We are back in Hangzhou, and the small tasks of daily life are upon us. Last week I endeavored to do something quick during Owen’s morning snooze: Nick had accidentally laundered a 100 RMB ($15USD) bill, and it tore clean in half. I taped it back up and tried to buy something with it at the corner store, but no dice. So to the bank I strode, taped-up bill and passport in hand (you never know). The nearest branch of the Industrial Commercial Bank of China is a mere two blocks away, and I lucked out and walked right up to a teller upon entering (no lines). I was making great time.
I handed over my bill and explained the situation. The teller (a young man in stylish glasses) held it up to the light for a long moment, then handed it to the teller next to him. She was busy with another customer, but she took her time fingering the bill, turning it over, and then handed it to the woman on her left. Again: examining, staring, massaging. My teller turned off his microphone so I couldn’t hear what they were saying, and then they all looked at each other and burst out laughing, slapping their knees and leaning back in their chairs with the awesome hilarity of something.
Perturbed, I raised my hands in the “why?” gesture, and my teller turned his microphone back on. Through stifled giggles, he said, “Wait a moment.” Soon, a higher-up bank employee appeared at my side, holding the 100 RMB bill at its very edge, as if it were laced with arsenic. “Ma’am,” she said (in perfect English), “This money is counterfeit.”
“No, it’s not,” I calmly answered.
“It is fake money.”
“No, it just went through the wash, “ I re-explained, in English and then in Chinese, so there could be no mistake.
“Ma’am,” she said quietly, condescendingly, “Where did you get this money?”
“From your ATM,” and here I gestured to the row of machines on the back wall.
“Did a…friend give you this money?” she offered, suggestively.
“No, listen. I’m telling you I got it from your ATM.”
“Hmph. It is counterfeit. Are you sure you didn’t…find this money somewhere?”
“NO. And, look, isn’t there a way to tell if it’s counterfeit? A seal or a mark or something?” I was exasperated and starting to act rudely. I didn’t care.
She paused. “We will try.”
And she disappeared, then re-appeared behind the counter, where the tellers conferred. Each of the three tellers ran the bill through their money counting machine. Each time it counted 1 bill. This gave them pause. (Note: the machine does nothing more than count pieces of paper; it has no ability to detect a fake.) They passed it around, peeled up the tape, rubbed its edges, pointed at various spots on its surface, held it up to the light again and again. Then my teller turned his microphone back on.
“Ma’am,” he said very softly, “maybe it is real.”
“Yes,” I sighed, “I know.”
The tellers turned their heads to the side, avoiding eye contact. My teller passed a fresh 100 RMB bill through the slot and mumbled, “Sorry. Man zou. Walk slowly.”
It had taken me an hour to get my replacement bill, and so I did not walk slowly. I ran.