High technology eating

JISHOU, HUNAN — I had to upgrade my cell phone today in order to eat tomorrow. In a real life analogy to upgrading to Windows N+1 or OS X+I, in order to buy a meal, I had to upgrade my hardware.

Naturally, there were compatibility problems.

There were some major changes to the main university dining hall this summer. The second floor got new tables and chairs, new serving lines and (bless us all) air conditioners. The other big change was, beginning this week, we can no longer pay cash for our meals.

Previously, there were two payment options: good old fashioned cash money and the SIM cards in our cellphones. Most students paid with their phones. Each serving line had a “wave-and-pay” near-field reader: hold your phone against the reader and the meal cost is deducted from your account. It’s a pay-as-you-go arrangement, so students periodically have to refill their accounts at the dining hall or cellphone office.

I, however, just used cash, because I eat less often at the dining hall (also known as the canteen here) than the students do. But that option ended this week. After a two-week transition period of requiring us Luddites to buy meal tickets at the door, the university switched completely to the wave-and-pay system.

For four days, I relied on my forgiving students to pay for my meals with their phones, but today decided it was time to get on the bandwagon. So, my colleague Gordon Ye and I went to the dining hall office to set my phone up.

Except it didn’t work. While my phone is only two years old, the SIM card is older, and not compatible with the payment system. Time to upgrade! Fortunately, there is a China Mobile office on campus, so we headed over there to get a spanking new SIM card for my Nokia.

As with any other upgrade, it always takes 10 times longer than you expect to get it to work. First, the tech said the phone couldn’t accept the new card. I replied several students had the same model phone, and had no problems. He tried again. Success! (But I had to disable my security app twice.) Then I had to drop 100 yuan into my phone account — not so bad, since China Mobile is offering a “pay 100 yuan, get minutes worth 500 yuan” deal for the fall term — and wait for the salesclerk to work her magic on the computer terminal. Then we went to another part of the office to set up the wave-and-pay system on the new SIM card.

Again, there were some small glitches. Another tech asked us what my four-digit employee payroll number is.

“Well, I don’t have one.”
“How does the university pay you, then?”
“Direct deposit, but the Foreign Affairs Office makes those arrangements, not the payroll office.”

I gathered that everyone, except the foreign teachers, apparently has a four-digit number that accompanies their university account. An employee has one for payroll deposits; a student has one for deductions from his or her bank account for tuition and other fees. Gordon worked something out with the tech, and in a few more minutes, my SIM was being programmed and soon had 100 yuan on it for eating at the canteen. (That’s enough for about 25 meals, by the way.)

The entire process, from dining hall to mobile phone office, took two hours. Quicker than upgrading Windows, anyway.

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