just to show how strong the US dollar is, banks in china (at least the ICBC bank i went) will accept either renminbi or american dollars.
getting my hands on my passport again, my mission for today was to open up a new bank account. there was a bit of drizzle, but the forecast said it'd clear up by late morning. i could stay in my room for until 2pm, which is when the cleaning crew usually begins their rounds. the only catch was i didn't have anything to eat in the room, but before leaving for work this morning, sunmeng did leave me a hard-boiled egg her mother gave her yesterday, so i ate that for lunch. sometimes i just get lazy food. there's a lot of eating places all around, but it's kind of a chore figuring out what to order when i can only read so much. usually i just order what i know, which is some sort of noodles.
i finally left around 1:30pm. i wore my merrell hiking shoes, which had been sunning out by the open window with the insoles removed the past week because i noticed it'd developed a stink. they're good walking shoes, but they're also waterproof, in case it might start to rain again.
i knew the ICBC near where i live can't exchange US dollars into renminbi, so i had to go elsewhere. from baidu maps i saw there was another ICBC in the heart of guanyinqiao, so i headed to that one. i didn't know where to go, so i went upstairs to the VIP lounge, hoping to find some help, but there was nobody there except for some lazy looking chinese sitting on sofas. downstairs, it took me a long time to find someone who could help me. the woman told me they can't exchange foreign currencies at this location, and pointed me to the location of their larger bank office nearby which can.
by that time i was a bit hungry, but figured i would eat afterwards, once i get this banking business out of the way. it had started to drizzle a little bit, just a misting that didn't need an umbrella. this larger ICBC was midway between guanyinqiao station and hongqihegou station, a route i familiar with from walking it many times when i used to visit chongqing on sundays from changshou. getting there was a bit of a challenge, involving underground pedestrian walks, overhead walkways across small highways, then finally cutting through a meters/bonwe store (kind of like a chinese version of gap).
i came across a large bank that i thought was ICBC but turned out it was a bank of china (BOC). i believe BOC is the only bank that can exchange foreign currencies in all branches. i was curious about their exchange rates and went about asking under the guise that i was thinking about switching from ICBC to BOC. they gave me a rate of 6.41, which i thought was kind of low; exchanging RMB in US dollars the rate is even worse, something like 6.89. so i left, hoping to get a better exchange at ICBC. a security guard walking out with me asked me under his breath just exactly how much i was exchanging, thinking i might be a big spender. he seemed disappointed when i told him just $1000.
i didn't know this, but according to a google search of the largest chinese banks, industrial and commercial bank of china (ICBC) is actually the largest bank in china, with a total asset of 3.6 trillion dollars. china construction bank (CCB) comes second, at 2.9 trillions. third is agriculture bank of china (ABC) with 2.8 trillions, and finally bank of china (BOC) comes at 4th with 2.6 trillions.
ICBC was just across the highway via the pedestrian overpass, passing by the high-end starlight mall. the building that it was in wasn't as historical looking as the BOC building, especially given how ICBC is the largest bank in china. once again, i didn't know who could help me, so i went upstairs to the VIP section (banks here always have a VIP department, which is weird, considering communism is all about equality). by looking lost, i was able to get the attention of a woman who listened to my special banking problems. unfortunately i wasn't VIP enough to get what i wanted done on the second floor and had to go downstairs and take a number and wait like everyone else. she got my two numbers, one to exchange currency, the other to open a new bank account. also earlier she went on her computer and pulled the exchange rate, which was 6.42, slightly better than BOC.
my number for opening a new account got called first. while i sat down, i heard my other number get called as well. chinese bureaucracy can be a kafkaesque nightmare, but all i could do was sit there while my clerk filed out forms after forms, and scanned both my taiwan-china visa (taibaozhen) as well as my US passport (front and back).
so here are the things i wanted to get done: 1) open a new bank account with my US passport, making sure it's the kind that can be used online. 2) transfer money from my old account to the new account, since my old card doesn't work anymore because it's tied to my expired taiwan-china visa. 3) exchange $1000 to RMB and deposit it to my new account.
the clerk could only help me open an account; all those other tasks had to be done elsewhere. we ran into all sorts of problems. first, the taiwanese romanization of my chinese name is not the same as pinyin romanization, in that my name contains a hyphen. the clerk had to ask her supervisor about it. then in order to create an account, you must have a phone number, because the bank sends out confirmation passwords via text message. i suppose you could use a friend's, but fortunately i got my new phone and number on tuesday. the clerk was relieved when i told her i had a phone, but otherwise there would be problems. as for address, she said i could just write my current address, which is the haiyou hotel. there's also a RMB15 fee, which i offered to pay by cash, but she said nowadays everyone uses wechat exchange, and told me she'd just deduct it from my new account once i deposit money.
when we were finally done, i discovered something: the clerk had reactivated my old bank card. at the other bank they said this was impossible to do with an expired taiwan-china visa, but apparently that's not the case. the card still has issues (as i'll discover later), but she extended the expiration date to 2018, so i could use it for another 2 years. had i known this was possible, i wouldn't have needed to open up a new account! i asked her about the account-to-account transfer, she said i could do it easily from the ATM.
so i found an ATM and used my old bank card (making sure to select the english language toggle). first thing i did was to withdraw RMB100 as a test. i was surprised when it worked. however, there was a warning on the screen saying i needed additional verification for my account, which was the same warning i got last time (when i couldn't withdraw any money), and actually the same warning when i was still changshou. that made me realize something: when i was first in changshou i never saw the warning, but only after a few months had gone by did the warning appear. i ignored them because i could still withdraw money and buy things online. but now i think it was because my taiwan-china visa has expired, and my bank account knew before me (i wouldn't find out until almost a year later). anyway, the next thing i did was to do the "inter-bank money transfer" (as stated on the machine). bad UI meant it didn't tell me how much money i had in my old account, so i had to exit and do a check first, writing down the figures on a scratch of paper. then i went ahead and did the transfer, which was surprisingly easy. the clerk told me earlier that there's an allowance of RMB20,000 transfer/day, and i was only transfer RMB10,000 (around $1500).
finally, there was the task of exchanging dollars to RMB. i got a number and waited. fortunately in the mid-afternoon the bank wasn't very busy, but there was still 2 people ahead of me in line, and the 3-open counters were jammed up by slow customers. luckily there's free wifi in the bank (actually there's a lot of free wifi everywhere in a chinese city, i'll explain some other time), it just needed my phone number so it could send me the unlocking code. it's like a wifi cafe, exchange no beverages, but a lot of waiting around to transfer money!
when my number was finally called, i told the clerk i wanted to deposit $1000 into my new account. he went through the paperwork, even bringing a counting machine to the desk so i could see how much money was being transferred. it seemed strange that he didn't quote me an exchange rate, so i asked him to clarify: "will my money be converted to RMB first before getting deposited?" he said if that was what i wanted, but i would have to do that from a machine. that got me confused. "can i just deposit dollars?" i asked. he said sure, that i can deposit US dollars just like regular money, and take out US dollars like regular money too, without any fees. but normally i'd have to tell them a day in advance, because they don't carry dollars on hand so it has to be special ordered from the main office. i was kind of amazed. and then a light went off in my head: i still had $1900 in cash that i carry around where ever i go; i could just deposit everything and not have to worry about that money getting lost, and when i left china, i could just withdraw whatever i didn't use. so i went ahead and deposited everything (all in). the clerk actually had me sign a explanation notice, to state that he didn't deposit $1000 then later $1900 in error, so his supervisor wouldn't flag the transaction as suspicion. so when i finally do decide i want to use my US dollars, i just go to an ATM and do an exchange for however amount i want, like having dual accounts for two different currencies.
and with that i was finally done. it took well over an hour (not including all the banks i visited before hand, trying to figure out where to go) but i think i got off lucky, had it been busier, i would've had to wait even longer.
crossing over the pedestrian overpass, i went into the starlight mall to use their fancy VIP bathroom, felt like i deserve to bathroom in the very best. i went made the circuitous route to guanyinqiao food street to look for something to eat. it was around 4pm, so this would probably be dinner as well. that time of day, most of the small restaurant shops were empty, employees taking naps, waiting for the rush of customers that would come later. i found a place that had mutton intestines rice noodles ($14) and sat down to eat. this was my reward after a long day of banking.
later i went to the chongbai supermarket to pick up some drinks and shampoos. american brand shampoos are expensive (pantene, head & shoulder), something like $6-9 a bottle. fortunately they come in smaller sizes, and i got some dove brand shampoos. didn't know if they were the right kind for my hair, but figured i couldn't go wrong. the women attendants there were confused as to why i'd want to buy conditioner instead of just shampoo. "men don't use conditioner," they told me. i didn't have time to explain my special hair care routine, ladies!
i returned to my hotel room, all nicely cleaned, unlike the past few days, where i either had to make a request, or come back to a dirty room and have the cleaning woman interrupt me later in the very late afternoon.