OK. I'm skipping ahead a little because there are 3 chapters I can't get quite right. The first is Thanksgiving, the second is one more encounter we had in Thailand, and the third is the time leading up to/our Chinese New Year trip to the Philippines.
The following bit has been repurposed from an original blog post I'd done back in the spring of 2008.
You’re Just the Wife
A few weeks after our return from the Philippines Rob had to go home to Colorado for a three week business trip. I was hopelessly jealous. Though I thought I was doing all the right things: working out, writing, meeting new people, I was still tired all the time. No matter what I did I couldn’t shake the depression that nagged at me like an old spouse.
One morning, I’d returned to the apartment from sending the kids off to school when the phone rang. It was Robby calling at our scheduled time – my morning and his night time.
“Hey, Honey, what’re you doing?” he asked.
“I’m getting’ ready to hop in the shower…gotta go to the bank today.”
“I know…me too…at least I get to go to the City Shop. They usually have sweet and salty Chex Mix…for some reason I’m craving it like mad!” The City Shop was the closest thing we had to a Western grocery store. They carried all imported goods mostly from the states and Europe, but also places like Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Vietnam.
“Go easy at the City Shop. It’s really expensive….and, as you know, we’re going broke.” We were going broke. We’d cashed in our life savings to take the holidays in Thailand and the Philippines. But we were happy to do so. If we only had two years in China, we were going to travel every chance we got. Beyond that though, everyday life in Shanghai was at least 30% more expensive than life in Denver and really, we couldn’t afford it.
“I know, Dear, but I’m tired of talking about how broke we are…so, make me jealous, what are you doing right now?”
“Well, I don’t mean to rub it in, but I’m sitting in Hooters with a huge pile of wings, a Guinness draft in my hand and three big screen TVs staring me in the face: One is playing basketball, one is playing hockey and the other is showing the opening pitch of spring training.”
“I know, sorry. Summer’s just around the corner…how’re you feeling, any better?”
“No. Not really. I’m still really tired. If I didn’t need to pay Xiao Li and Chen I’d just go back to bed.”
“Weird. Maybe you should go back to the Dr.”
“Nah…I’ll be fine. I’m sure it’s just my hormones readjusting themselves from the miscarriage.”
“Oh-kay. Well, take a nap today when you get home from the bank.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice.”
On my way downtown, I sat in the back seat of our Toyota Corolla and remembered the day Rob and I opened our China bank account. We’d been instructed by one of Rob’s colleagues to open two accounts: one at an international bank, like HSBC and another at a local Chinese bank. It sounded simple at the time, but we found out - time and again - that sometimes the simplest of tasks had proven to be the most challenging in China.
We’d arrived in Shanghai a few days before, so jetlag was in full swing. Luckily, Xiao Li watched after the children while we ran errands. It was such a liberating feeling to be able to run errands without having to take the kids. We were happy and they were happy. What kid wouldn’t rather stay at home watching movies than go to the bank with their parents?
When we arrived at the HSBC by the Ritz Portman we expected to walk in, open an account and go home. This was an international bank, they would speak perfect English and voila, we’d be all set. How hard could it be? We needed exactly two things from our international bank account: 1. The ability to transfer money to our landlord. 2. The ability to withdraw money with an ATM card.
After two painstaking hours of navigating the language barrier and matching up our two needs with what they offered, we both signed on the dotted line for what we thought was a joint savings account.
The only problem, aside from the time-sink and mind-bending frustration, was that we couldn’t afford to open an account that came with an ATM card. In order to get an ATM card we had to open the account that required a minimum balance of $10,000 at all times.
Even if we had a spare 10 grand at any given time, which we don’t, but if we did, it wouldn’t sit idly in a bank so I could spend it.
That should be the account that doesn’t come with an ATM card.
When we’d finally finished with HSBC, we stepped outside into the heat of mid-day. I wanted to go home. “Hey, Hon, check it out…there’s a Bank of China right across the street,” Robby said.
“Alright, we might as well get it over with...maybe we’ll qualify for an ATM card?”
“Manage those expectations,” Robby said with a smile, as he grabbed my hand and guided me across the street.
The bank looked like a small, but crowded bus terminal. There were digital signs flashing red Mandarin characters mixed with numbers above us, a person shouting numbers over a loudspeaker, rows of linked chairs with black pleather seats and silver arm rests filled with a variety of people waiting patiently to make their deposits or withdraws.
As was often the case in those early days of life in Shanghai, there were always more people in a given space than I was prepared for. We squeezed our way into the bank and walked between hordes of sweaty people who seemed to be in a rush. Not sure where to begin, we stood there looking around for a few minutes trying to figure out where to go. After a few minutes of getting jostled around, we figured out that we had to take a number and wait our turn.
“Eighty-two,” Robby said. He looked up at the flashing digital number sign that was mounted on the wall by the tellers. “Forty-six.” He frowned. Still hand-in-hand, we inched our way to an open spot by the front door and stood our ground in silence.
There was an older couple standing next to us that appeared to be arguing. As time passed, their voices progressively got louder and their arms started to flail. Everyone else in the place ignored them, but Robby and I just stared. After a few more minutes they were shouting, and finally, they broke out into a full-blown cat fight. No fists were thrown, but there was definite pushing and hair-pulling.
I looked at Rob and he looked at me, we both saw they were only serving number 50. Without a word we left the bank – never to return.
Since cash was king, but we didn’t have an ATM card, once a month Rob went on a pilgrimage to the HSBC. First he’d transfer rent to our landlord then he’d pull out the cash he thought we’d need for spending money. It worked, most of the time.
I arrived at the bank at lunchtime so there was only one teller working.
Third in line…this shouldn’t take too long.
The first customer was in and out in a flash. The second customer approached the teller and dumped an enormous Carrefour bag filled with what seemed like thousands of pre-wrapped 10,000 RMB bundles on the counter.
Un-phased by the heaping pile of money, the teller grabbed individual stacks of 10,000 RMB, removed the rubber band and placed them in the money counter like a robot. One after the other. The pile of money totaled 500,000 RMB – about $71,500.
Wow. That’s a lot of money.
And then she counted it again.
As I stood there, counting and counting, a bizarre rage started to well inside of me. I crossed my arms, sucked in a deep breath and fumed.
After another twenty minutes it was my turn. As Willy would say, I had only 1 patient left.
I forced a smile and silently presented the cashier with my account number card, my passport and withdraw slip.
“OK. No problem.”
As she looked up my account I could feel my heart pounding in my throat. I was sweating, and felt like I was going to pass out. My knees started to buckle, so I leaned against the counter for extra support.
What is wrong with me?
After a moment or two the teller looked up from her computer. She was confused. "I am sorry, Ma'am, I am not hearing your signature in our system."
"You're not hearing it, or you're not seeing it?" I asked.
Such a shame sarcasm is completely lost in this country.
"I am not hearing it. Is this your husband's account?"
Does it talk?
"Well, it is our account. We opened it together last August."
"Ah, I see, but it is your husband's account."
"Well, can you see my name on the computer?" I took a deep breath in, clenched my teeth and tried to hide my frustration by forcing another smile. I popped up on my tippy-toes and tried to sneak a peek at her computer screen, but she busted me and turned it out of my view.
"Yes, your name is here, but I cannot hear your signature in my system. Wait a moment."
About 10 moments passed and my last patient was officially gone. While I waited I called Rob.
“Hey…” he answered.
“Hey…I’m at the bank and they won’t let me take any money out of the account.”
“Yeah. I know. I am seriously about to lose it.”
“Calm down, Honey.”
“Calm down, Honey? I’ve gotta pay Chen, Xiao Li and swimming lessons…I can’t do that without any money.”
“Listen…let me talk to them.”
“She’s gone off somewhere.”
“Well, call me when she gets back and I’ll give a verbal.”
“Yeah, right. Like that’s gonna help.”
“Just do it, Jennifer.”
“Fine.” I hung up.
The teller resurfaced and said, "I am sorry, Ma'am, but I cannot allow you to withdraw any money because your husband has not authorized you to withdraw money."
"Well, we actually just got off the phone and he authorized for me to withdraw some money." Again…sarcasm…lost.
"No ma'am you do not understand. You're husband did not authorize you in the system to withdraw any money."
"I see. So, my name is on the account but I am not authorized to withdraw any money. This is insane. I really need money…today."
"Yes ma'am, you are just the wife."
Eyes wide, face red, and blood boiling I waved her off and turned to storm out.
Just the wife!
As I turned the corner to leave, someone grabbed me by the arm. It was the woman who’d been waiting in line after me. She was western looking, but I couldn’t determine the accent. “I heard the whole conversation…this exact thing has happened to me several times before…even after my husband authorized me to withdraw money…let me give you some friendly advice.”
“OK,” I said.
“You’re going to have to kick and scream if you’re gonna get any money…that’s the only way you get your way here…now, go back up there and kick and scream,” she said. She released the grip she’d had on my arm and nudged me back toward the teller.
“Thanks,” I said. A weak smile crossed my face; I straightened my posture and marched back to the teller.
Kicking and screaming is typically frowned upon in China. Though I’d witnessed one fist fight and one cat fight in the eight months that I’d been in country, showing anger in public is a big no-no. It’s not good for maintaining a harmonious society they’ve worked so hard to create.
That could be why it’s such an effective tool.
“Hello,” I said with a smile. “I’d like to talk to your manager.” After a few moments, another woman arrived.
“How can I help you, Ma’am?”
First I explained the situation to her. Then I asked, “Would it be possible if my husband could call in or fax an authorization?”
Of course not.
The kicking and screaming commenced.
I ranted In a slightly raised voice, “It really shouldn’t be this difficult to withdraw money from an account that has my name on it…I don’t understand why I can’t get an ATM card, it makes no sense…not having access to any cash makes life nearly impossible because almost no place in China accepts my credit card…”
The manager interrupted me. “Excuse me, you have a credit card?”
Exasperated, I replied, "Of course I have a credit card."
"Oh. You can do a cash advance on your credit card. But I have to warn you, it is quite expensive. We have to charge you 3% for the cash advance."
Now you tell me.
Within five minutes I had a stack of cash.
I was exhausted, but I was certain a quick pop in at the City Shop will lift my spirits. I hummed along with Karen Carpenter and filled my cart with all kinds of yummy imported packaged goods from home, including the Sweet and Salty Chex Mix I’d been craving so badly, real Cheetos for the kids, and peanut butter Cap’n Crunch for Robby. While I unloaded my cart on the checkout counter I debated with myself:
Do pay with my hard-earned cash or do I use my credit card?
This is the one place that has never rejected my credit card.
That settles it. I’ll use the credit card.
I handed the cashier my credit card and waited in silence.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am. Your card has been declined,” the cashier said, pointing to some Chinese writing on the credit card machine.
“Fuck it,” I said under my breath. I snatched my card back from the cashier, abandoned my cart and calmly left the store.