Aug 9, 2006

Paying my Chinese credit card bill

During the work week, life in Beijing can be pretty mundane sometimes. To give a better idea of how daily life is here, I'll describe a recent lunch break during which I went to the local bank to pay off my dual-currency Chinese credit card.

Paying my credit card bill was never very exciting in the US. I simply logged into my bank's web site, type in how much I wanted to transfer to my credit card company to pay that month's bill, and click "submit". Done. Things are nowhere near that easy in China. By making the process very complicated and time-consuming, the government can give jobs to half a dozen more men that otherwise would be unemployed and loitering on the street corner with their shirts rolled up to their nipples.

Before paying off the Chinese credit card, the prerequisite step was that I first find a Bank of China ATM and withdraw a huge wad of cash. The largest bill they have in China is worth just a little over US$10, so paying off a substantial credit card bill requires a big handful of colorful red money.

With my pants pockets now stuffed with a gangster roll of Chinese money, along with my credit card, monthly statement, and US passport, I was ready to head to the bank to pay off the credit card.

As in most mainland Chinese banks, once inside the door of the bank I encountered a a waist-high machine with three buttons, two labeled as 储蓄业务 and one labeled 汇款业务. No English labels included, unfortunately. Even though I understood what these buttons were for, I did't know which one I should pick since I was to be pay off my dual-currency credit card bill, which included expenses incurred with USD, but using RMB cash to pay it off. So I pushed all three buttons and stuffed the three tickets the machine spit out into my back pocket. I figured the advantage of this approach is that I would have more chances of getting called up to the teller sooner. I could decrease the waiting time by 1/3, I thought.

It turns out that the 汇款业务 ticket was the one to pick. I only had to wait about five minutes. The other two tickets would have taken me another hour to get called up to the window. The other people in the waiting area were complaining to each other in low voices about the long wait time.

After I heard my number, I sprinted up to the counter, lest anyone should cut in front of me. In one motion, I threw under the teller's window my passport, wad of renminbi, credit card, and credit card statement. Without looking up from his desk, the teller immediately got to work, shuffling and stamping and fumbling around. He had a total of about six stamps positioned off to his side, all of varying sizes and shapes, as well as three red ink stamp pads.

After five minutes of watching the teller continue to shuffle and stamp and fumble, I listened to some Ice Cube on my mp3 player through one earbud. I felt that would get me into an aggressive and hostile frame of mind, so that should anyone step to me and give me any guff I wouldn't take it laying down. I left the other ear unplugged to listen for any questions the teller might ask me. But he just continued to shuffle and stamp and fumble. I noticed that off to the side of the teller's window there was a small placard that identified this particular window as the "communist party member's service window". At that point I knew for sure that I was at the window with what had to be the best service at that bank.

I still didn't hear any any comments or questions from the teller, but I did hear some pretentious looking businessmen with manpurses and silky-smooth forearms standing very close behind me, grumbling about the laowai (me?). I suspect they may have believed I wasn't transacting my business at the correct counter. I started to think to myself, maybe I am at the wrong counter. I'm definitely not a communist, and I don't really know what a remittance is. Maybe my transaction isn't a remittance, but rather a deposit. Maybe I would be summarily ejected from this window and have to reinsert myself into the long line with the plebes.

Fortunately, the teller continued on with his work and I wasn't asked to take another number. After signing my name on three separate receipts and filling in another sheet with my name and address for the purposes of the RMB to USD conversion (since I was paying off a dual currency credit card with expeses accrued in USD), we were close to being done.

The teller hastily shoved a wad of loose change, coins, and maopiao at me under the window, followed by my passport, my credit card, and a stack of receipts. I grab the bundle of papers with two hands and stepped to the side to allow the agitated business men to start their transactions after me. They could be party members, after all, and I wouldn't want to mess with that. I shoved all the materials into my pockets and departed, lest a laowai lynching should ensue.

When it was all said and done, my total time at the teller's window was twenty minutes exactly. Twenty minutes to pay my credit card bill, when it really should take about 5 seconds. It's certainly not the teller's fault. In fact, he was hustling to get the job done. A real go-getter. I certainly have not idea what he was stamping and shuffling around behind the counter, but he was in continuous motion and seemed to be getting a lot of cardiovascular exercise.

I had only spent about 30 minutes at the bank, so afterwards I had plenty of time to finish up with an unrushed lunch and get back to the office.


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