In which I demonstrate that I am the Awkward Conversation King. All hail me.
This happened on 12/13 July 2009, a couple days after I arrived in Sydney. Prior to this point, I had never fully lived on my own and was thus totally ignorant of how things worked in the Real World. Thus did a simple trip down the street to buy a SIM card become way more complicated than it needed to be. I’m still waiting for this story to show up on Not Always Right.
“Why do you need a SIM card? Didn’t your phone work in Australia?”
It costs a fortune to call people within Australia using a US SIM card, because the signal goes from Australia to the US and right back to Australia, so we’re like “Screw it, we’re getting an Australian SIM card.” We decided on one that comes with this extraordinarily cheap prepaid network that is sold in exactly three stores in Sydney: one in my neighbourhood, a store on Mountain Street conveniently located near the Uni, and two in the City. The network promotional materials, paragons of honesty they are, said outgoing calls would cost me 39c a minute, with free incoming calls. The starter pack, with SIM card, is $5. It took three and a half tries to get it.
…was on a Sunday. I know, I know. To be fair, I did have doubts that the store on Mountain Street would even be open, since it’s, you know, Sunday. I go down, I try the doors, they’re locked, and then I notice the “Closed” sign. Okay. No problem. Abort, retry tomorrow.
…was early on Monday afternoon. I go down to the store, the lights are on, the sign says “Open,” and…the doors are still locked! Did everyone in there have swine flu or something? I was about to go home and sulk and angst about how I wasn’t able to locate a SIM card and now I’ll get soaked whenever I try to call anyone when I remembered the SIM card I want is, in fact, sold in two other stores. To the City!
Because I’m shameless, I’m now going to do the same thing Bryson did for an awkward conversation of his own at the end of Chapter 5 in Down Under. You are now a clerk at a Vodaphone store inside a small shopping centre on Pitt Street. You’re performing your clerkly duties with another customer when, out of the corner of your eye, you see a teenager hesitantly stumble in. He walks to the back of the mall, stands there staring at the wall for a few seconds, walks back out, and then back in again. He looks like an amnesiac who escaped from the institution. Then he stares at you and goes, “Is this [the phone store]?”
He talks funny. Your knuckles go white and your stomach churns, because you realise that you are dealing with a subspecies of human much, much more difficult* than mental patients: International Students. The accent is unquestionably North American, so you start praying to your deity of choice that this kid’s from the land of beavers, moose, and Mounties.** They’re so nice up there…
You manage to stammer out a “Yes, it is,” before he walks up to the counter. It is at this point that you start hoping this kid’s got some brains on him and you won’t be stuck with him for a whole hour, like with the last International Student that waltzed in. Except this kid doesn’t even waltz. He just sort of awkwardly shambles in, like he’s not used to the gravity on this planet, and unceremoniously plops down in the chair straight across from you. He now demands your full attention. There is no escape.
At first, the exchange seems promising. The kid may not know exactly what SIM card he wanted, but he does know the unlock code, and he doesn’t start wailing in horror when you start dissecting the phone to replace SIM cards. But things go downhill from there.
The first sign of trouble comes when you ask for photo ID. He doesn’t have one. He does know his student number at the school he’s going to, so it’s not the end of the world. No, that comes later.
He asks for an airtime card. You give him one, and tell him the price. He roots around in his pants pockets for a while before going white. He doesn’t have any money. What he says next gives you the chills:
“Tell you what: I can come back. Where I’m staying is a half-hour walk from here, so I’ll go home, get $35, return, and then I can pay for the SIM card. Is that okay?”
You are being left in the lurch. This is exactly how your last encounter with an International Student played out. You were stuck there for a whole hour while the kid was cave-diving for spare change. But the customer is Always Right, so you say yes, and he leaves.
The whole time he is gone you are staring at the clock, hoping that your shift will end before he returns. No such luck. Forty-five minutes later, you can see the kid walk into the shopping centre, much more purposefully this time, and you curse under your breath. He’s back.
Again, it starts off promising. He actually has money, and he even brought his photo ID. The transaction goes perfectly. Then you make the mistake of asking him to fill out a form which asks for his address. He gives you a street corner instead, which any fool knows isn’t valid. The kid starts shifting in his seat, because, you discover, he doesn’t even know the address of his own apartment building!
Fortunately, another customer sitting next to him chimes in, saying he knows where the kid’s building is (cree-py), and we could find the address for him. You explain to the kid, several times, that he can head home now, that he doesn’t have to do anything else here, and he visibly brightens (it turns out he was as uncomfortable with this whole exchange as you were) and practically bounds out the door.
When the whole affair is over, you lean back, rub your temples, and silently count the days until retirement. And then another International Student wanders in…
*If anyone can come up with a phrasing that’s not ableist, I’m all ears.
**I can’t verify this, as I’m not Canadian, but I’ve been informed that Canadians [understandably] don’t react well to being mistaken for Americans. Therefore, when people from the rest of the world are forced to breathe the same air as a North American and the question of the NAn’s nationality comes up, it’s always best to assume the NAn’s from Canada.