Being THAT American: The Bank

Right now, I’m recovering from some cultural frustration.

I brought traveller’s checks to China which, as I now know, was not the hottest idea. No one to blame but myself on that count.

I’ve been avoiding converting them all week, instead withdrawing money from my American account at ATMs. Chinese banks are intimidating. They do not have nice cues and straightforward directions as in America or other parts of the world.

They are, much like the Chinese visa office in Washington DC, a worse version of the DMV. It is a bureaucratic hades.

You take a number. You wait. And wait. People are impatient. The bells ring. Finally, you get called.

Today, I had my first breakdown moment in China. My first moment truly feeling lost, helpless, and angry. I acted like a stereotypical American, something I’m acutely aware of and feeling anguished about. When I went to convert my checks, I had signed something on some of them that shouldn’t have been signed. The teller kept trying to explain my mistake to me in Chinese, and I frantically started trying to explain…

in english. 

How I thought that would be a good idea at the time, I don’t know. As I kept trying to explain, my tone became louder, slower, and aggravated. She started calling through the microphone in Chinese, obviously trying to find a patron at the bank who could explain the situation. A middle aged Chinese women came to translate, and repeated verbatium what I had already known.  I tried to suppress my stress and explain to the woman my side of the story.

I was getting nowhere.

I shook my head, gave a quick xie xie ne (thank you) to both the teller and the woman, and rapidly excited the bank.

Now, in terms of culturally insensitive things I could have done, this wasn’t horrible. But this incident acted as a reminder. This is China. Things happen the way they happen. To paraphrase J. Maarten Troost, if you can’t speak the language, you are fairly useless.

So I have some money, and an experience on top of it. Hopefully I can handle it with a bit more grace the next time….

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About Jonathan Rice

Fulbright Fellow, Pitzer College alum, and communicator passionate about telling stories that make an impact.

Posted on 09/14/2011, in College, General, Pitzer in China - Fall 2011 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. My American friend, I feel your pain. I have had (and still sometimes do have) the worst experiences at French banks! They seem to come from another planet! I guess I continue to be that spoiled American that likes order, convenience and customer service.
    But as is sometimes said in America, “If you don’t like it, go back to your country…” I plan on doing just that as soon as I finish what I started here. It’s great for a visit, but not forever.

    Pretty cool that you’re living in China and will learn Chinese! I would love to learn some.

    • It’s definitely a little frustrating, but I’m trying to accept it as all part of living in the culture. I spent some time on exchange in France about 6 years ago, and the service expectations are definitely different…

      Haven’t had too much homesickness yet for America, but there are definitely moments. And picking up Chinese is definitely a piece by piece process…

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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