Friday, September 05, 2008

Cashless in Shanghai

And now, a quick assessment of our first real week as residents of Shanghai, rather than as Olympic tourists...

  • The kids successfully navigated their first week at an international school! Check!

  • I have navigated our neighborhood and beyond, even the subway system! Check!
  • Mandarin lessons signed up and started! Three lessons in a week! Check! (And how cool is it that my teacher's name, Wu Xia, is translated into ROSY CLOUDS. For those of my writer-buddies who know the novel that I'm currently working this not an amazing sign? Coincidence?! Fate?!)

So the last thing I needed to do to cap our first "real" week was my visit to the Quarantine Bureau where I was inspected like a dog. For fleas.

The morning, however, started a bit inauspiciously. Read: Justina was not a happy camper. It wasn't because I had to get myself tested to prove that I wasn't carrying any strange infectious diseases into the country. It wasn't because the Bureau is over an hour away from me. It wasn't even because it meant giving up my morning of writing.

No. It was this. Why, oh, why didn't I remind my husband to leave our one and only Chinese ATM card behind with me when he left a couple of days ago on business? (We can only have the ONE card for our bank account.) This was a bit of a problem considering that we live in a cash-based society. As in very few places here in Shanghai take credit cards. As in most transactions are done with hard cash. As in I had to dip into the emergency money I stashed in my kids' backpacks in case they ever got lost just so I could feed them (and then I abstained from meals to make the food go farther). As in it occurred to me when I dropped off the kids at their bus stop this morning that I probably would need money for the Quarantine Bureau.

LUCKILY, a mom overheard me stressing about this, whipped open her wallet, and handed me the equivalent of $100 in renminbi. As luck would have it, that was the exact amount that I ended up needing. The kindness of strangers overwhelms me.

So off I trotted to the Quarantine Bureau, a comfortable wad of cash in my purse. The reception area was packed with foreigners--Americans, Japanese, Mongolians, French--all wanting to live and / or work in Shanghai. After standing in line, hoping I was where I was supposed to be and that I had everything I needed, I was gestured to another waiting room with a large aquarium. Watching fish, I've been told, is supposed to be calming. That's why dentist offices...and Quarantine Bureaus...have aquariums.

After filling out my form, my number was called!
I was pointed toward the changing room where I was weighed and measured. (Fasting for two days has its certain perks.) And then it was out of my clothes and into a robe...even some for my shoes.

Sheeplike, I was filed from one room to another, getting X-rayed, ultrasounded, poked and prodded. Nose inspected. Eyes tested. Medical history assessed. Totally surreal! Baaaaaaa.
Yet the people who worked there were incredibly friendly and efficient. I got nothing but smiles and was even able to giggle with some of them, like the young woman who drew my blood. I must have turned pale when she pulled out a syringe because she patted me, as I managed to craft a fragment of a yelp in Mandarin: "Wo bu shiang!" (I don't like!) She laughed and answered, "Wo ye bu shiang!" (I don't like this either...)
I love how even with a few common words, we can connect with people across cultures when we try. That's one thing I want my kids to learn as they brave new worlds and experience the unexpected. Look, all we can do is venture out with a smile, a willingness to learn, and a healthy dose of self-deprecation and humor. There will be people who may mock us, but then there are others who warm up simply because we are trying. And with those shared smiles and laughs, we see exactly how much we share in common with each other.

Afterwards, my husband told me that someone from his company's relocation services was supposed to meet me at the Quarantine Bureau and guide me through the process. I'm so glad they didn't. The experience would have been so much different, buffered and watered down. I bumbled my way through with my meager Mandarin and had a great time! Really! Still, I was sure glad for the intervention of the angel this morning who thrust her grocery money into my hand and sheltered my trip that way. And trust me, I will take ownership of the ATM card.


Janet Lee Carey said...

We novelests always put our characters through hardship. Now it sounds like you're inside one of your stories, fighting your way through like true hero.

Bless those who helped out with spotting the cash when you were clean out~!


m--e said...

Money is such a pain! Even if you have multiple accounts and credit cards from different banks, it seems like the ATM is out of cash or it doesn't accept that brand or it just eats it just because. Jon's got eaten once before he even pressed a button.

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