Epic Adventures in Asia
When you don’t speak the same language or understand the culture, relatively rudimentary things can become epic adventures. In this new series, I explore the simple task of getting a missing bank card replaced and how being in China made it a three day process involving accusations of fraud (at me) and threats of violence (from me).
Losing a Bank Card in China
Losing a bank card in your own country where you know the language and the rules is a stressful situation, so it stands to reason that losing one while abroad is a seriously nerve-wracking experience.
The language barrier, the different rules and requirements, and the fact this money is often your sole access to money all add up to make it feel much more life and death than it would at home with our 24 hour hotlines. Losing a bank card in China (or in any country) is a much more complicated process.
If you’ve ever been through it, you could probably imagine my growing dread when, on Saturday night, I pawed through my wallet repeatedly in hopes I’d simply overlooked my card. Thankfully, I had cash on hand to pay the KTV (karaoke bar) bill with, but it certainly put a dampener on my evening. Where was my card? Had somebody found it in the ATM and robbed me blind? Had I left it at home?
I wanted to go home immediately and tear my house apart, even though deep down I knew it wasn’t lying around in my apartment. If it wasn’t in my wallet, chances are I’d lost it.
“Stay out and just have fun,” my Bosnian friend urged me, “There’s nothing you can do tonight”.
At his insistence, I stayed out and sang my way through a few hours of KTV before staggering home and (you guessed it) tearing apart my apartment.
True to his prediction and my own knowledge – it wasn’t there.
Getting a Replacement Card, Attempt #1 – Sunday
Were I in Australia, I’d have had a hotline I could call or internet banking to log into. At the very least, I could have cancelled the card. If there is a hotline for we laowei, though, it didn’t have English translation – and we’re not allowed to have internet banking. At least not with the Agricultural Bank of China.
I woke late on Sunday, but my friend insisted that Chinese banks are open on Sunday and we should go in. With visions of some depraved criminal mastermind robbing me blind still fresh in my head, I eagerly accepted his offer to run me to the nearest bank.
It was closed.
So were the other two we visited.
China Construction Bank? Open.
China Everbright Bank? Open.
Agricultural Bank of China? Closed.
Defeated, I returned home to lick my wounds/sleep off a night of Jim Beam & Coke.
Getting a Replacement Card, Attempt #2 – Monday
Armed with the assistance of one of my former students cum intern, I set off on Monday afternoon intent on getting everything fixed. A fluent Chinese speaker with excellent English, I figured Nic (nicknamed 高富帅 – tall, rich, and handsome) would be able to get to the bottom of things.
With the branch I opened the account in closed to make way for a new subway station, we walked two or three blocks to Yunnan Road.
China doesn’t do customer service quite like we do in the west. There’s no obligation to smile or to even be polite to the customer. I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when the lady who greeted us began to lecture Nic for bringing me to this branch when there is one at the university that has English speaking staff.
Undeterred, we explained my situation: my bank card had been missing since at least Tuesday (almost a week earlier) and I needed it replaced. I was also worried that somebody might have been using it.
“Come back tomorrow”.
It seems that the staff did not share my concerns about a potentially stolen card, not when it was busy and dealing with my situation would have taken up to half an hour.
I resisted. At the very least, I wanted my existing card cancelled and to check that my bank account hadn’t been emptied out. Eventually, after much pleading on Nic’s part, they relented and checked my bank balance.
The look of horror on their faces had me fearing the worst.
“How much is there?” Nic asked with obvious worry in his voice.
They shook their heads, refusing to tell him.
I began to think about my situation. The better part of $1000 AUD had been in the account and I had another 20 days until I would be paid. Could I get by on the few hundred I had lying around in my apartment? Did I need to call in a loan from a friend or family member?
“How much?” Nic pressed as my mind raced.
“Only 8,000RMB,” the lady apologized, “I am so sorry”.
I laughed out loud. I guess she had expected the foreigner in shorts, flip-flops, and a ragged t-shirt to have more in his account. If anything, there was more than I remembered having.
With my fears momentarily allayed, we headed back to college intent on trying again.
Getting a Replacement Card, Attempt #3 – Tuesday
With passport in hand and Nic at my side, I once again set off for the Yunnan Road branch of the Agricultural Bank of China on Tuesday.
Was I surprised when the same harridan who’d brow-beaten us the day before scolded us for again having the audacity for coming to her branch instead of the one at Nanjing University? Not at all.
Seeing there were no other customers, I was hopeful that we’d be in and out quickly. Smiling, I handed over my passport, signed a few pieces of paper, and prepared to receive my replacement card.
“This is not your passport,” the man informed me via my interpreter, “This is not you”.
I looked at the passport – my passport – and chuckled.
“It is an old photo,” I assured him, “I have grown a beard now”.
Nic did not share my amusement. Despite knowing it was me in the picture, he was worried they would not understand that people’s faces sometimes change over the course of seven years.
“Do you have other ID?”
“Of course,” I said, handing over my PADI Diver’s License.
“This is not you, either,” I was told. Yes, 2010 Chris was every bit as beardless as 2007 Chris had been.
“Also,” the man continued, “Your signature is not correct”.
I looked at my signature and at the one in my passport. They were a perfect match.
“What signature is he talking about?” I asked.
“The one when you opened the account,” Nic replied gravely, “It is different”.
I asked to see the original signature. It was my name printed in large, block letters. Given I have never signed my name like this and my middle name had been spelled incorrectly, I made the bold assumption that the foreigner liaison had ‘signed’ for me.
“They think your passport is stolen,” Nic said, “Maybe this is a problem”.
Frustrated, I took out my phone and started to show them pictures of me with and without the beard.
“This could also be stolen,” they argued.
Nic was starting to share my frustration.
“I have an iPhone 5S. It cost me almost 7,500RMB” he showed them, “I am rich. Why would I come in here to steal 7,000RMB?”
They weren’t having a bar of it. There was talk of keeping my passport and calling the police.
“Ask them how thick the glass is,” I asked Nic, “The glass between us and them”.
He did and they looked confused. Me? I was sitting there fully aware that glass in a bank isn’t likely to succumb to my frantic thumping.
“Tell them there is no way they’re keeping my passport”.
Suddenly, their attitudes changed from difficult to helpful.
“We cannot give you a replacement card,” they apologized, “Because we cannot confirm your identity. We will open a new account for you”.
I didn’t see what good a new account would do me. It was the money I needed access to, not a new account.
“They will transfer the money from the old account to the new one,” Nic assured me.
“But they think I stole the passport and it’s not my money?”
“Yes,” he agreed, “It is strange”.
Strange, indeed. Despite knowing it was my passport and my account they were transferring money from, I did find it a tad disconcerting that they were doing it when they felt sure I was not who I said I was.
Clearly, my beard is more intimidating than even I realized.
With new card (and new account), I strolled out. The ‘crisis’ was over and I could afford to drink beer again.
After the fact, I now know to look into the best banks for international travel to make sure I’m covered if I ever lose my card again.
Have you ever lost a bank card or important travel document while on the road? What was your experience like?
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