For those of you who hate opening your letter box after a long day at work and finding only bills in there – count yourself lucky. I now appreciate how back in Germany (and probably in most other countries) you can either pay your monthly utilities after receiving a bill or just linking your bank account to your utility account and have everything deducted directly.

Imagine having various reading meters in or outside of your apartment for each resource: warm water, gas, electricity, and recycled water (a.k.a. toilet flushing water) and then a matching top-up card for each meter. The general idea is that all utilities, apart from cold water which is post-paid / billed upon consumption, are prepaid in China, which in itself would not be such a problem. However, every single card has to be topped up at different venues – Welcome to China! Why keep it simple if you are able to complicate things?

All our different utility cards

For someone who has never thought about how many kWh or tons of water you need per month, it was difficult to gage how much to top up on each card. My motto now is to just park a huge sum on each card and then regularly monitor the meters so we do not run out of money and whatever utility. Doable in theory….not so much when some meters are hidden in small secret outlets underneath a drawer to which you have no access to and which you can only read if you manage to squeeze your hand into that crack and take a picture of the meter display.

That being said, I found myself running to different banks and offices in our first weeks here to set everything up. Seeing we have five different cards which meant having to go to five different locations, it took me about an entire day to get this task settled. Thankfully for WeChat and Alipay (in a nutshell: WeChat is the Chinese equivalent to WhatsApp and Facebook combined and Alipay is like Paypal) I am now able to pay for electricity and cold water online, leaving me with only three instead of five offices and banks to go to when a top-up is necessary.

In the first few weeks the whole idea of running out of warm water or electricity terrified me and left me checking the meters every two to three days. This then dwindled on to once a week and then every couple of weeks…until IT happened: opening our apartment door at 9pm after just having come back from vacation and realizing we were out of electricity. At that point in time I had not yet learnt how to top-up our electricity card online, which meant I had to go to the bank that only opened in another 11 hours. My only option was to use the machine in our lobby, which required a Chinese ATM card as well as a proficiency in Chinese, which I did not (and still do not) possess. Good thing Stephan was on a business trip and had of course taken his ATM card with him and even better that I DID have my own ATM card but there was no money on my account, since I always use Stephan’s account and card when needed. I was about to collapse and dissolve into a sea of tears, especially since I realized my mobile phone only had 8% battery life left and there was no way I could charge my phone without electricity and that the 8% were never going to be enough to call anyone for help. The breakdown would not have helped fix the problem and seeing I was lucky enough for the power to have just gone out a few minutes before my return home (everything was still frozen and chilled), I quickly had to come up with an action plan. This had me trudging to the nearest 24-hour banking terminal, which was thankfully only a 15 minute walk away, withdrawing money from my German Visa card, cashing in this money onto my Chinese ATM card and then walking back home and waiting in our lobby for someone to appear who I could then ask to help me with the Chinese top-up machine. Hurray for hungry neighbors who had ordered some food at 10pm, because I was able to convince that delivery guy to assist me to top-up the electricity card. And after a 1-hour odyssey there was light…

Traumatized by this experience you can imagine I am now back to checking the meters every few days. Now imagine the shock when I got home from a yoga class a few weeks ago and found myself without warm water for a shower. Oh, I think I forgot to mention this occurred on a Thursday and water can only be bought on a Wednesday! But good thing we have a second bathroom and that one still had hot water. So after trying to figure out how on earth we managed to use up all our hot water that fast (as mentioned, I am traumatized and now ALWAYS park a hefty amount onto each card) and then seeing that the meter reading said we actually still had enough hot water to last us until the end of the year, I had our building management come to take a look. The problem? An empty battery in the water meter meant that the flow of warm water could not be tracked, which resulted in the hot water being turned off completely. Oh, the things you take for granted back home!

With this newly gained knowledge about empty batteries and utility meters, I will definitely not go straight into panic mode once we “run out” of whatever. Instead, I will firstly check if the battery needs replacement. Ah, and did I mention that each one of our five meters requires a different sort of battery…?