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.


  1. Haha… had days like that before… but that requirement on the ATM card is a new one. The PSB has my passport right now leaving me with a worthless yellow piece of paper…. always nerve wracking times when it takes them a week or two to apply new visa in passport. Neat trick though with getting the card back.

  2. good advice with cheating bank clerk

    btw. you don’t carry photocopy of passport with you, would not that be enough for bank? it’s still better than nothing

  3. Yep just another typical china day! Nice smooth move, I’ll remember that, but wether I’d be game to go through with it…. Hmmm maybe 😉

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  5. Been there toooooo. in dongying crazy banking, I had a 2000usd check took one month to deposit at the chia bank.

    love your clip of china keep adding more, and your family is great

    seee yaaaaaa

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  8. …and that’s how it’s done.

    Too funny. I recently had to deal with a (self-inflicted) banking snafu in Beijing. I’m pretty sure that the staff took pity on me as I was obviously mentally challenged enough to forget my ATM code. The whole process involved 3 staff members, one painfully translated change request form and took about 45 minutes. They only locked my account for a week while the new code slowly marinated to maturity.

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  10. Great story! Count yer blessings…at least you didn’t finally have to wait two weeks and show up with a local friend to vouch for your identity to get it back! Happened to me at the start of a joyful national week a few years back. I agree these China moments never go away but at least we become more clever in how to have “patience.” 🙂

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  13. I am Jack’s confidence, slowly fading. Hahahaha! So succinct. I’ve only been here since June and I already feel that way. What I’ve also found is that Bad China Days are like teenage girls – they come in packs.

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  16. Thank you for this, I don’t know a better way of describing China days. I have been having a China week and needed that. I am Jack’s utter disbelief.

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