Adventures in mucilage

Every now and then, just when I think I’ve got this living in China thing totally handled, something spins out of control in a way that reminds me to maintain a little humility. On Friday that moment came when I went to bank to change a bunch of US dollars to Singapore dollars prior to wiring it back to my Singapore account. I took my service number and waited in a drone-like trance for it to come up at the one window that seemed to be actually turning over customers. Three windows were open, but two of them were stuck in all day perma-transactions. You know the ones. Your number is 8,902. The open window is now calling 8,887 and the granny at the counter to the left was served with number 14 –apparently earlier that month– and is still there hashing out the paperwork to wire 1000 RMB in plitchkas –or whatever the currency is– to Guineau Bissau where her grandson is studying muskrat husbandry. Someday, when her grandson is the muskrat king (麝鼠王 if you were wondering – I had to look it up) of all China, her investment will pay off handsomely.

Muskrat husbandry in Guinea Bissau was sounding pretty good about the moment the teller gave me a quizzical look and said, “There are no US dollars in this account”. Yes, Imagethief had waited in line for half an hour with his wife’s passbook. At least she didn’t say, “You don’t look like Lee Yu Foong” (玉凤; it’s clearly a girl’s name) and put security on me with their sinister, candy-stripe electro-batons.

But it got worse today when I went to the post office to mail my US tax return (late, I know, but I don’t owe so they don’t care) and some paperwork for my dive certification agency. At the counter where one buys postage, which is separate from the counter where one does everything else, I was told that I would have to insert my various envelopes into other envelopes that I would have to purchase. it seems that the Chinese postal service is intolerant of nonstandard envelopes, which is to say any non-Chinese envelope. No big deal; it was only 5 mao (six cents) for the envelopes, although it did leave me wondering as to the fate of two shockingly nonstandard envelopes I had mailed internationally the week before. We’ll find out, I guess.

It turned out that neither Chinese envelope was big enough to accommodate the foreign envelope it was meant for. Both were close, but not quite there. I could have gone back to the counter and traded up to two larger envelopes, but at this point I was having second thoughts about sending my tax forms to Uncle Sam in a cryptically marked Chinese envelope. US tax envelopes use all manner of complex bar codes, stickers and machine-readable type to make sure they are routed to the clerk most likely to select you for auditing on the basis of some minor, personal quibble, like a wife with a Chinese name. Why interfere with that? So I decided to mail my tax forms from Singapore in two weeks. They’re already five months late, so two more weeks probably won’t make a big difference in the size of the stick that gets jammed up my ass. And Singapore’s postal service is both reliable and tolerant of registered mail using nonstandard envelopes.

That left the larger envelope free for the dive paperwork. It just fit inside. I addressed the new envelope and took it up to the counter to send. As I was handing it to the clerk I noticed that I had forgot to seal it. And it was here that my entire errand unravelled.

I should have just licked the envelope. Licked it and handed it to the clerk with a big, sweet grin. But, I thought, I don’t really want to lick this Chinese envelope, and I certainly don’t want to lick it and hand it back to this poor girl all damp with my drool and laowai tongue mites. Yes, I know this is a country where hocking a glistening, irridescent loogey is a crowd-pleasing national art form, but I’m American, dammit, and I keep my phlegm below the epiglottis except on the rarest of occasions.

Seeing me looking for a moistened sponge or glue, the clerk directed me to a table by the wall. There was a grey washcloth in a dish, the sanitary status of which I daresay made my mouth look like the inside of a freshly used autoclave. Fortunately, the washcloth had dried out. There was also a little device for applying mucilage to envelopes. I swiped the flap of the envelope along one of the wheels of the mucilage machine and pressed it shut.

Chinese mucilage does not stick. Not even a little. Whether this is because of deficient mucilage technology or in order to make it possible for the PSB to open envelopes without steaming them, I do not know. It’s tacky, but it doesn’t stick. I noticed a little slot in the machine that looked like it was for swiping the edge of a sealed envelope through. Perhaps, I thought, this heats the mucilage or applies even pressure, or magic postal pixie-dust, or whatever else is necessary to make the goddamn mucilage stick. So I swiped the envelope through it. Stupid, stupid, stupid. This applied another layer of mucilage to the outside of the envelope. I now had an unsealed envelope coated with tacky mucilage and fingers that looked like I had just crammed them up the nose of a three-year old.

So I gave up. I figured I was only 5 mao down, and I simply wasn’t going to go through the whole process again. I’ll mail the works from Singapore.

It is widely said that the Chinese think all Jews are smart. I may be the man who does more to undermine that remarkably durable impression than any other.

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