The day is crystal clear. My dad and I putted in his Mercedes Benz to the Old Kent bank branch, located at the far end of the Meijers Thrifty Acre’s parking lot in Holland, Michigan, near their huge sign of a Dutch boy in wooden shoes. I was probably five or six at the time, and had recently discovered the game Monopoly, and was ready to open my first bank account, one where I couldn’t dip into the till for a handful of gold five hundred bills. The bank teller was a woman with a beehive hairdo.

“Here you go, sweetie.”

She handed me my bankbook, the opening balance handwritten in my dad’s cursive. Twenty-five dollars. We celebrated by going to Bimbo burgers. I got a hamburger and Pepsi with crushed ice, he enjoyed a few cigarettes and the paper.

Five decades later…

Mejiers no longer has the logo of the Dutch boy, Bimbo Burgers has been demolished and Old Kent has been swallowed by Fifth Third. But for some strange reason, make that sadistic–I have kept my accounts with this bank, in spite of their notorious fees, class action lawsuits, and their online bot tellers without beehives.

Banking from China is ludicrous no matter who you bank with. For starters, you have to get up before Five AM to talk with a human, that is, if you are granted the right to talk. Even though I’ve been a faithful customer for over fifty years, I must deal with the bot, that annoying chat window that makes the same sound that my cousin’s PodOmatic game made. I still remember the jingle. TROUBLE TROUBLE THAT’S THE NAME OF HASBRO’S POPOMATIC game! So why can I remember that by not my passcode to talk to a banker?

You see, my calls won’t be accepted as I can’t remember my passcode, which is not the same as my PIN or my password, but something scribbled on a Starbucks napkin in Chicago and chucked eons ago.

So, I decided to call the branch directly, not the one in Holland Michigan, but my neighborhood branch in Wrigleyville. Finally, with only a few minutes to spare before five pm CST, I get a human. He tells me in his drone voice that I must come to a branch in-person to resolve the matter.

But I live in China.


So, what banking matter requires me to walk nine thousand miles to the nearest branch? Not option one –personal checking, or two–open a new account, or three– credit cars, or four– speak to a Spanish teller, but five–something else. I have a tenant in my condo in Chicago. By law, I have to keep his security deposit in an interest-bearing bank account and can not touch it until he moves. But Fifth Third is upset that the account is not active. They decided to slap it with a five-dollar dormant fee.

So, Fifth Third Bank is penalizing me for keeping the law.

In China, I have two bank accounts. Both have cash recycling machines with face washing recognition. I love Chenglish. Their cash recycling machines only accept 100 RMB bills. They are the pinkish color, worth about fifteen bucks each. So, if you want to withdraw a serious amount of cash, you better have deep pockets. Your phone automatically dings when a deposit/withdrawal does through. And it’s a ding, not the PodOmatic POP, but some electronic harp thing.

Speaking of money matters, I don’t understand why second graders have the same vocabulary words I had in my economics class at Michigan State University my sophomore year. The prof was Moridaci Kremlich with his brown suit and combover. His class was in the old Agricultural Hall building. After one of his droll lectures, I’d reward myself with fresh ice cream, not caring that it was just nine thirty am.

But seriously, why does a seven-year-old need to know the terms consumer and capital? I decided to give the students the same experience I had. But instead of depositing money, they were to borrow money to start their own businesses from our school’s finance department. A lizard shop. A mango candy factory. A Chanel Designer Purses. I didn’t tell them that the checks they received were fake.

Another funny language: Ch’Irish–Chinese Irish. There are a few establishments in Kunming that are not sure if the color green is luckier than the color red. On St Patrick’s Day, I went to OReilly’s, a Chinese Irish pub located on Lake Dianchi, where I indulged in miniature Irish cabbage rolls and a kick-ass dipping sauce. I chased them down with Laos beer. Not exactly the same Irish meal I’d experience in Chicago with green rivers and parades and bagpipes. but it would have to do.

My favorite language is still secret codes. I recently read that during WWII, old ladies would sit next to their windows in Belgium with their knitting needles, putting secret messages in their scarves about how many Germans they saw passing by. Their knitted scarves would be given to soldiers of the Resistance.

That was not the job for me. I prefer my secret code cipher.

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