So, my parents sent me a package for my birthday, but it ended up at the post office near the train station, which is a hassle. The bus downtown takes about 40 minutes and I only have time to go on Thursdays or Fridays. Today I bundled myself up (it's below freezing outside) and headed down. I went to the usual customs office, but today they directed me elsewhere. Blergh. I walked outside to another office, and they kept pointing in the same direction, "Keep going, keep going." So I kept going. I found myself in a big loading dock area, which felt sketchy. How is this the right way? I kept walking, until I got to a customs/lobby type entrance. Luckily, this was the right place. Time for my adventure to begin.
First, they took my package slip and checked my passport. Then they brought out my box and opened it and started going through the items one by one. I had to open all my birthday presents that my mom had so sweetly wrapped in scrap cloth from my old curtains. After they examined everything, I thought I was home-free. Nope! They took the package back, and directed me to another person. I figured I'd get a signature and the all-important red stamp that is used for official documents. Instead, I encountered a very pleasant woman at the desk and the following conversation ensued, partly in Chinese, partly in English:
Woman: You pay 4,000 kuai.
Woman: You pay...customs...something something something...China...something something something.
Me: Why? Before I have package, I never give money. My parents always give me package. Why this package?
Woman: Blah blah blah bullshit blah blah blah.
Helpful Man (in English): It's a customs tax!
Me: I know. But I've never had to pay before, so why do I have to pay for this package?
Helpful Man: Uh...
Woman: Your parents blah blah blah package blah blah blah.
Me: I have no money. Why this package? I don't understand. Before, I have package, I never pay.
I actually wasn't too concerned - perhaps I misheard and she said 400 kuai, but either way, there was NO WAY I was paying anything to pick up a package. I wasn't exactly sure how to play it, so I called my Chinese friend Lucy. She didn't pick up the phone, but apparently the mere act of calling someone was enough to make these bureaucrats buckle. After my fruitless phone call, I began to text someone, but the woman beckoned me back over. "Are you a student?" she asked. "No, a teacher," I said. I showed her my Foreign Expert's Visa (which looks pretty hardcore) and she signed something and motioned that I should go to yet another desk. At this station, I finally got the glorious red stamp, and then it was back into the package room. The little man at the package desk had me write my English name, my passport number, and my Chinese name in characters, and then said I had to pay 8 kuai - which was still dumb, but I figured I'd pay the equivalent of $1.50 to leave with my wonderful birthday box, full of Velveeta Mac & Cheese and chocolate and...a new camera! Thanks parents. You are great. Check out the inaugural photo (ignore the huge bags under my eyes).
I've read a lot about Chinese bureaucracy and saving face, but I hadn't experienced it too much on my own. Clearly they had to at least attempt to extract an absurd amount of money from a foreigner, but it didn't take much for them to give up. I wouldn't call it corruption, but it's all in the same family. Bargaining a 4,000 kuai "tax" down to 8 kuai - it was an interesting experience.