To be ... or what?
Many apologies for the spotty blogging lately. I’ve been on the road for what feels like months ... because it HAS been months. It turns out that the time-space continuum favors being in one location for a period of time to get stuff done in that location. Who knew?
However, there’s nothing like a philosophical conundrum to shake one from blogging lethargy … and I woke up on a Monday morning a couple of weeks ago to find that I don’t exist. Well … maybe that’s a bit too brief an explanation for what is turning out to be more than a simple adventure in amateur ontology. So let me begin again …
I woke up on the morning in question in my usual state, a bit creaky but generally looking forward to the first cup of coffee, a scan of the morning’s news and the typical routine to get myself ready for the day. The coffee was made without mishap, nothing shocking in the news – President Trump was trumping and much of the world through it was coming to an end. But it didn't. It's nice to be wrong now and then.
My first activity of the day was to go to the bank – over the weekend I had lost my debit card to an ATM machine with an eating disorder but without the urge to purge, so I had to see if I could get a new card. Thankfully, I have not had to actually go to the bank much in years … my salary gets deposited, I take money out and, provided the latter does not exceed the former, everything is hunky-dory. And then, what with WeChat and Alipay, who uses cash these days? To be honest, I can say that I’ve probably actually set foot in my bank here, maybe, five times since I set up the account many years ago. So it was with not a little trepidation that I gathered my various forms of ID and showed up at the door to the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, or ICBC (when some of the local Shanghaiers say it fast, it sounds like they’re saying “icy-beasty,” conjuring an image of the carcass of a Woolly Mammoth clutching an abacus and encased in the frozen tundra).
Now, like I said, I’ve had this particular account for eons and I set it up during an era in China banking that was, to put it politely, “unregulated.” To put it not-so-politely, China banking used to be the mother of all fiscal free-for-alls where bank records were written in crayon on 3x5 index cards and stored in a spittoon on a very high shelf in a broom closet secured by a hairpin (aka a "bank vault" in the local parlance of the time). Seriously, back in the dark ages, going to the bank in China was an all-day affair where you had to show up at 9:00 when the bank opened (which ended up being 11:00 if the one person in possession of the door key had alarm-clock troubles that morning) and then join the scrum around the teller window clamoring for attention. I usually did quite well, having inherited long arms from my father and freakishly sharp elbows from my mother, but getting to speak to someone was only the beginning of the trials. From thence they actually had to access the 3x5 cards on the high shelves – and bank employees in the day were all oddly short and lacked ladders – decipher the hieroglyphics, confirm your identity and then, and only then, could you start to transact your business.
My memory of setting up this account is oddly murky...I think I vaguely remember going to a bank branch near my then-office and showing my identification which consisted of my passport and a document called the Alien Identification Certificate (and, if you had seen my photo in said document you'd have sworn I had just crash-landed at Roswell).
Now, I'm not sure how this happened, but when they registered my account, they used my passport number but then took my Chinese name from my ID card. Giving foreigners Chinese names is a complex process – and probably deserves its own mind-numbingly long blogpost – but is usually accomplished through some creative process whereby a someone takes the foreigner's name and transposes the sounds into something vaguely Chinese. If that "someone" likes you, you get a cool sounding name with notes of history and culture; if that person doesn't like you, you may end up being called Fish Lips for the rest of your natural life in China. However one thing is abundantly clear: whether named after Tang dynasty poet or an animal body part, a foreigner's Chinese name carries NO legal weight in China unless, in a moment of identity crisis, that person gives up their citizenship and takes a Chinese passport. I'm still a 'Murican and I'm still Kent. At least somethings don't change.
So when the bank teller used my Chinese name from my ID card, s/he was opening an account for a fictitious person. Granted, I'm sure this happens all the time around the world for those wishing to use a bank for nefarious purposes. But I was looking to store my money, not launder it, so a legal bank account under an illegal (and, indeed, non-existent) name was a problem. Of course, I didn't realize that this was going to be a problem until it was, indeed, a problem, which I discovered on the Monday morning in question.
So back at the bank … I sat down in front of the teller and said, with a completely straight face, "OK ... here's the deal. I lost my bank card and I need a new one. But the bank account is under a Chinese name which is, really, my name, in Chinese, even though, um, I can't really prove it, so what I need you to do, ah, is to accept that what I say is true and issue me a new card so I can get money out of the account. OK?"
Years ago, I would have received a blank stare from the lobotomized teller followed by a languorous nod of the head; then the gears of banking process would grind, slowly-but-surely, and I would, after a time-frame best measured by the rate of mammal evolution, get my new bank card.
But this is a new day in banking in China where employees are, for the most part, in possession of their complete faculties. The teller looked at me, blinked once, and said, without a hint of sarcasm or irony, "I'm sorry, sir, could you please repeat that? I don't think I understood what you were asking." Taking him at his word, I launched, yet again, into my speech ... and then about half way through, I had a moment of Zen-like clarity and could hear the raving lunatic I had become: the arrogant foreigner who, in trying to solve a problem caused by his own stupidity and lack of attention to detail, insists that everyone obey his commands based on his own convoluted logic.
"Ah," I said. "I see your point."
After many calls and visits, I was able to get my card back from the bank who owned the ATM machine that ate it; however, my ICBC account is still registered with a Chinese name belonging to a person of decidedly non-Chinese ethnicity. I have yet to go back there and prove that I am who I am and not what I appear to be and get the name changed to my real one. Too bad my Chinese name is not Fish Lips … I might be able to get them to change it out of pity alone.