked like mission impossible. I went to bed.

This morning I rang the airline. They needed faxed copies of evidence to prove that I am going to be a student in order to consider waiver of the weight limit. I make some more phone calls and send more emails. Ok that request will be sent off today for their due consideration. Actually all in all, I think I'd packed off 70 kgs, part of which had gone on an earlier trip, another portion in a DHL jumbo box and now the balance, with me.

The problem is everything looks necessary, feels relevant and doesn't appear dispensible. Maybe we all go through life with too much excess baggage, but yet at the material time, every single thing is something we feel we cannot do without. We can't let it go, we can't imagine life without it, we don't think we'll be able to find something similar (or completely different for that matter) to replace it. But ultimately, we can and we will be able to do without certain things in life, one just needs to let it go. Having said that, I'm going to go remove that rice cooker from my suitcase now...