As I alluded to yesterday, my first twelve hours of freedom were occupied by grabbing a beer with a friend, followed by dinner with a few other friends. I hadn’t seen these folks for over a year. For beers, we went to my favorite Shanghai beer place, Beer Lady. The vibe of this place very much reminds me of the now closed Malt and Vine in Redmond, which is well known to the Microsofties. It’s the same idea, a rotating collection of beers on tap and an endless row of coolers with bottles of beer from all over the world. My understanding is that like so many other businesses in Shanghai, it is suffering. Its business has been dwindling because of COVID lock downs and the huge exodus of foreigners who made up a significant part of their clientele.
For dinner I went to a North Korean restaurant that is state owned and run by the North Korean government. I guess that it is used to generate foreign income for North Korea. My friends selected this place, and it was largely a novelty visit. Apparently, the hermit kingdom is even a mystery to Chinese people.
The entire staff at the restaurant was made up of young women (I didn’t see any men) from North Korea. They smiled the whole time and spoke Chinese with a strong accent that even I could detect. One of my friends tried to get the WeChat address of one of the waitresses and she told us that she wasn’t allowed to have an individual one, and she gave him the restaurant one. Dinner was also accompanied by a show where the waitresses turned into quite skilled performers playing various North Korean and Chinese songs. Curiously, you weren’t allowed to take pictures of the staff, but I managed to sneak some in anyway (I blurred their faces because I don’t want to get folks into trouble). Clearly these folks were under tight control of the North Korean government.
The food was probably best described as a less fancy version of South Korean food. My friends felt the food was so so, but to me the food was great. Especially after 8 days of quarantine food. Apparently before COVID the ingredients were all shipped in from North Korea but nowadays it is sourced locally.
By 10pm I was back at my hotel. During quarantine I got into a schedule of going to bed early (9pm) and waking up early (4am) and I’m still adjusting so I didn’t want to make it crazy late. Besides, for my unplanned extra day I had two activities planned: figure out how to get a COVID test and fix my bank account.
To control COVID, Shanghai has setup over 5000 COVID test points across the city. You are required to take a COVID test every 3 days to keep your health certificate valid. That is the current situation, apparently two weeks ago you were required to get tested every day, so things are fluid. While my last test from my quarantine was still valid, my health code showed that it was 48-hours since my last negative test, I wanted to see how this process worked. If I ran into any trouble, then I could always ask for people to help me on the next day.
It turned out that there is a testing site next to my hotel, about 80 meters away. I walked up there around 10:15am. There was a small queue, but it went fast. The test is free, so all they do is scan your health code and give you a cotton swab and/or vial. When I showed up and the person scanned my code, his first comment was that it wasn’t necessary for me to get a test. I knew that but I just played dumb. That’s when he gave me a cotton swab and told me to get in line for testing. This confused me because the person in front of me had also gotten a vial. I pointed to a vial, but he was clear that I didn’t need that. The person behind me just got a cotton swab too and that’s when it dawned on me what was going on.
Someone had told me a few weeks ago that to improve testing efficiency, they batch 10 tests together. That is, 10 swabs from different people are put together and all the samples are tested as one sample. Clearly this improves testing throughput by 10x but if someone in that batch has COVID then all 10 are assumed to have COVID because they cannot discern between the individuals. This is exactly what was going on in my case. My sample was put into the same vial as my predecessor and my successor (I checked).
Later that afternoon I was playing with the health code App. It has a set of extra buttons/functions that I had not figured out yet. In my defense, its all in Chinese. In doing so I stumbled onto a log of all my COVID tests. I could see all the tests that were taken during my quarantine (all negative) and I saw that the test I took in the morning was still pending. While I was fooling around with the App, my test result came in and it showed up as negative. I was quite impressed at the efficiency of taking these COVID tests and tracking the results. Yes, these 3-day COVID tests are invasive, but they are administered very efficiently. A friend on mine who works in Shanghai mentioned that its even easier for him, they just come into his office every 3 days.
Now that I had mastered the art of regular COVID testing it was time to address another problem, My Chinese bank account (see this page on how I acquired that) was linked to my expired passport. As a result, my bank account was blocked from doing any transactions until I updated it with my new passport. Since having a bank account is a necessity in China, everything is linked off that, it was my highest priority to remedy that.
To prepare for this, I had asked my Chinese teacher to write a letter explaining that I needed to update my ID associated with my account. With that letter in hand, I went to the nearest branch of my bank. After the health scan ritual to get into the bank, I was greeted by a bank employee who spoke English. That was a huge relief because when I opened my account originally no one spoke English. I gave the clerk my letter and he immediately led me to a counter and assigned someone to help me. I gave him the letter, my old passport, my new passport, and my bank pass. I’m not quite sure what all happened, he needed help from 4 different people, and I had to approve things a few times over, but after 45 minutes they had updated my account. Between the letter, my broken Chinese, and his broken English we managed to figure it out. They even asked me to transfer 1 RMB to my Alipay account so we could test that everything works again.
With these necessities out of the way, I’m ready to take on China again!