Banks in China are, from my experience, nothing like banks in America. I can say this with certain authority because my mother has worked in banking for most of my life. Learning about the way banks work in the U.S. through my mother’s work life demystified most of the everyday problems people have with banking: charges for non-sufficient funds (NSF), today’s business vs. tomorrow’s business, debit vs. credit purchases on bank cards, bank holidays, opening and closing hours, and good ATM hygiene.
None of that applies here.
I have a card for a Chinese bank account that my employer opened for me. That’s a shocker in itself, to me, that an employer can open an account for an employee without said employee being present, but this is a different country with a different set of (ever-changing) rules. I received this card from HR on my first day of work.
It’s a Chinese ATM card. Yuan or renminbi (RMB) go in, yuan or RMB come out, which is different than the American bank account I’ve maintained where no money goes in because I haven’t been paid since June, but RMB come out. These days very few RMB come out, though, because I’m flat out broke from moving here and I’m waiting for reimbursements now. I have yet to see any payment for work I’ve done even though I arrived just over a month ago because I arrived just after the deadline for payment processing. So I’ll get paid at the end of October. Things are really tight for me right now.
So I need to activate this bank card. Unlike in the U.S. where you can just call the 1-800 number on the sticker before you pull it off, here I actually have to go to the bank in person to activate the card. On Wednesday, I got a taxi after work and gave the driver the address of the branch I needed to visit. After paying the taxi driver, I walked over to the entrance of the bank where I was greeted by a security guard. I motioned to the door and he shook his head. I checked my watch. 5:09 p.m. The bank is open until 5:30. What’s the problem?
I motion towards the door again. He says something I can’t understand. I pull out my bank card with the Chinese logo on it and show it to him. I say, “Wo shi da xue ying yu jiao shi. / I am a university English teacher.” He laughs. Whether it was at my attempt at Chinese or the fact that I’m an English teacher, I’ll never know. At least I tried.
He points to the sign with the bank’s hours on it. Says something else I don’t understand.
I point to the sign with the bank’s hours on it and then point to my watch, which reads (digitally) 5:13 p.m.
He points to the door, behind which there is a metal grate pulled down about half way to prevent people from going in. He says “ming tian. / tomorrow.”
I sigh, take a photo of the bank’s hours, pull out my umbrella, and walk to the bus stop feeling puzzled about why posted business hours aren’t actually hours in which you can do business.
Thursdays I teach at 9-10:40 and again from 2-3:40. After my second class, I ran to my office, grabbed my umbrella, coat, and work bag, and caught a taxi. 12 RMB later, I found myself at the bank. Again. This time at just before 4 p.m.
Finally inside. Okay, I know how this works. I’ve done this a million times. And then I look around and realize I have no idea how anything works. I see numbered teller windows, seated tellers (mom! they get to sit or stand!), and a few rows of people off to the side like a Greek chorus.
I decided I didn’t have anything to lose, so I began walking towards one of the teller windows. Another patron came to swat me back, point me to some kind of ticketing machine, and said one English word: “wait.”
So I joined the chorus off on the side with my newly printed ticket. It read 16:07:13. I felt proud of myself for having the chutzpah to do this on my own because everyone else (who arrived on time) got to go with HR. Here I was waiting in line at the Chinese bank like I knew what I was doing. Yeah, I know how to do this part.
Then 4:30 rolled around and the two security guards rolled that big metal grate down over the doors. I realized that I was trapped inside and that, perhaps, the obstacle was as much to keep me in as it was to keep me out the day before.
A few numbers before me were finally serviced (so far, yes, everything does take longer in China), and the previously full chorus dwindled to just me. The white lady holding her bank card and her iPhone with Pleco Chinese-English English-Chinese dictionary open to the entry for “activate.”
I was directed to window 3. I took a seat. The teller took a look at my identification paper and shook her head. “Ni you passport?” she asked. You have passport?
“Mei you passport,” I replied. I don’t have my passport.
I explained in my very best, clear English teacher English that the police station has my passport so they can process my Residence Permit and my Work Visa so I can be issued the Foreign Expert license.
Suddenly she spoke English.
You need passport.
The police have my passport. They said this paper will work as identification until I get the passport back.
I’m sorry, you need passport.
Then: lots and lots of fast Chinese between various tellers. I hear “mei guo nu / American woman” and know they’re all talking about me.
A man comes over to the window and explains to me in perfect English that they can’t accept the paper the police gave me to activate my account.
I ask if they can use a photo of my passport I keep on my iPhone.
I ask if I can activate the account and bring in the passport as soon as I get it.
I ask if they can call my employer and get the details from them.
I ask if they can accept my school ID, which I obtained only because I have a work visa which I have because I have a passport, which just happens to be with the police right now.
I tear up.
The man offers to let me add him on WeChat (a popular Chinese social media and texting app). I accept his offer. I can’t say words because I’m trying not to cry. All that keeps running through my head is how we’re going to pay rent or eat if I can’t get money.
The security guard lifts up the metal grate and opens the door, releasing me to the world.
After that is a little blurry, but I stood in front of the bank and wrote an email to HR asking them to please pay me in cash this month so I can pay my rent and eat. Then I cry. It’s raining, so I’m holding an umbrella with one hand and carrying my work bag in the other. I want to sit down and sob. I can’t. I need to find the damn bus station. I try to flag down a taxi, but it drives past me. Swearing under my breath, I cross the road.
HR says that I should get my passport back this coming week, that I should still be able to receive my paycheck in my bank account even though I haven’t activated it, that I should be able to activate my account right before payday.
There are too many “should”s for me to be comfortable with any of this, honestly, but here I am, trying to be okay with this.