As Murphy’s law would have it, I entered the metro without problem at the Hengshan Road station downstairs and around the corner from my home, but upon arriving at my destination Xujiahui station, the exit readers simply refused to acknowledge my card’s presence.
At the first ticket window facing the inside of the station’s exit turnstiles, the attendant kindly let me exit, but couldn’t help me exchange the card because she didn’t have any new ones, and pointed me to another window about 25 yards away toward one end of the station.
Upon arriving at the second window, a couple of friendly young attendants seemed eager to help the silly Chinese-speaking foreigner out, but were sadly also “out of cards” and just kept saying “exit 2” over and over in Chinese. After backtracking the 25 yards and following signs to exit 2 at the other end of the insanely long Xujiahui station, I realized it was still at least another football field away in distance, and I was running short on time before a meeting, so I resigned in failure for the time being.
As the week progressed, I kept trying to use the card… and my success rate kept falling. Taxi drivers started to get upset as I sat for minutes banging the card against their readers (the cards also work in taxis, buses, trolleys, ferries, toll booths, parking lots, gas stations, the airport Maglev, and more), probably suspecting me of some sort of new scam (scams, like quickly swapping low-balance cards or counterfeit cash are common).
And finally, this morning, my card gave out completely. After no metro readers would take it, I walked up to the counter at the local Hengshan Road station again and asked for a new card. And of course, got back a foreigners favorite answer to any question in China… meiyou (“don’t have”). And where was I told I could get a new card? Why of course, none other than back at Xujiahui station.
Off to the coin ticket machine I went to buy a 45 cent one way ticket back to Xujiahui. Upon arrival, I headed downstairs and through a cavernous set of tunnels, toward the evasive exit 2. After walking and walking… past fewer and fewer people… the tunnel dead ended into a cordoned off area with signs prominently displaying “staffs only” (ok ok, translation is mine). Exit 2 was closed, and there was not a person in sight.
Back to the Xujiahui station ticket counter, pretty pissed off at this point, and just about ready to go all “crazy laowai” on some poor soul, I restrained myself while patiently explaining the entire situation to the rather uninterested ticket attendant, and the response was… wait for it… meiyou. “But how can you not have any cards? I see you holding a stack of cards right there!” I exclaimed in Chinese. “Oh, these cards are used. You don’t want a used card, do you?” Surprising the attendant and the crowd that had by this time gathered, I exclaimed that yes, I would take a used card if it worked, and proceeded to put a refundable $3 deposit on the card and ask her to transfer the money from my broken card (which, with enough banging, could be made to register a balance on her reader). “Sorry, the card history shows you entered at Hengshan Road 5 days ago, and never used it to exit. You need to go back to Hengshan Road and have the agent there make it right.”
So on the story goes… after a day of work and another 45 cent one way ticket to Hengshan Road, I recapped the situation for the totally unconcerned, uninterested ticket agents at my home station. After endless banging on each of their card readers, and a crowd of about 10 interested onlookers laughing at the crazy laowai while translating suggestions between Chinese and Chinese, my card balance simply wouldn’t register. But I was 5 days and 7 metro agents into the situation, and not about to lose the remaining $14 on my old beat up ka. I was told to come back in 10 days (!), at which point there’d be someone at the station who could fix it for me.
Not about to fall for the common “get off my back” trick and extend this into a 2 week ordeal, I kept banging, bending, and blowing on the card like an over-used 1980s Nintendo cartridge, and sure enough… a few minutes later (with the crowd still gathered and growing)… one of the readers started beeping wildly in a mix of registration and error. Everyone – the agents, the onlookers, could see my card was real! And it had $14 on it! Of course, the agent’s reader it happened to be sitting on couldn’t be used to make a balance transfer, but after ensuring I had 15+ witnesses to my card’s value, I made an attempt to move it to another reader… and it worked!
Smooth sailing from here, right? “Your card shows you entered the metro 5 days ago and haven’t paid to exit! We can’t transfer the balance to your new (used) card!”, as my card is thrown back at me. Are you kidding me? Do you think I’ve lived in your metro for the past 5 days? “Sorry, get out of here! mei banfa (no way to make it happen)!” At this point, I declare that I’m not leaving the metro station. I’m going to camp out. It’s ridiculous that while a maximum metro fare is 90 cents, they refuse to return my $14 (and $3 deposit on the broken card), and I’m not gonna stand for it! The crowd begins to laugh at the crazy laowai, and a few start to get involve, negotiating on my behalf.
Finally, a short, slightly older woman with a fierce look on her face negotiates on my behalf to deduct the 90 cents from my balance, transfer the remaining $13.10, and give me back my $3 for the broken card. There was joy in the air, lots of xie xie xie xie xie (thanks thanks thanks thanks thanks!) to go around, and I went on my merry way, with my $16.10 in-hand (still 45 cents short really, having been charged 90 cent maximum on a 45 cent ride <grin>), and well, another day in China under my belt.