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THE Lowly Peon

Hopefully the Last of my Travel Woes (for a while) 
06 April 2011, 12:16pm

This isn't as much a travel woe as it is a my-decision-to-leave-China-could-not-have-come-at-a-better-time woe. It's the story of how I went with my new colleague to buy a laptop for work. A simple procedure, one might think. But alas! 'Tis far from that in this country.

Note: All of this is truthful and recorded to the best of my knowledge. I have a series of text messages I sent to my wife complaining along the way, which I've used for reference.

First, a tiny bit of background: my colleague is paid by our China office, but technically works for our corporate office. This is a problem, as it has been many times in the past, because the Chinese government has weird laws about money leaving or entering the country. So if, for example, corporate buys a computer but a Chinese employee pays, then our corporate office needs to transfer money to the Chinese office to reimburse, well, I don't even understand. All I know is that when we've done it in the past, every accountant from here to Houston called yelling at me.

And then, a tiny bit more background. China has these weird things they call "invoices". It's basically monopoly money, designed for people to cheat the system in any way that still benefits the government. It doesn't say where things came from, exactly how much it cost, what you bought, or a date. It is simply a piece of paper that says roughly how much money it was (5, 10, 50, 100, etc). People here use that to file expense reports.

And now, the story:

We went out to buy the laptop at Best Buy. There are few experiences I hate more than buying electronics at a Chinese electronics market. Best Buy provides as-advertised prices, they are reliable, won't cheat you, and the buying experience is actually somewhat enjoyable (everything's relative).

But of course, Best Buy closed just recently because they couldn't figure out how to do business in China (and I don't blame them— it seems to be a pattern these days). Their website said that the Hangzhou shop was still open, but apparently only for returns and service issues. So we continued to a place called Sunning, allegedly the most honest and reliable electronics place in China (especially since the owner of Guomei was arrested for a huge corruption scandal).

It took us about thirty minutes to get through traffic and find a place to park near Sunning, and we went inside to check it out. There were enough TVs to fill every house in China, but for some reason only had about ten laptops, all priced around $300 (aka garbage). So we left almost immediately to a more well stocked place. After about another thirty minutes getting there and trying to park, we went inside. Oh yeah, I thought, this is where we almost bought Daisy's mom's laptop (why didn't we, I now wonder).

We finally settled on a computer. No English in the whole building, so we got a slightly cheaper one than we would have to compensate for needing to buy a new OS (which in China is unbelievably expensive). Now to pay!

We went to the counter. I pulled out my credit card, a Discover card, because they have a relationship with UnionPay, the credit card company accepted at virtually every company in China. (And they don't charge foreign transaction fees! Bonus!) Before I could even hand it to her, the cashier seemed poised to deny it — we don't accept that here, sorry. This is a domestic card, I've used it here before, trust me.

We swiped it, and sure enough, the machine said it couldn't connect to the bank. We tried again. And again. Well poop*. If we just wasted about two hours, I'll be really bugged. They of course wouldn't accept any of my Visa cards because an electronics market in China would never be willing to pay the fees to add convenience for their customers.

So we ran across the street to the Bank of China to take out a whopper of cash. Just my luck, it's a busy day for taking out money in China, and they had no cash. The banker told us we could wait two hours, but they close soon so it may take until tomorrow. Sweet. Bank of China, currently renowned for having more money to give away than it knows what to do with, is out of cash.

Fortunately for us, there was another bank next door. The China Merchant Bank. Let's go to that ATM. Hey, it works! Okay, I'll take 5000rmb. Okay, that's above my maximum. What about 3000? Nope. Still too high. 2000? This is weird. I'm sure I've taken out more than that before. 500rmb? Guess this bank doesn't work either.

But alas! One more bank right next door. This time, the China Postal Bank. Doesn't even have a visa logo on the ATM. Okay, well there goes that idea.

So we decided we'd use my colleague's credit card, and I'd take out cash over the next few days to give him. Away we went, jaywalking across the eight lane road, back to Sunning.

My colleague had barely pulled his credit card out of his wallet by the time the cashier said they don't accept his card either. "What kind of cards do you accept?!" She responded as if we were horrible customers coming in from a different planet: "We accept all cards. [long pause] Except for yours and the one he had." (Apparently his was a debit card from a different bank, which they didn't have a relationship with? My Chinese had a hard time following that argument.)

We again counted all our cash and laughed when it was barely enough to buy lunch. So he ran back across the street to get cash out of the ATM, and at last! Success! We can finally leave this place!

But, unfortunately, the story doesn't end there. I still need to come up with a bunch of cash before I leave in two days, and I'm a bit busy getting everything together. So after going to see Xiao Li and debating Einstein's theory with her boyfriend for a while, I went to the Bank of China near my home. Good ol' trusty Bank of China, the very location I get cash from almost every time I need it. That's odd, I thought. For some reason, there's a white guy standing in front of the ATM arguing with someone from the bank. He laughed when I walked up to the ATM and put my card in, "okay," he said, "we'll see if it works."

The ATM, the same one I've used probably twenty times, required a six digit PIN. All Chinese PINs are six digits, which is the reason I've only gone to Bank of China for cash in the last three-plus years. But they must have changed their software, because it would not accept my PIN. The bank woman suggested padding my four digit PIN with zeros, but of course that didn't work. So I left and tried a few other banks and got my daily maximum (about half the price of the computer). I still need to come up with more cash.

At least I remembered this time to get those darn* invoices. And at least it won't be my problem anymore, as of Friday!

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