Sunday, November 27, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 7 -- Raging Against the Machine

"Please wait a moment."
--the most frightening words a Chinese bureaucrat can utter

The situation was critical. My student loan payments began next month. I could either stick with the standard 15-year plan and its huge payments;

or I could apply for the 25-year Extended Plan and pay almost double my balance because of all the interest.

It came down to two bad choices: declare bankruptcy now or have a negative net worth till age 47. Funny how they schedule my student loans to end at the same time my kids start college. The vicious cycle never ends!

In my darkest moments, I'd imagine there was some big conspiracy to keep college graduates poor. People who want to teach, volunteer for worthy causes, pursue the arts, or travel around the world are forced to go corporate to stave off the dreaded loans. This advocacy group is trying to solve the problem, but I didn't expect sweeping changes any time soon. Sorry, I'll get off my soap box now.

I had to get the student loan forms to my Mom before the deadline passed.

I went into the office of the China Post fully armed. I had a receipt from the last time I sent something to America, my Chinese address written down, and my ultimate weapon. Her name was Miss Zhang, the young woman who's teaching me Mandarin.

Lucky for me, the International Service window had no customers waiting in line. I was going to mail my precious application via EMS (worldwide Express Mail Service). There was a different postal clerk than who had taken my mail last time. He also gave me a different form than I used before. That should have been my first warning.

I filled out the form and slid it back under the window. The postal clerk frowned, shoved a blank form at me, and grumbled.

"He said you made a mistake and have to do the form again," Miss Zhang translated.

I grumbled a bit myself and did the form again.

"He said you filled out the wrong form. This is the right form," she said as yet another form slid under the window.

"I filled out the wrong form?! He gave me that form!" I exclaimed.

Either the third time's the charm or three strikes I'm out, I thought as I slid the correct form to the postal clerk.

He blinked as he had just seen it for the first time. A torrent of words spilled from his lips. I only caught "bu" [No] and "Xie wei ii" [Hawaii, pronounced "Sha-wai-yee"]. Enough to know this was bad news.

"He said they don't mail to Hawaii," Miss Zhang said. "He said this is impossible."

"No way!" I said. "I mailed a letter to Hawaii before and my Mom definitely got it."

Miss Zhang leaned closer to me and lowered her voice. "I believe you. He most likely does not know how to process a delivery to Hawaii. He will say it is impossible rather than lose face."

She spoke to the postal clerk. Miss Zhang said had she known the difficulty of this task, she would never have wasted his valuable time. Maybe some other person could help us so he could get back to serving his customers?

Postal Clerk #1 got up and started to walk away.

"He said to please wait a moment," Miss Zhang said.

Customers came in after me, stood in line, and left. Three cycles of customers went by. An eternity later, Postal Clerk #1 came back with another postal clerk. In desperation, I gave them the receipt I had from my last mailing. The two clerks studied it intently and talked.

"They're going to find the postal clerk who processed your last delivery," Miss Zhang said.

"Can't they just put the receipt under the scanner and pull up the information on the computer?" I asked.

Twenty minutes passed. The phantom clerk never showed up.

Finally Postal Clerk #2 passed my receipt under the scanner. Instantly, all the necessary information popped up on the screen. Postal Clerk #1 sat down and typed. In the next 30 seconds, they input my new form, sealed my letter in an envelope, and tossed it in the mail cart.

I checked my watch. In spite of having an old receipt, no line to wait in, and a native Chinese speaker with me, the whole endeavor had still taken me a full hour.

Miss Zhang tried to make me feel better as we walked out of the post office.

"It's not you. China just has its own pace."