Saturday, March 18, 2017

Open, Sesame!

This command, lifted from the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, is apt not because I discovered treasure, but because I discovered Alibaba: the Chinese Internet marketing powerhouse founded and led by multi-billionaire Jack Ma. Don't get me wrong: I knew of it. I just couldn't make use of it. Till now.

Last entry I alluded to an electronic wallet called Alipay, a subsidiary of Mr. Ma's brainchild. I'd like to expound on that topic in this entry.

Ever since it became mainstream I've longed for something every Chinese enjoys: the convenience of online shopping, for anything from train tickets to western goods. I've been frustrated and stymied at every turn, first trying to get my bank card to cooperate and then, to get the SmartPhone applications to accept my bank card. Not that the applications were in any way unmanageable; the bank card itself provided limitations on its usage. Eventually, I gave up on the idea of shopping online by myself. The few times I needed something available only online,  Sam, Gary and once, even Summer obliged.

How kind of them to do for me! How resentful I grew because I couldn't do for myself.

All of that changed last month when, in sheer desperation, I opened a new bank account, separate from anything that has to do with the school (see A Logistical Nightmare entry, posted last month.) Because I was not able to send that bank card abroad, I figured I would make use of it myself.

As soon as I married that bank card to Alibaba's electronic wallet, a whole new world of convenience and commerce opened to me. It was like commanding 'Open, Sesame!'. By linking my newly-established TaoBao account to Alipay, a simpler process than entering credit card information into Amazon's personal data page, I can rely on Alipay to function as a subsystem of TaoBao, China's largest online retailer. All it takes is using my electronic wallet's buit-in QR scanner to read the shopping page's code on my computer screen: Presto! I am logged in, and can shop till I drop. Or, better yet: use my phone's TaoBao app, which automatically 'talks' to the Alipay app come time to check out. Still more convenient: use TaoBao's link right from the Alipay menu selection.

Alipay is accepted everywhere in China, from restaurants to stores at the mall. Here is how it works: each Alipay account is assigned its own unique QR code. Come time to pay for my purchases, I pull up my account's code on my phone and the cashier scans it with the same scanner used to read line-type barcodes. Funds are automatically debited. An extra bonus: I get a text message from the bank, stating a debit has just occurred in the amount of...

Even the farmer's market accepts Alipay! There, I simply add a vendor on the assigned page and transfer money from my 'wallet' to theirs. And speaking of pages: Alipay has considerately found and listed every single food vendor that delivers in my neighborhood. By selecting any vendor on that page, I can see a menu, order food and pay for it, all with a few swipes on my phones screen, and then sit back and wait for dinner to be delivered. Alipay functions are endless! Ordering a car, buying train tickets, paying for utilities... I can recharge (add prepaid minutes to) my phone without having to find a phone store to do so. I can even send money abroad, using its international function – but only because my phone is not registered to me. It is registered to a Chinese person. This function is blocked for foreigners without a residence permit.

In a remarkably short time, China has gone from a cash-based society to a (nearly) cashless society. When I first arrived here, the local grocery stores wouldn't accept even a bank card. It had become routine to count my money or stock up on bills at the campus ATM before venturing out, or marking banks in my more frequent haunts, around Metro or other areas I tend toward, for possible cash withdrawals. Gone now is the need to carry funds or locate banks; 'have phone will shop' is the phrase of the day. 

And is it secure? Each Alipay user must create a 6-digit PIN, to be entered with each transaction. If there is any confusion or a mistake, or if you are using your PC to shop instead of your phone, the system will prompt an extra keycode entry.

The greatest dangers with Alipay are losing your phone or forgetting your PIN. This app is far safer than carrying wads of cash around or whipping out a bank card for each transaction. Whereas either of those could be lost or stolen, or your card information lifted while you use the ATM, you are not likely to lose your electronic wallet. Of course, you could lose your phone, but with a 6-digit PIN being harder to crack than a 4-digit one, your bank balance is likely still safe should someone with hacking skills find your device.

Now I shop TaoBao by myself. My first foray was to buy deodorant, something near impossible to find in Chinese stores. Being just about out of deodorant is what drove me to try the whole online shopping venture to begin with.

In the short time I've been privy to this utility, I haven't exactly gone nuts, shopping at all hours and ordering all manner of mundane or superfluous things, as I suspect my students do (as I know Gary does: he will cruise the virtual mall on his phone no matter where we're at, ordering whatever strikes his fancy). However, I did manage to score a plane ticket out of China, and only yesterday, bought four loaves of high-fiber German bread, essential for my stomach's well-being.

Today, I got a text message from a courier: my bread has arrived: that was quick! I can pick it up at a parcel depot on campus. As there are 3 such stations on campus alone – and several just outside of campus, the depot doyenne had to specify which one to go to. I guess you could say the high number of outlets serving this tiny community is testament to our students' love of online shopping.

The downside of ordering online in China is that seldom do parcels make it to your door, even though complete addresses are required for any order. 

As I've been under the weather all weekend, I didn't retrieve my package today. I sent a text that I would be by tomorrow. And then, all while struggling to breathe, I agonized...

One reason I came to China was to live a simple life (another was to experience life in China as fully as possible). Maybe I envisioned going back in time where society is not so modern, competitive or encumbered. Where one does their shopping strictly in local markets, and whatever is available is good enough. By my very desire to shop online, have I turned hypocrite? Or should I ascribe using this app as in keeping with my (secondary) goal?

I hope I've not turned hypocritical. After all, I do live as simply as I can, but I need deodorant: you really don't want to be around me when I don't wear any. And, if I didn't buy the German bread online, I would be buying it at Metro, where there is less variety and what is available costs more (and I would have to go much further to get it, and it is not always in stock).

Which leads me to ponder another question: what do the Chinese do for dietary fiber? It's not like their diet is rife with fiber-rich foods. In fact, I think that might have started all the trouble with my stomach. The first few years I was here, I did buy local and make do. My stomach didn't like it. 

However, judging by the array of laxatives available on TaoBao (and in pharmacies), I'm guessing the Chinese have as much trouble with their stomachs as I do. Lucky for them, they can shop online: relief is only a few SmartPhone swipes (and one parcel depot) away.

Unlucky for me, I will have to give up Alipay Wallet and all of its associated features when I leave here. After only just having discovered it!     

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