A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the ATM

7 Dec

I had a run-in with the financial industry this past week. It was both amusing and frustrating at the same time, so I thought it would be best to share with you all as well, to highlight how life actually works here in Chengdu for ex-pats.

Long story short, after purchasing some desperately needed clothing, I found myself scrambling for cash even though I had a perfectly valid credit card, an equally legit debit card, and a pile of emergency USD. I hate it when that happens. Hong Kong might be the financial heart of Asia, but Chengdu certainly hasn’t caught on to the wonders of digital transactions.

So, I went to the bank and exchanged some of my dollars for yuan. This was about as difficult as you would expect. Unlike a Travelex in the airport, the bank is willing to take those dollar bills off your hands, but it is not a convenient experience. I was turned away from the bank on campus because a) it was a weekend, b) I didn’t have a passport, and c) that was handled by the main bank outside of campus on the First Ring Road anyways. I grumbled and on Monday, I headed to the ICBC just out of North Gate.

ICBC, or the Industrial Bank of China, is a big one. Think Bank of America big. In order to deal with the flow of customers, very few of whom could be trusted to queue properly, ICBC installed little tickers where you would select which kind of teller you needed and take a number. Sort of like a high-tech version of grabbing a number at a deli counter. I grabbed a number. I eyed the window. It said exchange on it and there were faded versions of the dollar sign, rmb, yen, and euro. I sat for about a half hour, passing the time by writing postcards, and when my number was called I headed on over.

The bank teller on the far side of the window was not impressed. “You need to go to that counter. I don’t do currency exchanges.” She waved me on. The electronic marquee above the window called out the next number.

I went back to the touch-screen machine and eyed it thoughtfully. Somewhere, somehow, I would be able to press the right combo of options and get what I wanted.

It was at this point when I was approached by another female banker. She asked me if I needed any help. I nodded and smiled with glee – I didn’t have to deal with the unforgiving machine, which had already dispensed several slips of paper that I had stuffed in my bag as failures. I explained that I wanted to change money.

She led my to the “Fill In Counter” and handed me a form, mercifully in English. I can do it in Chinese, but I prefer not to fill out official paperwork in a foreign language if I can help it. (Yes, this is English-language privilege running rampant and I do not care.) I was thankful I had my passport this time, as my NY drivers license isn’t really a valid form of ID out here. They photocopied it and sent me to another desk.

I sat and watched as the third banker started to painfully input my passport information into the computer. “There’s a surcharge.” She said. I nodded. “Sure. Whatever.”

She continued to imput the information. And then the fun part. My paper work was stamped half a dozen times in various places, initialed at least twice, and then I had to sign. But I still didn’t have my money. Oh no. This banker handed me yet another slip of paper. I started at it balefully, but thanked her and went to queue again.

At this fourth and final window, I had to hand my passport and paperwork over again, but this time she asked for the dollars as well. Yes! I thought. We were near the home stretch. The teller, another young twenty-something woman, ran each and every dollar through a special machine, probably to verify they weren’t clever counterfeits. Since I’m not in the business of laundering money, it went through. Then, after several more enthusiastic thumps of the stamps (including a special managerial chop that was used), I was handed a pile of paperwork to sign before my money was handed over.

I thanked her profusely and left, giddy in the knowledge that I was no longer poor. Of course, that was when I received the text from my editing job that the payment from last month had finally gone through. Gah. All that aggravation, for nothing.

In conclusion, change your damn money at the airport.

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3 Responses to “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the ATM”

  1. Dad December 7, 2011 at 10:39 pm #

    Food for thought – change your money at the airport – yes – take it out of an ATM from you home bank in the form of local currency — then you are not gouged by the normally poor exchange rates. One note of caution, be very aware of what you press on those machines as you can easily end up with US$400 in Yuan and not the US$40 that you really wanted.

    • Jane December 8, 2011 at 12:49 am #

      The bank takes less in fees than the cost of a round-trip cab ride does. 25 kuai in fees vs. 80-100 kuai for a taxi? Not that hard of a choice, really.

  2. Karen December 8, 2011 at 7:18 am #

    It’s hard to believe there is so much bureaucracy, but that’s why everyone has a job. It takes 10 people to do the job of one. Well I admit it, we are spoiled. We almost never need to deal with cash here, plastic solves everything. I love, love, love it. Direct deposit and banking on line.

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