fresh eyes

August 31st, 2009

Note: This was written on Saturday afternoon, but just before I hit ‘publish’, New Zealand fell off the internet again. This is the first chance I’ve had to get back on my blog since then. I have tried to change every ‘yesterday’ in the text to ‘Friday’, but I may have missed one or two.

It’s that time of year we’re welcoming new teachers, getting them settled in- well, starting to, at least- distributing workloads and timetables and textbooks. It’s not busy, but there are plenty of distractions.

One of our new teachers has just arrived from America. She timed her arrival very well: Late Thursday morning a norwester finally blew up and cleared out all the murk that had been suffocating Beijing for about a week, so that by late afternoon, when she finally got through customs and quarantine and all that nonsense, the sky was spectacularly clear. So clear that we could see clearly in to the CBD and as far as the Western Hills from the expressway leading out from Terminal 3. And just to emphasise the clarity of the air: We got an excellent taxi driver who took us no further west than the 5th Ring until we hit the Jingshen Expressway, which begins just on the southeastern corner of our campus. We could see an extremely long way, in other words. And it was a strange experience looking at the CCTV Tower, Guomao Tower 3, and the Kerry Centre- distinctive buildings, all- from so far away.

But perhaps a couple of points about our new teacher’s arrival bear repeating, as they may be useful for others planning to come to China:

Our new teacher came with a bank card and US$20 cash, expecting, rightly, I believe, to be able to withdraw money from her US bank account. No luck. I’m not sure what the problem is, whether its Chinese ATMs not taking foreign cards (which at least used to be a common enough problem) or not being set up to recognise a 4-digit PIN or that she did not warn her bank that she’d be travelling to China or some combination of the above. What was frustrating was that the ATM another colleague said did take foreign cards was out of money, while all the other ATMs with all the international stickers (VISA, Mastercard, Cirrus, whatnot) on them refused her card. Said colleague, however, had notified his bank he’d be in China.

Why is one’s presence in China so important? I don’t know. I never had any trouble using a New Zealand-issued VISA card anywhere around the world, although that was years and years ago. I could understand that with the rise of the internet and phishing schemes and online scams and all that that foreign banks would be wary about requests for money from their customers’ cards suddenly coming from China, especially given a) the sheer volume of malware coming from China and b) the sheer volume of overblown press reports about China.

Whatever the reason, I don’t think our new teacher was in any way wrong to assume her card would work here- it’s a globalised world, people travel, people need money when they travel, and you open bank accounts with an understanding that the bank’s services will be provided, so why shouldn’t she be able to withdraw money? The way I see it, at least one of the banks involved in Friday’s ATM malarkey is at fault. However, it may well be worth remembering, if you’re planning a trip to China. You may want to make sure you have enough cash or travellers cheques or other such old fashioned stuff on you to cover at least the first week of your time in China just in case plastic doesn’t get you money for whatever reason.

And then there’s still that H1N1 thing going around. Our new teacher put my cellphone number as an emergency contact number on the forms- whether entry card or quarantine declaration, I don’t know- which is fair enough, because that was the only Beijing phone number she had to hand, she didn’t actually know where I was going to take her (nor even who exactly would meet her at the airport) and she didn’t have her own cellphone. The result was that Friday afternoon I got two phonecalls from our local community health service asking if I’d just arrived from overseas. The first one took some figuring out, but after a few minutes of back-and-forth, during which I could not understand why they decided that I/she was a student, the person (doctor? nurse? admin staff?) on the other end spelt out my colleague’s name, and I explained that although I was not her, I knew her (and clearly you’re not familiar enough with English names to realise that the clearly male voice talking to you obviously does not belong to the name on the paper in front of you- no, I did not say that), and what’s up? Stay at home for 7 days, don’t go nowhere, and if you get any flu symptoms or fever, phone us, here’s our number, and she gives me a cellphone number. Alright. Too late, broken the quarantine several times already, and in any case, locking her up for seven days is highly impractical considering she’s stuck in temporary accomodation until we finally get the foreign students out of the foreign teacher housing they’ve been using over the summer while the foreign students’ dorm has been renovated, but whatever. Oh, and temporary accomodation that, being a room in a rather ordinary hotel, has no cooking facilities, and she will need to eat over the next seven days.

And then later that afternoon another phonecall, again assuming I was the person recently arrived, but I had the pattern figured out and spelt out our new teacher’s name and that was who they were looking for. Where was she staying? I told them. Ok, cool, we want to go check her body temperature. Alright. So I sent a message to a few colleagues suggesting they may try to warn her if they see her, but not expecting much, because she still didn’t have a cellphone and if she wasn’t in the hotel or with another colleague, she was uncontactable.

Anyways, so long as this H1N1 is floating around, if you’re planning a trip to China, expect to have the local community health service follow you up and encourage you to quarantine yourself for seven days and maybe even come and have a look at you and check your body temperature.

It feels a little rude putting my colleague’s experiences up here, and one can not extrapolate from the experiences of a single person, but I felt those two points about banks and H1N1 may be of some value to others planning to come to China in the not too distant future.

6 Responses to “fresh eyes”

  1. Ji Village News Says:

    Regarding foreign bank cards, our Citibank card worked on most bank’s ATM machines, including 中国工商银行, 建设银行, ,中国银行, and possibly others. I do remember we had trouble with 招商银行’s ATM in Hangzhou on 文二路 or 文三路.

    So it may depend on which US/foreign bank it is. But you are definitely right, it is a good idea to check with the bank before departure. We did that on the web, and Citibank even posted its ATM locations in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. And wouldn’t you know it, it has one right next to the luggage claim area in Capital airport (prior to the spanky new terminal), so I took some RMB out and used that to pay my shuttle bus ride into town! Traveler’s checks/money orders is also a good idea.

    When we arrived in Shanghai in July, we received a quick scan on our forehead for temperature prior to deplaning. No troubles. It seems the quarantine people will only contact you if there are passengers on the same plane who displayed fever-like symptoms.

  2. wangbo Says:

    I think a lot does depend on the banks involved, both Chinese and foreign. Friday’s events reminded me of colleagues in Changsha back in 99/2000 who played a kind of cat and mouse game with the ATMs trying to get money out of their NZ account, with ATMs working once then not accepting foreign cards.

    Re H1N1 it’s quite possible the different natures of your arrival in China were involved: My colleague’s arrival and quarantine cards would’ve indicated she was heading for a university, therefore likely to be in place some time, whereas yours would’ve indicated travellers. Considering there was no indication from the phone calls I received that anybody on her flight was even suspected of having H1N1, that may explain why I got the phone calls I did and the lack of any subsequent follow-up.

  3. Matt Schiavenza Says:

    That’s odd…even in Kunming the vast majority of ATMs accept Visa and Mastercard cards from abroad, regardless of the length of the PIN. Occasionally machines do run out of money-or spout out fake notes, which happened to me for the first time recently- but I seldom have problems accessing money from my card. I even found a couple decent banks in places like Shangri-La (Zhongdian) and Tibetan Sichuan. Sounds like a bad break for your colleague.

    Random question: are your anti-span words actually Maori words?

  4. wangbo Says:

    Yeah, I was assuming that things had improved a lot over the years. I guess it’s her American bank being paranoid about requests for cash coming from China, then.

    I have no idea what the anti-spam words might be, sorry, never seen them myself.

  5. Jeff Says:

    I used a National City card and never had any problems getting cash as long as the ATM had the PLUS sticker on it. There was probably a little fee for each transaction though.

  6. wangbo Says:

    That’s the way it should be. Unfortunately my colleague’s ATM hassles have continued.