This afternoon Julianne and I headed to a Bank of China location that I’ve used several times now for exchanging RMB in Canadian dollars, and doing international money transfers too.
WARNING: This post is one of the rare times I let myself rant about a living and working in China issue.
I did all of my usual overkill preparation because I know a trip to the bank in China is never without surprises and often involves situations that foreigners cannot conceive of as possible.
For those outside China considering living and working here I’ll share the list of things I bring with me to the banks here.
2. Foreign Expert Permit
3. a copy of my contract
4. my home country bank account number and general info (transit#/location, street address)
5. all past money transfer papers (so the bank officer can refer to it when she forgets how to do something/doesn’t know what to do something)
6. ***a native speaking Chinese friend (often CRITICAL to any kind of success with even simple banking tasks)
7. a statement of income signed and stamped by my university
8. any and all other papers, things, rabbits’ feet, lucky charms, four-leaf clovers, etc
And even then don’t even dare to think that your efforts will be successful . . .
Let me explain.
This afternoon Julianne, myself, and our Chinese friend walked into the bank. I immediately noticed a new security guard who was making his presence quite conspicuous as he strutted around with a big black ugly nightstick in his hand. While our Chinese friend walked over to the banking officers, Security Guard Gump, as I have decided to name him, immediately joined the conversation in Mandarin between our friend and a bank officer.
Julianne and I stood back watching, and the security guard began answering and dominating the entire conversation . . . yeah, Mr. I-probably-never-went-to-high-school-and-certainly-don’t-work-for-the-bank-as-a-bank-officer-and-never-got-any-training-on-international-banking-policies-and-procedures decided that he was going to run the show . . . WTF?
And then things began to get even ‘better’ . . . the two bank officers, one of whom is the bank manager, then tell our Chinese friend that I cannot exchange X RMB value because it is over the 500.00 USD maximum per day for foreigners . . .
I ask my friend to translate (although both officers have some English ability) that I had already done several exchanges for amounts over the 500.00 USD exchange maximum because, as THEY HAD INSTRUCTED ME TO, I had submitted a signed and stamped statement of income from my employer.
The response to this was that that ‘didn’t matter’ and that because the amount I wanted to exchange from RMB into Canadian currency was much higher than usual (I had brought my airplane reimbursement money to exchange and send home) they now wanted a signed and stamped form from the local income tax office authorizing such a large amount of RMB to be exchanged into Canadian dollars . . . the kick in the ass being that these two bank ‘officers’ had previously stated that the statement of income form, if signed and stamped by my employer, would allow me to “exchange as much RMB per day/visit to the bank as I wanted” to do . . .
Lesson to take from this: Do not trust or believe anything you are told to be policy/rules/law/truth at a bank in China. (NOTE: Yes, I KNOW I am generalizing, but I think the caveat here has merit and stand by it.)
Then to add to the developing insanity the security guard tells our Chinese friend that there can be no international money transfers done after 3pm (the rule is 9am to 3pm)–yet the bank officers sitting 10 feet away had done TWO TRANSFERS for me in the past, both of which had taken place after 3pm . . .
I tried telling my friend to ignore the security guard and to actually speak to a bank clerk or officer. He walked over to one of the clerks behind a window and, of course, Security Guard Gump followed a foot away. Our friend asked the clerk a question–and Gump answered for him.
At this point I’m sure if a pulse and blood pressure monitor had been attached to my body it’d have been accelerating past what is considered normal and healthy . . . I tried to stay calm and not yell at Gump and tell him to go back to the door and watch for hot chicks and smoke cigarettes–you know, the normal duties that he actually might have qualifications and training for.
Our Chinese friend walks back over to Julianne and I, closely followed by Gump, and I ask my friend AGAIN to talk directly to the bank officers. We walk over to the officers’ desks and Gump walks around to stand behind the two women officers radiating a ‘supervisory’ stance and body language.
I ask our friend to ask the bank officers why they are a) saying no to a currency exchange when I got the statement of income form stamped and signed for them? And b) why they won’t do an international money transfer after 3pm when they’ve done them before for me?
Our friend translates their answers for me. One of them claims they don’t have the statement of income form for me–to which Julianne responds in an exasperated voice that they always have gotten out their copy along with my other paper work every time I’ve visited in the past, so why is today different? No response is given other than staring at the desk and saying nothing.
The security guard then tries to start jimmer-jabbering away at our friend and I cut him off–and for once, he shuts up; this was probably due to the flames that were beginning to shoot out of my eyes at the ridiculousness of the whole situation.
Then the suggestion of Julianne and I going to the downtown central branch location is made (translation: go away and leave us alone) and the phone is picked up by a third bank officer who enquires about whether or not we can do a large RMB to Canadian exchange and then an international transfer–no dice.
The two bank officers that I’ve dealt with repeat for the 10th time that I have to go to the local income tax office and get a signed and stamped form giving me permission to exchange my airfare reimbursement into Canadian currency and to do a money transfer to my account in Canada . . .
I look at Julianne and my friend and say it’s time to leave. We head outside and discuss what we’re going to do. I repeat my objections to Security Guard Gump’s intrusive and unwelcomed presence. Our friend tries to explain that he’s simply being ‘warm-hearted’ and ‘wants to help us really bad.’ I look at him and say that that’s not the case from where I stand.
While we are talking Gump walks out of the bank and up to us to say something else. I glare at him, say ‘no, no’ and wave my hands at him to go away. He finally does after one last attempt at ‘helping’ us. Argh.
Our friend then suggests we head to his bank, ICBC, and we head out of the area towards his bank.
During the walk I try to explain that for Julianne and I there are two basic situations where we will not make efforts to follow a foreign culture: illness/injury in a hospital, and at the bank where personal and confidential banking information and money are involved. He understands what we’re saying and the cultural background behind it, but at the same time continues to insist on his presentation of the underlying motivation behind Gump’s behaviors . . . sometimes, even with a Chinese person who has lived in other countries and has high levels of English ability it is impossible to get across the ‘other’s’ point of view. I do, however, credit him for respecting Julianne and I in regards to how difficult things can be in certain situations in China.
We arrive at our friend’s bank, and walk over to the VIP section. Our friend asks about international money transfers and learns that because the location of the bank is on a university campus they don’t do transactions like that, lol. While waiting inside the walled off VIP area (though the door to it was open) an old man wanders over and pokes his head through to stare and listen in on our friend’s conversation . . . seriously, I really would love to know if Chinese cultural taboos don’t cover this kind of situation when it involves Chinese-person A and Chinese-person B–is it really acceptable for a stranger to walk over and stand in close proximity to a customer and bank officer discussing banking details? I doubt it, but then again, when foreign and in China I suspect all too often the taboos don’t hold any weight with many people here when interacting with foreigners.
Julianne and I walk outside, laughing, and ready to give up for the day on what apparently is a mission of EPIC challenges and obstacles. Our friend rejoins us and suggests that we try heading downtown to the central large branch location. I ask him if he thinks we can get there with enough time left to do our tasks (assuming that it will take at MINIMUM 1-2 hours). He tells me he thinks we can do it.
I ask him what time the bank downtown closes but he isn’t sure. He runs back inside and makes a phone call. If we get there by 4:40pm (at the time it was 3:50pm) we’d be able to do what we need to get done.
We walk across the university campus and stand on the street trying to hail a taxi but can’t get one. Then we decide to take the bus.
About 15 minutes later we get off the bus and we play Frogger crossing the street and it’s then that our friend tells us he’s unsure of where the bank is, and that he’ll ask someone. Luckily, the bank was only a couple blocks away.
Walking inside Julianne and I immediately appreciate the well air-conditioned interior (the first bank location was pretty warm, and the second not bad but not good either) and a much nicer interior decor.
We walk over to a row of bank officer desks and our friend begins asking about how to exchange RMB into Canadian dollars, and how to do an international money transfer. After about 2 minutes of back and forth question and answer between him and the bank officer things seem to begin to progress.
It’s at this point that I should mention that we had given up on using the Bank of China to exchange money currencees and to do an international transfer. Our friend had agreed to use his own account and to exchange the money and send it for us. Luckily for Julianne and I, we trust him and know that he won’t steal our money! Otherwise we would have had to fly back with large amounts of RMB and then try exchanging them with our home country banks–from what I know of trying to exchange Korean won (dollars) back in Canada you ALWAYS get a crappy exchange rate once you’re outside of Korea, and I assumed the same would apply if I had to exchange RMB back inside Canada!
Our friend gets things fairly sorted out and begins filling out forms. It’s then that a SECOND bank officer gets involved (who knows why) and I’m asked to produce a “SWIFT” number for my bank in Canada. I had heard of swift numbers from other expats in Korea but I’ve never had to use one for money transfers to Canada.
I try to explain that I’ve sent several money transfers from inside China to Canada and that this is the first time being told I ‘must’ have one . . . but the bank officer insists.
I pull out my ‘transit number’ and bank account number but am pretty sure the ‘transit number’ is just a branch location signifier (it is) and this goes nowhere fast . . . the bank officer, after a minute of fast talking in Mandarin to my friend, picks up her phone and a 3 minute dialogue takes place with her ‘boss’ and with a lot of facial contortions and worried sighs and groans from the bank officer . . .
All of which resulted in learning that, yep, I don’t need a swift number to send money to my Canadian account. (Though apparently it’s ‘better’ if you do have one–I’m gonna do some research about this later.)
During the course of filling out bank forms and asking and answering dozens of questions several Chinese people just walked up to the desk where my friend, Julianne, and I were doing our thing and began talking to the bank officer . . . I seriously dislike this rude and invasive behavior, especially when each person ALWAYS LOOKS DOWN AT MY PERSONAL BANKING INFORMATION! The bank officers never ask them to wait their turn or go get a number from the machine that stands by the entrance . . . one guy who did this was cut off by our Chinese friend because he needed to ask something about the form he was filling in, and as the guy stood there waiting to continue asking his own questions he looked down and began perusing the bank forms we were filling out–at which point I snapped my fingers at him and said no and waved him away to which he had some small good grace to look a little embarrassed and he stepped back from the desk.
After starting this ‘epic’ journey to the bank to exchange my airfare reimbursement and send money to my Canadian account we had . . .
. . . been to THREE banks . . .
. . . been trying for nearly THREE HOURS . . .
And finally, after much perservearance and help from our Chinese friend (THANK YOU!!!) we accomplished our tasks.
Thus endeth my rant and story.
85 hours to Canada!!!