Four Mao Too Many
By Eric Abrahamsen | Latitude | International Herald Tribune - The Global Edition of The New York Times
March 12, 2012
Last Wednesday I tried to close my bank account. I won't pretend that the Bank of China is the most Orwellian institution in the world, but in terms of human suffering inflicted by bureaucracy, it has to make the long list.
I have learned to dread my constant visits to the local branch, where I wait in line behind 40 retirees, have my passport photocopied and learn from a preternaturally calm teller that whatever it is I would like to do, it can't be done today. The reasons change; the outcome is the same. Over the years fatalism has ripened through defeatism into despair.
I've dreamed of closing the account for years, all the while gripped by an irrational certainty that they simply wouldn't allow it: we regret to inform you, sir, that your transaction cannot be completed at this time.
Last Wednesday I nearly failed. Armed with most of the paperwork I've produced in my 34 years of life, I approached the window and stated my intent, searching the teller's face for the slight crease of the brow and shake of the head that would signal the inevitable. She stared intently at her screen, the minutes lengthening.
I couldn't help overhearing a British man next to me in the midst of a breakdown. For reasons he could not fathom they would only let him withdraw half the amount he wanted; he would have to wait until next week for the other half. But why? And why did they need yet another photocopy of his passport? And what exactly were they doing with his money?! Mounting rage began to derail his otherwise fluent Chinese. I admired his principles, but wished I could whisper to him: peace only comes to those who abandon hope.
My teller cleared her throat, and suddenly I was hurtling through an entire circus-full of hoops: entering my PIN eight times in five minutes; calling a number to cancel online banking that had never worked because it required Internet Explorer; signing 15 sheets of paper. Then it was done. I was released onto the street, relieved of the crushing weight of a single plastic card. I rejoiced.
The bank called me at 5:21 that evening. "Oh God," I thought. "They will never let me go." In settling the account the teller had inadvertently given me four mao, about seven cents, too much. Could I pop by the bank and drop it off? Summoning what dignity remained to me I suggested that, as it was her error, perhaps she could produce the four mao herself. She was dubious but hung up. Ten minutes later her supervisor called back saying they really did need that four mao or else the poor lady wouldn't be able to leave work for the day.
Accustomed to being at their mercy, I resigned myself to getting back on my bike. But then the revelation hit: I had them! I had stymied the great machine with nothing more than the change in my pocket. It was a heady feeling, charged with years of general resentment at bureaucrats everywhere, and in my elation I may have behaved with less than perfect grace.
When the supervisor promised that someone would come by my home to collect the four mao in person, I began to feel silly.
And I felt even sillier a half hour later, when I went out onto the street and found my bank teller standing there in her uniform, along with a colleague and a young man who appeared to be a boyfriend. All three were full of giggling apology: "Such a stupid thing; we know! Sorry to cause you so much trouble! Thanks for your understanding!" Four bright coins changed hands, then the three hopped on their bikes and were gone.