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Cash, Please

May 26, 2010

On Banking in China

Today I tried to withdraw cash from an ATM machine. Kudos to you if you can already see where this is going, because I, in all my blissful ignorance and optimism, really thought that I could pull up to a Bank of China branch (our bank, by the way, where we actually have an account and presumably money), pull out some cash, and pull away in short order. Oh, the folly.

Granted, I haven’t taken out money at this particular location before, and so when I walk into the bank, I have to stand for a minute, bewildered by the many choices in front of me. Should I enter one of the two enclosed booths directly ahead? Or should I use one of the two (entirely different from one another) machines standing out in the open to my right? I opt for one of the booths. After trying to put my ATM card in backwards, I correct my mistake, the machine takes my offering, and it prompts me to accept some statement written in Chinese. Assuming that I’m dealing with the standard ‘protect your pin number from the scary people who are stalking you,’ I press the green button.

Next, I get the choice to bank in English or Chinese. How obliging! I select English. Then I see a familiar screen asking me to enter a code. I confidently start to input my pin number and am alarmed to see the number itself appearing on the screen (instead of just discreet little stars). So I stop and read the directions a little more carefully. Aha! It’s asking me to enter my deposit card number. Hmmmm…something’s not quite right here. I step back and examine the machine. There’s a sign talking about deposits and ‘cashing recycling,’ whatever that means, but there’s also a notice proclaiming that this unit only dispenses cash in 50 or 100 yuan notes. Alright, so I should be able to take out money, right?

But after several more fruitless attempts, I determine that I must, in fact, have chosen wrongly. Chuckling ruefully to myself, I press the ‘cancel transaction’ button, expecting to retrieve my card and try my luck at a different machine. It soon becomes clear, however, that the machine has not the slightest intention of returning my card to me. Now, this is a 24-hour self-service situation, but fortunately I am here during business hours, and there are plenty of employees scurrying around in the full-service part of the bank. Feeling grateful that I didn’t try to do this last night at 10 pm, I open my door, lean my head around the corner, and try to attract someone’s attention.

Nope, nobody is responding to the pigtailed white lady in her yoga pants. I don’t really want to leave my card and walk into the main customer area, so I press what appears to be an intercom button, and sure enough, a disembodied voice mutters something in Mandarin.

Please keep in mind that we’ve been living here for 3 months, and my command of the Chinese language is rudimentary at best. However, I am certainly up to the task of communicating that I put in my card, it’s not working, and I would like it back, please.

The voice tells me–I’m pretty sure–to wait. OK. So a couple minutes go by, but nothing happens. I pop my head out and spy a lady with a mop. “Please help me,” I say in Chinese. She’s quite taken aback to be addressed in this manner…here she is, just trying to mop the floor in peace, and this pushy ‘laowai‘ is harassing her. Nevertheless, she waves over a guy in a bank uniform, and I try to explain my problem again. He also tells me to wait, but this time I’m almost certain that he understands what is going on. So I’m a little annoyed but still hopeful.

Five minutes later, I am shading more towards annoyed and less towards hopeful. I still don’t want to walk away from the machine that is holding my card hostage, but I’m starting to think that I need to be a bit more assertive if I want to get out of here before lunch. I compromise by walking a few steps toward the waiting area where all the tellers are sitting calmly behind their glass windows. I make eye contact with someone and gesture impatiently. (Now I am officially that pushy laowai who thinks the world revolves around her.) A teller indicates that I should sit down. Since I can safely do this but also keep an eye on my booth, I do so.

Finally the man in the uniform emerges from a back room with 2 other people, both of whom are carrying large key rings. They disappear through a door that would seem to lead to the back of the ATM machine.

Now we’re getting somewhere, I think to myself. Surely the bank people will come out with my card in hand, all smiles and apologies, and send me on my merry way. (At this juncture, you should certainly snort derisively and shake your head at my continued cluelessness.)

A few minutes elapse; then the man in uniform comes over–empty-handed, as I probably don’t need to point out–and tells me to wait for teller #2. I make a very exasperated face and step up to the counter. The man behind the glass tells me to sit. Growing wiser by the moment, I don’t take this instruction as a sign that I’m about to get my card back.

A managerial type comes over to my teller, and I see with relief that he’s got my card! Phew, at least one thing is on the right track. He confers with the teller for a minute, who then turns to me and asks, in English, for my passport.

Excuse me, WHAT? Seriously?

It’s probably fortunate that I don’t have the capability to explain in Chinese how that’s my card, you little twerp, I’ve been standing by the machine ever since I put it in and this whole ridiculous process would have been so much easier if someone could have just come promptly and shown me how to eject the damn thing and no I don’t carry my passport with me when I’m on my way home from dropping my son at preschool and in fact I don’t have any picture ID with me at all because I’m just trying to get a few yuan out of MY account and never anticipated that it would take a governmental inquiry to do so!

I settle for saying ‘I don’t have it’ in Chinese. And give the teller a look clearly adding ‘and that’s your problem, mister.’ He hesitates for a moment, and then suggests that I could sign a slip of paper? Then he can presumably compare it to my signature on the back of the card. Brilliant. I happily comply. After painstakingly analyzing the two signatures for a solid 20 seconds, he calls over a colleague, and they each use a red stamp to confirm in not one, not two, but three separate places the legitimacy of the intended transaction. He fills out two forms, and I don’t even bother to point out that on one of them, where it asks for my name, he writes only ‘Christine’–my middle name.

The final verification is to ask for my phone number. I pass this hurdle successfully, at which point…he hands me my card!

I’ve now been at the bank for 45 minutes. And I still haven’t figured out how to withdraw a single yuan. But I have learned a valuable lesson: just get Husband Extraordinaire to pick up the cash next time.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Becky Gross permalink
    May 28, 2010 11:54 pm

    Wow. That is a lot to go through just to try and get some cash! It sounds like your Chinese is really improving. Are you guys around this weekend? I will try to skype you!

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