We’d been warned that opening an account in Hong Kong could be a difficult task. HK is a huge banking center, and as such, attracts a lot of bank fraud on various levels. A friend of ours works for the FBI at the consulate here, and says that all of the Triads have shifted their focus from high-risk/low return crimes like drug trafficking and vice, to fraud, just because the returns are so good.
That in mind, we came armed for bear. When I went down to the campus BEA our first Friday here, I carried Ellen’s and my birth certificates (originals, not copies), our passports, our marriage license, and proof of my employment by the Fulbright organization and my host institution.
Waiting in line, I glance at the clock: 12:00. Good deal. I would be able to set things up just dandy, then get back to the flat and spend a little time with Ellen and the kids. Just the day before, we’d discovered that Ellen’s father had died while we were en route from the States, and that she would have to fly back early Sunday for the funeral. For some reason, my initial check from the Fulbright organization had both her name and mine on it, so getting it deposited and the money flowing would be essential if I and the kids were going to eat at all for the next week.
When my turn came, I stepped up to the window and, presenting my various documents, asked to open an account.
The woman behind the counter, young, dark haired, dressed in a bright red and neatly-trimmed BEA suit, looked through the papers I’ve handed her. I notice, as she does so, that her nails are extravagantly manicured, a glossy red with small pink gems set near the tips.
Eventually she looks up and says, “Individual or joint?”
Ellen and I have always been equal partners in everything, including money. I wouldn’t have it any other way, especially since I couldn’t balance a check book if my life depended on it. So I’m confident when I say, “Joint.”
Red nails gives me a look like I just told her I wanted to lick her shoe. Once again she thumbs through the sheaf of documents with which I’d presented her.
“Just one moment,” she says, and gets up. I watch has she winds her way back to the desk of an older woman wearing an identical red suit with white piping around.
They talk for a few minutes. I watch from the other side of the window, wondering, suddenly, fearfully, slightly paranoid from lack of sleep and jet lag, if my past as a wannabe rock star has finally caught up with me. Or maybe they found out about that time Krist Zimmerman and I stole two Strohs from his uncle and ran off to drink them beneath the big trestle, throwing the half emptys away because it tasted like someone’s donkey’d peed in a can. Or maybe—
“You must give proof of your address.”
The young woman was back at the window, looking at me—what? Seriously? Suspiciously? No. Blankly, really, as though saying what she’d been told to say, with no real wheels turning behind those pretty dark eyes of hers.
“My address?” I said.
“Here?” I said.
Again a nod.
I reached for my Fulbright assignment letter, twisting my hand awkwardly into the little chute under the big plastic shield they put in front of every teller’s window here to stop the crazed maniac bankrobber who’s allergic to synthetic glass. Blank face watched me for about twenty seconds before finally reaching down and pushing the paper two inches forward so I could reach it.
Holding it up so she could see, I pointed to the terms of my grant, one of which stated that the university would provide housing. “But see,” I said, “it says right here: I live on campus.”
She’s unimpressed. “But we need your full address.”
I stare at her. Then I turn and look out the window at the campus upon which the bank is situated. Turning back, I say, “My address is the same a yours.”
No, she explains to me: they need my flat number. I tell her my flat number, but this is not good enough: they need it in writing. Apparently, it’s entirely possible that I could live on this campus, but in a different flat than the one I say, and by living in that different flat, completely defraud the Bank of East Asia of every penny it holds. I’d always assumed, of course, that bank fraud was much more difficult than that, but who am I to argue with a woman diamonds on the tips of her fingers?
So I gather my things and head through the door into the blasting heat of Hong Kong in August. Walking all the way to the other end of campus, I find my then-boss Anita’s office and ask her how I can get written proof that I actually live in 802 SSQ. Anita makes a phone call or two, then tells me that the Estate Office will write a letter for me and that I can pick it up any time after 3:00.
At 3:00, I go to the Estate office and pick up a letter that says, and I quote, “Paul Hanstedt lives in SSQ 802.”
Trusting—as English professors tend to do—in the power of language, I return to the bank, letter in hand, and offer it to the blank face in the red suit. She looks at it, glances at the rest of my documents, then takes them all back to her older colleague at the desk.
Ten minutes later, she returns to the window and says, “You would like a joint account?”
“Yes,” I sigh, happy that at last we’re getting down to business.
“Where does your wife live?”
I look at her.
“This letter. It only has your name. Where does your wife live?”
I stare at her. She meets my eyes, but gives nothing away.
“My wife lives with me.”
She glances at me, glances at the letter, glances at me again.
“You know,” I say. “My wife is not employed by this University. I am the only one who works for this school. There’s no reason why they would include her name on any of my correspondence, including this letter.”
But she won’t give. She slides the letter under the window. I take it, gather everything else I’ve brought, and turn out into the afternoon blast of heat. Again.
Gilbert Wong, the director of the Estate Office, has his desk on the third floor of the building right next to the bank. I climb the stairs and go into the lobby of his unit. I don’t see his name anywhere, so I ask someone who picks up a phone, dials a number, and speaks quickly in Cantonese. After a moment she replaces the receiver and says, “He’s in a meeting.”
I must look pained, because she frowns. “Can I help you?”
I explain the situation. I mention Ellen’s dad. The funeral. The odd check with both our names. My three children at home, who are going to be unhappy enough in a new, hot, smotheringly humid country without their mother, nevermind being fed stewed bits of old sock for dinner. The woman takes pity on me and picks up the phone again.
Two minutes later, Gilbert Wong appears and shakes my hand. He’s a slight man, with a slightly goofy glasses and a warm smile. He listens to my apologies, listens to my story, listens to more of my apologies, then says, “No problem. You come back at four o’clock. Will that do?”
“Oh god,” I say. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I’m so sorry!”
But of course, that won’t do. When I return to the bank with an amended version of the letter that now reads “Paul Hanstedt and Ellen live in SSQ 802,” I’m informed that that is very nice, but they need proof of my address in the States.
The bank closes at five, so I don’t even bother gathering all my stuff this time; I just head out the door, speed walking it from the A-block where the bank is, past B-1, B-2, B-3, B-4, the library (C-block) and D-blocks 1-4. Picking up my pace, I cross the parking lot outside our building, wave to the guard in the booth, stroll through the southern half of the building to the elevator bank, press the button, wait for the elevator, get in, press the button, go to the sixth floor where this elevator tops out, go down the hall to the next bank of elevators, press the button, wait, get in, press the button again, get out at the eighth floor, walk all the way down the exact same hallway only eight floors higher, to the southern half of the building where our flat is.
Going in, I grab my wallet. “They need my driver’s license,” I tell Ellen. She’s on-line, trying to book tickets.
Back in the heat, I go the whole way down the hall again, press the button, wait, go to the sixth floor, walk to the next bank of elevators, press the button—
Well, you get the point.
By the time I get back to the bank, I’m sheeted in sweat as only a big bald white man can be. Handing my driver’s license to the woman behind the counter, I bend over, leaning against the metal trim, trying to catch my breath.
She takes the card in two fingers, as though holding a document that’d just been handed to her by someone sheeted in sweat as only a big bald white man can be. Looking at it carefully, she says, “And your wife?”
I stare at her. Then I say, “You have got to be—“ and spit out the number seven phrase on the list of words I avoid saying in front of my great aunt from Toledo.
But of course she’s not. Never mind that I explain that my wife’s address is the same as mine. Never mind that I point out that, as my wife and I live at the same address in HK, clearly we safely assume she and I live at the same address in the US. Never mind that I rant and rave and beat my head against that now slightly-foggy plastic pane separating the two of us.
No, none of that matters. So again I head into the heat, doing more of a jog now than a speed-walk, past B-1, B-2, B3 etc. I cross the parking lot, nod to the guard, go to the elevators, take them up, get the card, take them down, and repeat the journey again, only in reverse this time.
I’d like to tell you it ended there. I’d like to tell you that when they asked for our Social Security numbers I knew both of them, or at least had a phone so that I could call Ellen and ask hers; that, when I returned with her number, they didn’t insist on having not just the numbers but the cards; that when I returned with both cards (originals, not copies) they didn’t insist on a blood sample; that when I came out of my faint from the needle they didn’t ask for a pair of dirty socks from each of us; that when I returned with the dirty socks, they didn’t look at me like I was an idiot for not also having brought two clean pairs as well; that when I returned with the clean pairs they didn’t ask for a hair sample; that after a fifteen minute search, they didn’t ask for . . . well . . . samples of other things that I generally don’t discuss with the 11 people who regularly read this blog.
I’d like to say all of those things. Really, I would.
I’d also like to say that when I was eventually sitting there, looking at the final papers as they were being drawn up, that I didn’t notice that Ellen was going to have to come down and sign in person. And that, since neither of us had a phone, I didn’t have to hustle out of the bank at a dead sprint at 4:47 PM, realizing halfway back to the flat that they still had Ellen’s passport, and that, without it, she couldn’t return to the States on Sunday.
But none of that would be true.
What actually happened involved me bursting into our flat at exactly 4:53 and screaming, “You have seven minutes to get down there or you’ll miss your father’s funeral!”
Then I collapsed on the floor in a veritable Great Lake of my own sweat and uttered the five words that had been on my tongue since noon: “Lucy: get me a beer.”