Aug 10, 2009

Three credit cards habits of Chinese people

Some people get really impatient when they have to wait in line at the grocery store. I enjoy standing there and observing the habits of other people. Since I do this at least once a week, I've become acutely familiar with the credit card habits of Chinese people. Now, of course, there's one point five billion people in China, and everyone's different. What I'm describing here are some general patterns that I've seen over and over again when I shop in Beijing.

  • Habit 1: not signing the back of credit cards

    Somewhere along the way, I had it drilled into me that as soon as you open up that envelope with your new credit card in it, first thing you do is sign your name on the back. This is of course to make sure that a thief doesn't make off with your card and charge thousands of dollars to your account while you're unaware. You better sign your name quick, and definitely before you go to sleep that night, because ninjas and sneakthieves could be on the prowl, and they're all after your credit card.

    I'm very nosy. I like to poke around and watch other people swiping their credit cards and going about their lives. I can't help to have noticed that many, many Chinese people have not signed their credit cards. It disturbs me so much everytime I see this. Having a signature on the back of your credit card, for me, is like washing my hands after I use the restroom. It's a must.

    I'm often questioned when pay with my local credit card in Beijing restaurants. The way it works in Chinese restaurants when you pay with a credit card is this:

    1. The waiter presents you with the bill, you check it over, then you give him your credit card, and he disappears for ten minutes
    2. The waiter comes back with a receipt for you to sign; you sign your name and he disappears again
    3. Five minutes later the water gives you your final receipt and your credit card

    You may not realize this, but what happens between steps 2 and 3 is that the waiter goes and looks to make sure the name you signed actually matches the name on the back of your credit card.

    I can never remember if I signed my card with or without my middle initial, so the Chinese waiters are always coming back a second time asking me to resign my name. Of course that adds on another ten minutes to the wait. If I'm drinking during this procedure, I could go through a dozen or so rounds with the waiter before I get it right.

    Other times, since I typically sign my name very sloppily out of lazyness, the waiter comes back and makes me sign my name over again, only neater than the first. It's like I'm back in grade school being reprimanded for my handwriting. I've got to remember how I signed my card on that day I got it, when I was trying my best to be really neat and have a nice signature.

    I think that maybe the lack of signatures could be related to Habit 3, which I describe below.
  • Habit 2: using a credit card for very small purchases

    I try to be courteous and considerate when I'm shopping. That means that if there are a couple people queued up behind me, I'll use cash to pay when I'm just buying a few things. In the US these days, places will swipe your card and you won't even need to sign anything if it's under twenty bucks. In China, however, you can buy a pack of chewing gum with a credit card, and they'll fumble around with computer gadgets and pens, and it ends up adding about two minutes onto your transaction and inconveniencing everyone behind you.

    I've been in many grocery store lines in Beijing where the cashier takes thirty seconds to scan the person's purchases and bag them, but then the swiping of the credit card and the signing of the receipt add on another two minutes.

    The only thing I can think of is that people are trying to accumulate frequent flier points or something, and they're hoping all those little purchases add up someday.

    I usually try to pay with cash if there's a huge line behind me. There's nothing more rewarding than pulling out a fat roll of 100 RMB notes (about $15 each) in front of a line of people and peeling off a few bills to pay for your stuff. Makes me feel like Tony Soprano every time.

  • Habit 3: using a PIN for credit card purchases

    Credit cards in China have the option to add a point-of-purchase PIN. This means that whenever your card is swiped, the transaction only goes through after you've successfully entered your six-digit PIN. You can choose to not use a PIN, of course, and it's just like in the US. You'll always have to sign your name whether you have a PIN or not.

    In the US, some people like to pay with their ATM card at the grocery store. This requires a PIN because you're effectively using cash on the spot. Using a PIN is probably a good thing if your wallet gets lifted on the subway. Odds are, however, that a pit pocket will dump all your non-cash items into the nearest garbage can the first chance he gets.

    I don't think my US credit cards even have the option to have a PIN for non-ATM transactions.

Be observant when you're shopping at the grocery store in China. I think you'll definitely notice these subtle habits.


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