At the end of the month I always have the horrible realization that it is time to pay the bills. Everyone has this feeling I suppose—the dread of parting with your hard earned money, the hope that it won’t take up too much of your time. In the United States, I used to have things organized so that I did most of it online. The mortgage gets paid automatically; the other things have scheduled payments. Aside from forgetting to put money in the account, my worst fear was forgetting my password or my user name for the gas company. For those few bills that still required a check to be written, I took care of that with my handy dandy checkbook. I could buy stamps and then put the bill in my mailbox for the mailman to pick up. If I was feeling like taking a little walk I could saunter down Roland Avenue, get a coffee at my Starbucks, chat with my friendly lady at the Deepdene Post Office (also named Gwen!), and then shop at the Children’s Bookstore after I had mailed my letter. So civilized when you think about it. And, I must add, so easy. So easy, in fact that I assumed China would be similar. Doesn’t everyone do things this way?
Oh, you all know by now what to expect here! The answer is no. No way. Paying my bills in Shanghai is nothing like doing this in the United States. China runs on cash. I do have what is essentially a debit card, but I can’t use anything resembling online banking because I can’t read characters. I apologize if all the native Mandarin speakers would scoff at my description of how things get done around here, but for an English-speaking White lady getting the bills paid ain’t easy!
Mark had been living in Shanghai for a while before the rest of us arrived, so he had managed to figure out a few things. Unfortunately, his apartment was serviced and so some of the things that became important for me were new for him as well. We set up the bank accounts (a story of epic hilarity and frustration as well), but couldn’t do much more than get money from an ATM or pay for groceries at places that accept Union Pay. This is basically the only type of card you can use in many places. Occasionally my AMEX or US bankcards will work, but sometimes it is Union Pay or the highway so it is helpful to have a Chinese bank account. However, most of the time I need to pay for things in cash and especially in the beginning this was frustrating. In the US, I carry very little cash. This keeps me from spending it. Here I need cash to pay for everything, which brings us to my bill paying dilemma.
In Shanghai I need to pay my bills in cash. Mark handles the rent and a few other things. Some of that is cash and some of that is wired directly. The utilities—phone, gas, electric—I pay and I do it all in cash. This is a multistep process that usually goes something like this:
- The bills arrive in the mail. The ayi checks the mail and then hides the bills for me to find somewhere around the house.
- I find the bills! I can’t read what they say, of course, so I must blindly accept that they are correct. Sometimes I get a bill or a note that I have never seen before. Guess what I do then? I either find someone to help me translate or I just pay it to avoid the hassle of human contact. Wheee!
- I go to an ATM to get money to pay the bills. To give you an idea of the ridiculousness of this, our electric bill is usually more than 2000 rmb a month. Most ATMs only let you get out 2000rmb at a time. To pay the bills and then also hand our ayi her wad of money at the end of the month, I stand at the machine asking it to give me 2000 rmb multiple times. I then stuff what looks like an obscene amount of money in my bag.
- Next I do something crazy! Most people send their ayi or driver to pay the bills for them, but because getting all this cash means I am already out, I just go ahead and pay them myself at Family Mart. What is Family Mart, you ask? This is basically 7-11. In Shanghai I pay my bills at 7-11, which, obviously, is weird.
Paying bills at the convenience store takes some getting used to. Family Mart is not a welcoming place. It is bright and smells like the crazy mystery meat that is sold there on sticks in these gross little cups of liquid. Is it broth? Is it water? I will never find out because I will never, ever buy this. There is the discomfort of pulling out a wad of cash in front of a dozen Chinese customers. This never gets easier as everyone here is in everyone else’s business pretty much all the time. No one averts their eyes. No one gives you a little space to spill the contents of your wallet on the counter and then proceed to count to a million. People sometimes see me and then deliberately cut in front of me because, hey this is how we do it in China, and I also look too White to cuss at anyone in Mandarin. My stack of bills is also a hint that I will be camped out for a bit with the cashier so they are willing to knock me over to avoid spending that quality time with me.
Late bills cannot be paid at Family Mart, those have to be paid somewhere else. I have no idea where that is, of course, so it is of the utmost importance that I make my trek to Family Mart before the end of the month. Handing the cashier a late bill requires more Mandarin than I can manage and the extra ire of my fellow customers.
Often either the cashier or another customer will comment on my expensive bills. They make noises and discuss amongst themselves. Watching an expat spend some of what most Chinese assume is an endless supply of money is fascinating. It requires comment. I understand this. It costs more money than it should to heat and cool our house. We should all just put on a jacket in the winter and get used to being sweaty in the summer. We won’t do this, of course, and so I keep being the object of opinions in Family Mart.
Mark contends that it is not the amount of money that I am spending that garners so much attention, but rather, the fact that I am spending this money myself. The combination of expat utility bills and the actual expat paying them is the part that is blowing people’s minds. You have the money to pay those bills but not the sense to hire someone else to do that for you? What are you, insane? I think we all know the answer to this question. Of course I am insane! I moved my family to China and now I am paying bills in Family Mart! That is all the proof you need.