Overcoming a Fear of Chinese Banks

I’ve long had a deep-seated case of yinhangophobia, or the fear of Chinese banks (银行 yinhang=bank), and as a result done everything I could to avoid them. Part of my wariness came from direct experience: when I first arrived in China in 2005, I carried most of my money in traveler’s cheques, which had been perfectly simple to use in Europe on my previous trips abroad. In China, however, cashing traveler’s cheques turned out to be a frustrating, bureaucratic experience, as bank tellers would inevitably look at my signature on the cheque, compare it to the one in my passport (issued when I was 15), and triumphantly tell me that the signatures did not match and they therefore could not cash the cheque. I would argue, the teller would sigh and express clear annoyance that I hadn’t given up easily, and sooner or later, they would make me sign the cheque one or two more times. After scrutinizing all the signatures, they would eventually hand over my money, neither one of us satisfied with the transaction but both glad it was over.

The second source of my yinhangophobia is other foreigners, who delight in sharing their worst Chinese bank stories. Most of these involve attempts to move money from overseas into a Chinese account, or vice versa, which is a byzantine process fraught with delays, daily limits, and transaction fees. Search for “Chinese banks mafan” on Google and you will find plenty of blog posts detailing the frustrating and often absurd experiences expats have undergone while trying to execute financial transactions here. (This one by Brittany Hite is good, and representative of the genre.)

Having thus developed a healthy case of yinhangophobia, in all the time I’ve spent in China, I’ve never opened an account with a local bank. This has never been a problem: my income has always been in dollars, paid in the U.S. (for example, UC Irvine direct-deposits my fellowship stipend payments into my Bank of America account), and I simply go to the ATM and withdraw renminbi. If I know I’m traveling somewhere more rural and don’t expect to find an ATM that can accept foreign cards, I make sure I have a reasonable supply of cash (plus I stash some dollars in my bag, just in case). I order from Amazon.cn COD and pretty much pay cash for everything else. If I need to use my MasterCard for something, that’s usually not a problem in Shanghai or other major cities (and I made sure to get a card with no foreign transaction fee).

But my luck finally ran out; I wrote an article for a magazine based in Shanghai, and when I submitted my invoice to get paid for it, learned that they couldn’t wire money to an overseas account. So today seemed as good a time as any to overcome this almost decade-long bout of yinhangophobia.

I decided that I couldn’t do it alone, though, so I wrote to my friend QP, a Shanghai native, and asked if she had time to go to the bank with me. I am not great at asking for help. You’ve heard the expression “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime”? My approach is usually, “Google ‘how to fish’ and I’ll figure it out by myself, eventually. Plus I won’t have to bother anyone.” But opening a bank account seemed too important, with too many potential errors hidden in the process, to attempt on my own.

That was definitely the right call. QP met me at a branch of the China Construction Bank near my apartment and immediately saved me probably half an hour of work by filling out all the forms for me, in under five minutes. (I can read Chinese at a good clip, but writing takes me forever and I always forget how to write at least one important character.) The bank was, fortunately, mostly empty, and we only waited a moment before our number was called. QP explained why I was there—using vocabulary that I know I’ve never learned—and we were off.

While everything went pretty smoothly from where I was sitting, I don’t think Banker Pu would agree. A young woman wearing the regulation CCB navy blue pinstripe suit, she seemed to wonder what karmic transgression she had committed to get the foreign woman with the long name assigned to her window. Again and again, she painstakingly typed out “CUNNINGHAM MAURA ELIZABETH” on a series of computer screens—only to reach the confirmation step and get an error message that there was already a customer in the system under my passport number.

Banker Pu called over the manager, and the two conferred, examining my passport and double-, then triple-checking all the information before confirming that everything was correct and they would simply have to figure out a way to override the error message and continue. Once that was sorted out, the rest of the process went by in a flurry. Banker Pu flew through a dozen forms, pushing them through the hole in the window and instructing me to sign each one in turn, as she stamped every sheet with the bank’s red chop, certifying each page as official. I now have a “Dragon Card” debit card in my wallet—this is China, after all, and I suppose pandas don’t project the noble and solid image CCB desires. QP helped me sort out the online banking interface, though I’m probably going to have to ask her for help again if I actually want to use it.

Banker Pu collected the signed and chopped papers scattered across her desk, pulled off carbon copies for me with a flourish, and clipped together her copy of the documents before tossing them in a tray. She all but wiped her brow with relief as QP and I gathered up my paperwork and walked away from the window. For all that I worried about getting everything right, I think Banker Pu was actually more anxious. Foreigners—with their nonstandard documents, unfamiliar names, and complicated overseas money-transfer transactions—must induce panic attacks in Chinese bank tellers.

I wouldn’t say I’ve fully conquered my yinhangophobia, as now I actually have to learn how to execute transactions at the bank. But on the whole, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared—and obviously, having QP there reduced my nervousness by about 90 percent. And now I can re-submit my invoice to the magazine, sit back, and watch the renminbi roll in.

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