…because not all of us have our Peking ducks in a row
Written in April 2006, before the happy advent of internet banking
After two years of living in China, I’ve finally made my first wire transfer at a bank without help from anyone! THIS is a day to remember! THIS is a day that’s right up there with the day I took my first baby steps and the day that I got behind the wheel of my first car – dad’s ’76 Chevy Nova, complete with a heavily duct-taped rear view mirror, which reflected red vinyl backseats belching yellow seat padding. But those accomplishments are nothing compared to successfully navigating my way through the schizophrenic mess of week-old pork balls in fermented tofu broth that is otherwise known as the Chinese banking system.
Now, before you accuse me of exaggerating, you need to know that,
1. Chinese bank tellers display as much enthusiasm towards their customers as you might towards sticking sharp metal objects repeatedly into an ungrounded electrical socket wired by an unlicensed Chinese contractor, while drinking melamine-milk and being attacked by birds with the H7N9 virus.
2. the largest currency denomination in China is 100 Yuan (about US$12.19*), which means that if you want to withdraw US$5000.00 cash, you’d better have a big bag and a bodyguard named Jackie-Jet-Li-Bruce-Lee-Enter-the-Dragon-Exit-from-the-Rear-Chan.
3. banks in China are set up so that it’s easy for you to deposit money into your account, but difficult to take the money out. When depositing money, tellers are more than happy to fill out the cryptic bank forms for you, but when withdrawing cash, you must use a certain colored pen to fill out the correct form, which all resemble each other, while printing your name they way they taught you in the third grade and providing the correct form(s) of ID that’s free of any blemishes and taken on the correct-colored background. Any tiny mistake – ie. 200″5″ changed to a 200″6″ – will require that you scrap the form and start all over again.
4. branch Managers are unhappy if there aren’t at least five slow-moving, unprepared, hard-of-hearing, language-deficient customers with anger management issues waiting for at least twenty minutes in the wrong lines. There is also a negative correlation between the number of people waiting and the number of tellers available. Bank tellers in China also like to take their two-hour lunch breaks when it’s time for your one-hour-to-one-and-a-half-hour-lunch break.
5. Chinese banks are all government-owned and some are housed in palatial buildings with uniformed employees located in certain corners of the building sitting behind large mahogany-veneered desks and new flat screened computers. These employees are for decorative purposes only, as they hold no cash, can’t help you fill out any forms, and have no authority to help you with any part of the banking transaction.
6. China’s a country populated by borderline-deaf-but-unfortunately-not-so-mute people. This phenomenon is most evident when observing someone talking on a cell phone 5-, 10-, or even 50-feet away. To take advantage of this problem, Chinese banks have erected thick bullet-proof plexiglass partitions on all teller windows, so that you can scream your personal details or the $5000 in $12.19 bills you want to withdraw at the teller who’s not listening to you on the other side.
Every time I go to a bank in China, I expect to accomplish nothing. Just like going on a date with a great guy you met online but have never met in real life, it’s best to enter a bank in China with the lowest or no expectations.
So, how in the world did Susan ever manage to transfer money in a Chinese bank?
–> First, I had a “rehearsal” the day before the actual wire transfer: I planned and took the quickest route to the bank during lunch, scoped out the fastest teller and took home all of the available forms, so that I could review them thoroughly, find the correct form and fill it out properly in advance.
–> Next, I photocopied the form(s) which might be vaguely applicable for a wire transfer. All bank forms in China are baffling as there is little instruction and few spaces to fill out. For example, the wire transfer form didn’t even ask for my account number and there was no space where I could put the destination bank name.
–> On the next day – the day of the actual wire transfer – I brought with me the following items: my passport (ID), copies of the filled out forms (to copy from), passbooks for the bank I’m wiring FROM (to verify my account number) and the bank I’m wiring TO (to verify account number), a current letter from the gas company showing my current address (to verify my existence, if necessary), my business card (to verify that I’m gainfully employed and am the rightful owner of the money in both accounts), my cell phone (to call for help), my mini can of pepper spray (for would-be attackers who might “overhear” the amount I’m transferring), and a correctly-colored pen (in case the ones in the bank don’t work properly).
Upon entering the bank, I was greeted by the Security Guard. In China, the Bank Security Guard is your rickety rickshaw of a welcome wagon to the world of communist banking. Before the age of automation (ie. Taking a number from a machine) and in many rural Chinese banks today, one of the Bank Security Guard’s main responsibilities is to show customers which forms to fill, how to fill them, and how to use the ATM.
Security Guard: Do you need any help?
Me: (In a clear and confident voice) I need to make a bank to bank wire transfer within the city of Z! The other bank is not the same one as yours but located in the same city. I believe I have the right form here. (Showing the Security Guard the form.)
Security Guard: (Looking at me skeptically) Do you have an account with us?
Now, before jumping to conclusions, you have to know that the majority of the people in my town are from rural areas of China, where the Bank of Underneath Your Mattress was the most trusted bank for decades. The Bank of Underneath Your Mattress never requires complicated forms and doesn’t employ surly staff. The Bank of Underneath Your Mattress is open 24/7 and deposits and withdraws are unlimited. For patrons of the Bank of Underneath Your Mattress, a real Chinese bank is a relatively new experience. While waiting in line at various banks over the years, I’ve overhead the following:
TELLER TO MAN: Your name should have three words. You wrote only two.
TELLER TO MAN: Is this a “0″ or a “6″? I can’t tell with your writing.
MAN: (Squinting at the form he just filled out) It’s a “0″… NO! NO! It’s a “6”...Wait! NO! It’s a …
MAN TO TELLER: Tell me quick! Is my PIN number “111111″ or “123456”? I forget.
MAN TO TELLER: Can’t I just have RMB1000* now? I promise to return it tomorrow!
MAN TO TELLER: Why doesn’t my debit card work?
TELLER TO MAN: You reported it missing last week and told us to cancel it!
Well, you can see what I mean.
The rest of my wire transfer went incredibly well, considering my odds. The money was transferred and arrived in my account the next day.
And…this post has nothing to do with sex. Just figured nobody wanted to read something that just said, “Of Banks”.
*USD1.00=RMB8.00 at the time this post was written