Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Logistical Nightmare

It was such a great day! After a week of abysmal cold and rain, the sun shone and the temps rose. Gary texted: “How about going shopping?” As I've not been to Metro in quite a while and was running low or completely out of staple goods, I thought that was an excellent idea.

A day out, in the sun, with my friend, to stock my cupboards. What could go wrong?

Last week, just before Chinese New Year, I stumbled into a branch post office close to my house, to send a package to my son. Nothing much: just a few snacks and a book.

And a bank card. Having been defeated at every other avenue to send funds out of the country, I opened a bank account at another bank than my school's account, with the intention of sending that bank card abroad, where the funds could be withdrawn. This would not only serve to get Darrell money for his wedding, but would also enable me to safely transmit my bankroll out, prior to leaving the country.

That post office branch told me they do not prepare packages for international mailing. I should go to a larger branch, a ways away: the same branch they referred me to for money orders (See The Chase for the Almighty Dollar entry).

I laughed in disbelief. I sent packages abroad from that branch in the past with no trouble whatsoever. And, concerned with being able to ship my goods out of the country when I leave, I had recently checked the post office's website, which guaranteed that there are literally thousands of branch offices that accept parcels for overseas shipping.

Furthermore, being a former postal employee myself (in America, not in China), I have an idea of postal shipping logistics. It seems incomprehensible that any post office, no matter how small or out of the way, would not accept a parcel for international shipping (the clerk who turned me away gave me the impression he would have accepted a package for any domestic destination by asking where I wanted to ship the parcel to).

I did not go to the larger branch the clerk had suggested. I went to a small office, tucked in a residential area, close to Metro. That clerk accepted my package with no problem. It took about forty minutes to get the package prepared and properly labeled.  

How to Send an Express Mail Package:

1.      Bring the goods, unpacked, to a branch office.
2.      Permit the clerk to inspect said goods.
3.      Clerk will pack the goods into a postal box (and charge you for the box)
4.      fill out customs form (if your written Chinese skills are lacking, the clerk will generally oblige)
5.      Fill out shipping label (my kind clerk filled my address in, as my Mandarin writing skills are lacking. I wrote out the recipient's address, as he is in America)
6.      BE SURE TO INCLUDE PHONE NUMBERS – your phone number and the package recipient's, as well.
7.      Write recipient's address and phone number on the package itself.
8.      Pay

The fee for this small package was 469 Yuan, money I thought well-spent, as it would help my son arrange his wedding and ensure I would be able to get my funds out of the country.  Now comes the waiting, counting down the days until Darrell sends notice that the parcel has been received.

Now: back to the sunshine, the shopping, the outing.

“Have you checked the online tracking?” Gary asked, in the know on the package sending.

I hadn't. Why should I? In a few days, Darrell will receive the package, enjoy the snacks I sent and make use of the card. But then... what's the harm in checking?

Shopping done and now back home, after a hasty meal – I'd never seen Gary so hungry!, we logged in.

“Tracking number does not exist”, the query returned. Twice – just in case I'd not entered the digits properly. 

Gary tried the postal app on his phone. There, the tracking number yielded a result: the parcel arrived at 110 Baishazhou Avenue on February 2nd.

Impossible! That's my address!

Gary called the post office's customer service line: “The parcel was returned because there was contraband inside.”

“Contraband?” he asked.

“There is a note inside the parcel detailing the offense.”

Well... seeing as they'd sent it to the school's mail room instead of my address – so painstakingly filled out by the postal clerk who inspected and accepted the goods for shipment, I didn't have the parcel, and thus could not see the note.

In fact, nobody informed me the parcel had been returned, in spite of the mandate to list my phone number on the shipping label. 

Gary and I walked across campus, to the school's mailroom. It was locked. Fortunately, it is located right across from the campus guardhouse, and the guard on duty and I are pretty friendly. Still, he demurred: “The mail room will be open on Monday.”

That's odd: he'd not had a problem unlocking the mail room for me before, so that I could retrieve a package. He even permitted me inside the mail room unattended, to go through packages myself until I found the one meant for me.

Still, I'm not angry at him. For all I know, he no longer has the key to the mail room. But then, that must mean that the mail room clerk must staff the mail room  in order to receive the mail, even though campus is deserted during winter break. And what time will the mail clerk be in? We were there before 5:00PM. Even when campus is staffed, she is not always in the mailroom.

Walking back to the housing area, Gary got on the phone with the post office customer service line.

“You must refund this customer's money because you did not ship the parcel abroad!”

“The customer is at fault, therefore we will not issue a refund.” 

Again, I stress: the items were brought to the post office in a Walmart shopping bag. The postal clerk inspected each item, and packed the parcel herself. How am I at fault?

Furthermore: she made sure to write my address, including my apartment number, and required me to write my phone number. How is it that the parcel went to the school's mail room instead of my address –  completely different from  the school's general delivery address? Why didn't the postal clerk call me to ensure delivery?

Gary spoke harder, faster and angrier than I've ever heard him speak. The conversation lasted the entire length of the walk back across campus, and back into my house. The clerk, apparently as a way to mollify him, asked for the package details: recipient's name and address, my name and address and phone number, and closed the call with a promise that a clerk from the accepting branch – from where the package was sent, would call back.

I'm not buying it. Why does she need all of that information from him? All she had to do was look up the package number; the particulars would be in the computer; I witnessed the clerk enter the shipping details, and she spun her monitor around so I could verify that she input the data correctly.

It is safe to say that I now have a mistrust for Chinese bureaucracy and a mild paranoia over what I might do that could be construed as restricted/illegal.

I am also growing fearful that I will leave China with empty pockets and only what I can pack in a suit case, regardless of what I brought with me seven years ago and what I've acquired since then.

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