Living in China is sometimes like being on an airplane that’s held together by duct-tape. The plane might look okay from afar and the flight may get to its destination, but you’ll probably encounter a few surprises along the way. Everyone has their own China horror story. Expats living in China can try and avoid such drama if they prepare in advance, but catastrophe has a knack for uprooting even the best laid plans. If you’re about to board the duct-tape 757 bound for China, here are some common disasters and how to deal with them.
The problem itself isn’t unique to China. ATM cards are so small, they’re almost impossible not to lose. I made this careless mistake a couple of years ago on a night out in Beijing.
I have a vague recollection of going to a dimly lit ATM after reaching into my pocket and realizing I didn’t have enough money for my next beer. I made the withdrawal, put the Monopoly cash in my pocket, and went back to the bar to continue poisoning my liver.
In the morning, my ATM card was nowhere to be found. Maybe the machine ate it, maybe I dropped it. Either way, it was gone. After contacting my bank, canceling my old card, and asking them to send me a new one, I awaited its arrival. For security purposes, my bank sent the card and the pin number in two separate envelopes, as is the norm. The pin arrived within two weeks. The card, however, never came.
I waited another week, notified my bank, and eventually cancelled the new card. Much to my disbelief, the process then repeated itself again. It seemed fishy that my card could have been “misplaced” twice in the mail. I envisioned unscrupulous postal workers trying to crack my code — impossible since I hadn’t even activated the card.
The third time around I tried to be crafty. I had my bank send the card to my parents’ address and then had my parents forward it on, hidden among a bunch of magazines and newspaper clippings. Unbelievably, the package also never arrived. These postal workers were smart!
In the end I decided to get my parents to send me money via Western Union to tide me over until I personally returned to the US to pick up my card. I was obviously pretty unlucky, but even if the postal service doesn’t screw things up for you, your bank might. I have friends who spent weeks waiting for their address to be officially changed to China before their bank would even begin to process the new card.
In short, if you do lose a foreign bank card, it might be more trouble than you think. Always have more than one source of money when in China and be prepared to wait for weeks if you lose a card. If the worst happens, I suggest paying the extra money to have your bank mail you the card via a courier you can trust.
A good friend of mine recently relocated to his Beijing dream house — a hutong courtyard. In the daytime he was greeted by the reassuring sights of friendly alley cats lounging on rooftops and elderly women bopping their heads with the back of their hands in order to get the blood flowing through their meridians. It was the good life. Then one evening he came home to a broken door, two missing computers, and an empty envelope where three months’ worth of cash had been stashed away.
The first port of call is obvious: contact the police. This is when you realize you don’t know any of the emergency numbers in China. (Dial “110” for police and “120” if and when you ever need an ambulance.) It’s times like these when a little bit of conversational Chinese comes in handy as you’ll need to tell the police your address and what happened. If your Chinese isn’t up to scratch, show a neighbor the state of your house and they should be able to figure out what’s happened in order to tell the police on your behalf.
Detectives should arrive within an hour. Luckily for us, Chinese cops don’t tend to mess around when a foreigner’s house has been burglarized. Police will survey the scene, after which you’ll have to go to the police station and answer some questions.
If you have a bilingual friend or colleague, it’s a good idea to ask them to accompany you. You’re tired, stressed out, and you’ve just been robbed. When the police are asking you a load of questions in a language you’re not fluent in, it’s easy to phase out and just say, “dui, dui, dui.” But remember, these questions are important! You don’t want to miss any details.
While crime is very rare in China, you can reduced your chances of being burglarized by taking some simple precautions, such as keeping valuables out of view, even from your neighbors, making sure all windows and doors are secure, and investing in an obvious looking alarm system. If you are unlucky, however, here are a few things you should take care of within 24 hours of a burglary:
1. Tell your neighbors what happened. Maybe they saw something.
2. Call your embassy. They will direct you to the right anti-fraud agencies. If your computer has been taken, any personal information may also be compromised.
3. Change your locks.
The door to the bus opens. What was supposed to be a seven-hour journey turned out to be more like 14 hours due to bad weather and traffic jams. Despite the late hour, the parking lot outside is filled with hollering taxi drivers. They swarm around each exiting passenger like vultures around a carcass. As one passenger enters into the throng, you almost lose sight of him in the tussle for his custom.
You don’t know this city. You don’t know these people. You also don’t know where you’re going, and the dialect sounds like kitchen utensils clattering on the floor. The bus conductor turns towards you.“Don’t get off now. Wait a couple of minutes and I’ll get someone for you,” he says. “These guys will eat you alive.” It would be easy enough to do as he says, only you think HE might want to eat you alive, too.
It’s always best to prepare well in advance when you’re going somewhere new in China. Book a hotel beforehand, get the name in Chinese characters, and look up how long it takes to get there from your point of arrival. This way you can debark from your bus with the confidence that you won’t be taken for a ride. If in doubt, act like you know EXACTLY what you’re doing. Remember you have the power, so use it.
Be it a monetary issue, getting swallowed by a hungry crowd of business-thirsty vultures, or enduring a home invasion, the most important thing to prepare for while living in China is the unexpected. At the same time, you’ll sometimes need to strike a balance between playing it safe and taking a risk. When the wing of the plane starts falling off, sometimes you have to get yourself out there and tape it back together yourself.
What other disasters have you encountered in China? Tell us about them in the comments section below.
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Keywords: Expat Living in China
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