Bad China Days are like herpes

Time may provide you with the skills to manage Bad China Days, but there is no cure.

I’m finally home from an extremely stressful morning downtown. I had to head to the PSB to get my visa sorted out. Surprisingly this was not where the stress came in. With the exception of a small delay due to the new girl behind the desk entering something wrong and having to ask her supervisor how to do everything, the whole visa process didn’t take more than 30-40 minutes.

Then off to the supermarket. Half-way through shopping I realize I had forgotten the wad of Mao portraits that would be required to pay for everything, and I only had my Canadian debit card with me (foolish, I know). Asking my wife to maintain a holding pattern with the shopping cart, I ran out of the supermarket and found an ATM, which promptly swallowed my card and stopped speaking to me.

After 10 minutes in denial, pushing various buttons and hoping some combination of CANCEL and CORRECT will result in my card being returned to me, I get a call from my wife. A bit of back-and-forth with her (in the supermarket), and then her with the China Construction Bank ATM support guy (somewhere else downtown), and despite him being certain his monitors didn’t show any stuck cards at our location; he finally agreed to come down and get the card out.

Knowing that she’s no doubt going to be required in this process, my wife finds a quiet spot to stash the cart, and tells a nearby cashier she’ll be right back.

While waiting for her to meet me at the ATM, I see a guy come in, give me a solid once over, and disappear behind a service door beside the machines, without a single word said. The wife finds me and asks if I saw the guy, as he said he’s already got the card, but has to take it to the main branch of the bank for us to reclaim — it’s procedure.

As she’s relaying this to me, Mr. Once-over reappears, looks at both of us and without a word exits the building.

We head out into the mid-day heat and grab a cab to the main China Construction Bank branch. Getting there, sure enough Mr. Twice-over is standing there talking to two girls behind a desk, with one of the girls looking quizzically at my Canadian HSBC card with a sour look on her face. Even before we overhear mention of a 15-30 day holding of the card, I know this is going to be that special sort of fun that China does so terribly well.

Getting up to the desk; they explain they require my passport to verify it is indeed my card, and they’re also going to have to hold the card for about two weeks — no reason given. Though it would have been terribly inconvenient, the request for my passport wouldn’t have been that big of a deal any other day. It would have meant a trip across town and back, but shit happens. However, I had only hours before handed over my passport to the nice (if not a little under-trained) woman at the PSB office for a week or so of sticker application.

Watching the odds of me getting my card back today plummeting, I began to get a bit panicky. If nothing else, China has taught me that patience may not improve the outcome of a situation, but it is definitely a requirement for retaining sanity in this country long-term. I’m not sure if it’s because my wife is Chinese, and so if I’m an asshole laowai it reflects poorly on her, or if it’s just my genuine belief that most people want to do the right thing and be helpful; but I try not to play the arrogant, overly-entitled white guy card to bully my way through situations here. I am Jack’s confidence, slowly fading.

Sourface Girl has finished writing down the numbers on the card; and Nondescript Girl beside her is somewhat eagerly holding a large pile of what I can only assume are the spoils from other people who made the mistake of using shitty China Construction Bank ATMs and are now in 15-30 day ATM-free purgatory. Well, not me. Not on this day.

Pulling out another bank card with my signature on it, I ask Sourface Girl for my card so I can show her the signatures match. She seemed unimpressed by their near identicalness, and downright offended when she realized her error. I had my card. Mission accomplished. Short of a court order, they were not getting that card back.

Protests of not playing fair, and an anger born out of confusion from me so clearly breaking the rules of complacency ensued. But my card never left my hand. With no one quite sure what to do next, I explained that none of this was actually my problem, it was theirs. Had it just been some random small bank ATM, perhaps I could shoulder some of the responsibility, but this machine was clearly marked with the international VISA PLUS network logo — it couldn’t have more directly shouted, “Hey laowai, I’m here for your use.” Then on top of that, we graciously accepted the inconvenience of a round-trip taxi ride to their main branch, rather than them recognizing the absurdity of the odds that the foreign guy standing beside the ATM with a stuck foreign ATM card in it isn’t the owner. Obviously just returning it to me at the site with an apology for the mafan was the most logical route to take in the situation, and obviously logic wasn’t going to win any prizes with this group. But I had the card, and that’s all that fucking mattered.

Looking like a defeated lemon, Sourface Girl reluctantly took down our best guess at my passport # and waved us away.

We crossed the road to a Bank of China, grabbed the cash, and returned to the supermarket to find our shopping cart still there. What’s more, the (very pregnant) cashier had stayed on past her shift-end watching it for us and awaiting our return. This country truly knows how to pack a yin-yang in every bite.