In my small U.S. town, a visit to the bank is a quick affair.
There are no lines to wait in and no numbers to take. It’s a breezy in-and-out, just under 5 or 10 minutes.
But in China, it’s a different matter.
For anyone transferring, wiring, withdrawing, exchanging and depositing cash into accounts, this can be a several-hour affair. It doesn’t have so much to do with the number of customers (although there are quite a few) as it does with the tedious paper work involved. The bank tellers are inundated in piles as they stamp, sign, copy, clip, paste and staple little bits and pieces of flimsy paper here and there, all to make sure your transaction was handled properly. And there’s always a supervisor’s check to make sure everything has been done accordingly.
Due to this, tempers are short in the bank. It’s not unusual to see a patron suddenly charge from the waiting area and accost the tellers behind their glass windows. The irate Chinese wave their arms, shout nasty comments and fight off the floor clerks who try to calm them down.
Adding more to the frustration are the ticketed numbers we have to deal with.
At the entrance, we choose from a machine the type of transaction we want to perform. “A” numbers are one type (such as depositing or withdrawing), “B” numbers another (exchanging money and traveler’s checks), the “C”s (wiring, transferring) and a “Z” category for “other”. If you’re new to the bank, it’s easy to choose the wrong type, which then has you being told at the counter that, yes, your number 58 is correct but your transaction, B, isn’t. Go back and get a C number.
After waiting for 2 hours, no one wants to be told to go back and get another ticket before you’ll be serviced.
Because I know the routine by now, my treks to the bank have me bringing along my Chinese textbooks and bi-lingual dictionary. There is no sense in wasting 2 hours at the bank when I could be doing something productive. It makes the time go faster and I have a feeling of accomplishment afterwards. Not only do I finally have my traveler’s check cashed and exchanged for Chinese yuan, but I have my homework done as well.
Yesterday afternoon at the bank, I settled into my seat to wait along with everyone else. I flipped open my book to Chapter 9 and began the lesson.
Things were quiet for about 30 minutes, and then the ruckus to began.
A woman who had obviously been waiting for some time was told that she had chosen the wrong transaction letter. As she stood at the counter, the teller informed her she should have a “B” number not an “A”. Go back, get the correct one, have a seat and wait her turn.
It was just too much for her to handle. She refused to move and insisted she be taken care of. .
“I’ve waited a long time!” she said angrily, squeezing in front of the next in line. “I have the number. You must service me.”
The teller’s face remained calm as he apologized and quietly asked her to move aside. Her response was to shove all her papers at him through the slot. She pushed them so ferociously that one of them ripped.
“I’m sorry,” the teller continued, sliding her items back, “but it’s the next person’s turn.”
Eventually, one of the floor attendants came to lead her away. The young girl forcibly tugged on the woman’s arm to budge her. Once dragged to the other side of the bank, the woman was given a second number from the machine.
Throughout all this, she fumed and snorted. She refused to sit down with the rest of us but preferred to stand and publicize her displeasure. But finally, emotional exhaustion took over and she plopped down next to me.
Despite her sour mood, I was in need of help reading characters I didn’t know and she was sitting next to me so . . . .
“Excuse me,” I said. “Sorry to bother you but I don’t know these two characters. Could you please tell me how to say them?”
There’s nothing like a helpless foreigner to bring out the best in the Chinese.
She peered at the Chinese symbols I pointed to.
“Duan lie,” she answered.
I looked lost until she motioned something breaking in half.
“I thought that was po le,” I said.
“Yes, but for duan lie, we can say . . ,” she thought for a moment, then brightened. “We can say the bridges in the earthquake duanlie (broke). We don’t say po le.”
“Ah, I understand,” I replied. “Duan lie. Did I say it right?”
“Yes. Duan lie. You said it very well!”
The next thirty minutes, my companion, Ms. Yu, cheerfully assisted me with my homework.
Our conversation moved on to other things, like why I was at the bank. I explained I was exchanging money to help one of my former students, Ji Ke, whose sister was in need of a heart operation. It was a lot of money and the family, who are farmers, didn’t have enough to pay the hospital. I was helping them out.
Ms. Yu was very sympathetic. She tsked when I said how young Ji Ke’s sister was, only 25, and gasped when I told her the total cost was 50,000 yuan ($7,150). In China, this was an astronomical amount of money, especially for poor, countryside farmers.
“A heart operation is very expensive,” she said.
“Jiushi,” I agreed in Sichuan dialect.
It was my turn at the teller’s window before Ms. Yu’s, and although I finished earlier than she, I still had another paragraph to read for my homework assignment. Since my new-found teacher was all to happy to continue her tutorial, I returned to my same seat where Ms. Yu continued to guide me. When her number finally came up, we said our goodbyes.
Seeing Ms. Yu’s impatience and anger at the bank reminded me of another person who reacted in a similar fashion when things didn’t go her way. You might recall an entry from last week about a taxi driver who received quite a bit of grief from me concerning a traffic jam he could do nothing about. In the end, he encouraged my better half to shine through.
That brief encounter with driver Liu taught me something valuable: It doesn’t take much to bring out the best in someone. All we need do is look for the opportunity and take it.
Yesterday in the bank, when presented with a distraught Ms. Yu, I like to think I did just that.
From Chengdu, here’s wishing you all "Ping An!" (Peace)
REMINDER FOR AID IN BUYING TENTS, VACCINES, AND OTHER SUPPLIES FOR EARTHQUAKE RELIEF EFFORTS
United Methodists: UMCOR Advance #982450, International Disaster Response, China Earthquake