Ah, George, we barely knew ye…

October 2, 2008

I went to dinner the other night with a colleague, itself a rather unremarkable occurrence. We decided to just walk out on one of the narrow roads adjacent to the university and try to find something interesting for dinner before heading back to work on whatever each of us was busy with that particular day. Along the way, we noticed a little restaurant advertising “Xuzhou hot pot” (I’d describe it as a “hole-in-the-wall,” but along this particular street that’s what all the restaurants are – none hold more than about four small tables). Never having had Xuzhou-style hot pot before (and, to be perfectly honest, not being entirely sure where Xuzhou was other than somewhere in Jiangsu Province), we decided to venture in.

Now, I can read a Chinese newspaper without difficulty or much need of a dictionary, but Chinese menus forever give me trouble. Part of the reason for this is that there is just a lot of food vocabulary I haven’t encountered yet – not to mention a lot of things to eat in China that I’ve never dreamed of – but the other part of it is that the names of dishes don’t always translate directly to what’s in them. (Or at least, I’m pretty sure I’ve never eaten dragon or phoenix despite the prevalence of both terms of regular menus.) My general custom, then, is to ask a lot of questions and get recommendations from the staff. Usually they are more than happy to help, and often extraordinarily patient with my Chinese accent (which, I believe I have already mentioned, is a bit dodgy).

Looking over the range of Xuzhou hot pot options, my friend and I discussed going with one of the fish items. The only problem was that although I could recognize the word “fish,” I didn’t know what kind of fish it was, and therefore just what we were getting ourselves into. What if it wasn’t a fish at all, like the dragon dishes, but something else altogether? Just to be sure, I asked the helpful restaurant owner what a 鲶鱼 (nianyu) was. She didn’t even try to explain it; she just told me I could come with her back to the kitchen to see for myself.

Now, I never pass up an opportunity to look into a restaurant kitchen. Especially in a restaurant that’s smaller than my own apartment. She brought me back down a narrow passage, and then into the kitchen. On one wall there was a large stove filled with burners and woks; lining the other walls were tables and cabinets filled with vegetables, spices, and oils, scattered along with knives and spatulas. Under the tables there were all kinds of plastic bins of different shapes and sizes with pieces of what looked like scrap plywood covering them. She brought me to one of the bins, lifted the plywood, and there swimming in the water was a large dark fish. It was about a a foot and a half long, and bigger than both my fists put together around the middle. “See?” She asked, “Delicious!”

And this is how I became George’s executioner. I returned to the table and informed my colleague that I had met our dinner, named him “George” (in honor of our first President, who featured heavily in my American History lectures this week), and ordered his death. It was not long thereafter that George appeared before us, cut in pieces and cooked in a spicy broth filled with tofu and mung bean noodles.

For the first few bites, we were too busy spitting out bones to think much about how good George was. But after we paused and confirmed that each of us was fully prepared to perform the Heimlich Maneuver on the other, we dug in with great enthusiasm. After those first few mouthfuls, we started to learn which parts of George had the fewest bones. Avoid the fins, I advised my dinner companion, nodding wisely. You see how I’ve learned? We looked in vain for George’s head, but although we think we found part of the skull, we never located the eyes, though that was probably for the best. We ate George alongside a very nice stirfry of greens and mushrooms. It was a marvelous dinner, and I will certainly go back. Of course, I came straight home afterward to Google George and learn that he was actually a catfish, and that Xuzhou is in the very northwest part of the province. Tasty AND educational, that’s our George!

And the kid breaks even

October 1, 2008

First and foremost, are you Enthusiastically Celebrating the 59th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China? I think you know I am… and if I momentarily forget to Enthusiastically Celebrate the 59th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China, there are all kinds of red banners hung up about town to remind me that this is the week for Enthusiastically Celebrating the 59th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China. Some of the other professors and I even went to a dinner reception last week Enthusiastically Celebrating the 59th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China, though we didn’t realize it before we got there, having been told it was a reception for foreign faculty at Jiangsu Province universities. (Well, actually, I suppose it was; it was an opportunity to honor foreign faculty as they Enthusiastically Celebrated the 59th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China.) Boy, imagine what next year will be like…

Given the fact that I am, as noted, Enthusiastically Celebrating the 59th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China, which I am doing by enjoying the week off from work (well, Monday through Sunday – they made us make up the Monday and Tuesday holidays by working all last weekend), I thought I’d take a little time this afternoon to tell the ending of a story that began three years ago.

So the first half of this story is here, but the Cliff’s Notes version is that three and a half years ago, I opened a bank account at the Bank of China that I could access via an ATM card. Then, a few months later, my wallet was stolen in Guangzhou, and I learned that the only way to get a new ATM card and reestablish access to the roughly US$200 still in the account was to physically return to Nanjing and request a new card. There was no time to do this before I left China, and although I have been back in China before now, this is my first return to Nanjing since before the ATM card went missing in 2005. Naturally, I figured I’d head over to my old bank and ask if a) the bank account was still open, b) there was still money in the account (i.e. the thief didn’t find a way to get it), and c) if both a & b proved true, if I could get a new ATM card to access it.

I had a free afternoon soon after I arrived, so I hopped on my bike (I *love* my bike) and off I went. This particular Bank of China branch is not one of the big ones; it’s got five teller windows and a small row of chairs for waiting customers. When you go in, you pick a number based on the kind of business you need to do: personal cash-based transactions, personal non-cash transactions, and business transactions. Because China is still largely a cash-based society, the first set of numbers gets the most action and the lines at those windows advance the quickest. I grabbed a number for the second category and sat down to wait. After a little while, the lobby manager (a worker assigned to manage problems and questions between when people come into the bank and when their number is called to go up to the counter) turned her attention from a man complaining loudly about how long he’d been waiting to me and clearly figured she’d better see what the foreigner was up to and if she’d selected the right kind of number. (Incidentally, the man had every right to complain, as he had been waiting a very long time without any advancement in the numbers – being the number just after him, I am very clear on just how long it was.)

Anyway, I told the friendly manager my story, probably in far more detail than she really needed or wanted given how dodgy my Mandarin accent is these days, and she asked for my passport, and then went to check if there was still an account at the bank under my name. After a few minutes, she reappeared with the news that there was, in fact, an account. This was not instantly good news for me, though, because I had once had several different accounts at this particular bank (and an additional one at the Bank of China in Guangzhou), but she clarified that it appeared to be an ATM account with some amount of money still in it. She then produced a form for me to fill out detailing my personal information and information about the account.

I filled out the form, guessing at what I did not know (how much in renminbi was still in the account, what was my address and cell phone number when I opened the account, what was my address and phone number now – neither of which I had actually memorized yet), and then I returned to wait. When my number finally came up, I approached the window. What followed felt like I had stepped into some sort of comedy show skit. First there was a mistake on my form, so I had to fill it out again. Then, over the course of the next twenty minutes, she processed my claim. This involved filling out another form, in triplicate, then stamping each page twice with two different stamps. Then she called over her supervisor, who stamped each page with a different set of stamps. After that, she unlocked a cabinet, took out two books, and painstakingly entered all of my information on one line of one, then one line of the other. Then, of course, there was the stamping in the book. (I should explain the stamping – these are red stamps with the name and position of the individual on them; others have the branch of the bank. They substitute for signatures, because signed Chinese names are too easy to forge. But the appearance of so many stamps over such a short period of time feels more like a Monty Python skit than a routine bank visit.) Then the printing started: she had to print a huge number of receipts, each on a special printer. For each receipt, the supervisor had to come over and swipe a card on her computer, then she’d print the receipt, stamp it, pass it to me to sign, take it back and tear it in half. Half went back to me, and the other half was folded in half and clipped to a stack of papers that went in an envelope with the books in the locked cabinet. We did this at least a half dozen times; it might have been more. The receipts just kept on coming and coming. In the end there was a final frenzy of stamping and printing and signing, which ended with me leaving with a stack of paper and instructions to come back in ten days.

This week I made my return trip. During this visit, the friendly teller examined my forms, and started adding her own stamp to each of them. Then she pulled out the books from the locked cabinet again and confirmed that having made the request, I came back for my card. This involved more signing and stamping. Then to the receipts portion of the entertainment; after printing and signing another small stack of forms, she finally handed me my new ATM card. Success!! I excitedly asked what the pin number was so I could go ahead and use it. “Wait,” she said, “You mean you don’t remember?!?”

Okay, in my defense, let me say this: I had this account for four months, three and a half years ago. I probably used it seven or eight times total. I didn’t remember my full address or phone number from then, and I used both a lot more frequently. But here’s where the whole “applying for a replacement ATM card system” breaks down a little. No one asked me when I applied for the original card if I still knew the pin number, in spite of me telling the whole story of lawless Guangzhou pickpockets and the aftermath. But it turns out there is a completely different set of forms and procedure to apply for a new card with a new pin number. Of course there is. They could, however, use a simpler process to change the number if I had both my passport and my work unit ID. Erm, work unit ID? I’d never heard of such a thing, so of course I had nothing to give them.

The poor teller went off to call what appeared to be a bank-wide staff meeting to discuss what to do with the forgetful foreigner, when all of the sudden I started to think. She said that my pin code was six digits long, and that I would have picked the original code when I signed up for the account. All of the sudden I had a number in my head, which, I’m not going to lie to you, was and remains a pretty insecure secret number, being based off a number I use practically daily in the US. But it was easy to remember, and in this case, that proved to be the key. When the huddle broke and they prepared to run whatever play they had decided upon, I broke in and asked if I could try my number. Fortunately for all of us (not to mention the environment, given all the paper the last application took), the number was the right one – I got it on the first try. And all the way home I was thinking, “damn, I’m good. Three plus years later and I’ve still got the pin number.” Of course, then I went to take care of something else and *still* didn’t have my phone number memorized, at which point I felt decidedly less smart.

Now, here’s the fun part: all the money that was there before – around 1600RMB – was still in the account. But whereas you could buy 1600 RMB for about US$200 in 2005, China has revalued its currency a few times, and I don’t think I need to explain to anyone that the dollar is not that strong at the moment. So actually, getting that same amount of money would cost me about US$240 now. If you go back to my original post about the theft, you’ll note that I also lost about US$40 in cash. It might have taken me three years, but I broke even on the deal. Not bad, eh?

Oh, and my work unit ID came yesterday. Who knew?