Normally, I have it pretty easy when it comes to auto maintenance in Beijing. There’s a place down the street that provides roadside assistance and auto repair. And they speak English. And they come to your house to pick up your car.
But the last time they took my car to be serviced, a few months back, they reported that it needed new brake pads and rotors. Which they don’t sell in China. So I called my dad and asked him to procure the parts. After much back-and-forthing between my dad in the States, me in China, the Honda dealer in the States and the mechanic in China, it was determined that the car shouldn’t need new rotors – just brake pads. The rotors could be ground down a bit if necessary and they’d be good as new. After all, the mechanic said he couldn’t see any damage to the rotors – he just thought they should be replaced at the same time as the pads, anyway.
So my dad shipped me brake pads (thanks dad!). When I called the car place to have them put in, they refused to do it without the rotors, which they now claimed had been damaged, after all. Huh?
I turned to the Embassy vehicle maintenance people. They called the repair place and determined that the rotors probably could be “turned,” (is that another word for “ground down”?), but that the repair place didn’t have the necessary equipment to do it – hence their desire for brand new rotors. The Embassy mechanics only deal with American cars, but they tracked down a Honda service center, explained the situation and made an appointment for me. They sent me a map (all in Chinese), warned me that it would cost at least 600 RMB to have the rotors taken apart and examined, and wished me luck.
I looked and looked at that map. I knew the place was off the Fourth Ring Road, on the north side of town. But would it be visible from the road? Would it even have a sign? And how far down the ring would it be?
I set off this morning before work. I was a little bit nervous about whether I’d be able to get this taken care of on my own. I told Xiao Tong what I needed to do, and I mentioned that they didn’t speak any English at all. She smiled reassuringly and said in Chinese “It’s okay. You can speak to them in Chinese.” Which made me feel better, until I realized it could have been more of a bemused smile. She could have been saying “You? Speak to them in Chinese?” There’s just no way to know.
After all of that worrying, it turned out the place was easy to find. If only they’d told me it was one block past IKEA – every expat in Beijing knows where that is. I found it, I parked and I went inside.
And here is where the fun began. I explained to the lady at the desk in halting Chinese that the Embassy had made an appointment for me, and I had the part with me. She listened, nodding, and then said something totally unintelligible. “I’m sorry,” I answered, “but I don’t understand.” She tried again. She gestured toward the phone and said…. Well, I have no idea what she said. So I replied, in Chinese “My Chinese is very bad.” She just sort of sighed and looked down at her hands.
Eventually, though, we got it all sorted out. I was going to leave the car with them, and they were going to call the Embassy when it was fixed. I think that’s what we decided, anyway, but I can’t be sure.
I left without the car, hailed a cab, and headed off to work.
At the end of my work day, I hailed another cab and showed him my mysterious Chinese map, to indicate where I needed to go. He didn’t understand it either. But eventually, he got me back to the repair shop. I asked him if he knew what IKEA was. He didn’t. But I said I was going to “a place close to a huge store off the 4th Ring Road,” and sure enough, he drove me straight to IKEA.
After all that effort, and stress, and time on the expressway, what do you suppose they told me? It seems there is absolutely nothing wrong with the brake pads or the rotors. They told the car folks at the Embassy that they “polished” the rotors (is that yet another word for “ground down”?). Or something like that. I think they said there was something stuck on one of the brake pads, but is that possible? I don’t know. They did something, that’s for sure, because the car braked a little bit more smoothly on the ride home (and trust me – if you do much driving in Beijing, you need brakes that work). But they didn’t charge me. Not a single jiao. And the brand new brake pads are still in the box - waiting for Jordan, I guess.
Sometimes this place baffles me. After almost three years here, I still get worked up trying to drive myself to a new place. I still can’t communicate about the most basic things. I can drive, though, and hopefully, just hopefully, I can brake when I need to.