I was next, but when I stood up ready to go over, the number after mine — 648 — started flashing. As I rushed forward, I found to my dismay a fifth teller had opened without me realising. I had not seen her booth because, unbeknown to me, a floor to ceiling pillar obstructed my view.

To think I had waited almost an hour, and missed my turn. Not even the air conditioning could soothe my rumpled brow. I ran to the teller and despite a polite ‘excuse me’ she would not let me in, explaining why — in Chinese naturally.

As I looked around expecting a guardian angel to materialise, an older Chinese man suddenly appeared at my side, speaking English: ‘Do you need help?’ he asked. When I told him what had happened, he explained to the teller who now said she would take me next. I asked him to wait, and luckily he did because there was more trouble ahead.

First I had to sign my name on the deposit form in Chinese. No problem. I had already copied it onto a deposit slip I took from a previous visit, but for some reason she claimed this was not the right form.

I watched in horror as she proceeded to rip it up and drop the pieces in her waste paper bin. Before I could say ‘I need that to copy the Chinese characters of my name’, the teller produced a different form, and told my new helper I would have to sign again. She may not have understood my protests anyway.

When my friend pointed out I could not write Chinese, the teller laughed and kindly retrieved two sections of the tattered form on which my now crumpled Chinese signature was still readable. I laid the pieces carefully on the counter and smoothed them out so that they almost joined. What I did not noticed was that some of the nearest waiting customers intrigued by this ‘performance’, had gathered behind me to watch.

It was obviously more entertaining than the antics of Tom and Jerry, which they had probably seen many times before. Everyone held their breath as I slowly copied my name like a child writing for the first time. The man told the teller she should have let me sign in English. After I finished writing she did, and when I wrote my usual signature, the onlookers nodded in admiration. Maybe my quick scrawl looked like English calligraphy, if there is such a thing.

Then after an hour of waiting and frustration, the man who had helped told me something I did not, at that moment, need to hear: ‘When you have foreign currency, you don’t have to wait. You just touch the lowest readout on the screen, take the ticket, walk up to teller number 7 and they’ll serve you straight away. I sometimes carry a little foreign cash with me when I want to bank some RMB. There’s no waiting.’

If only I had known. But if you have been following these adventures, you will gather that after being turned upside down, I usually have a happy landing.
We arranged to meet for dinner in a restaurant where my new friend told me about his interesting career in the public service which had taken him to many countries, including a posting in Iraq before the current conflict.

He now has a senior job with a sports organisation for the disabled.

Maybe he will show me how to get tickets to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

And without waiting in the queue.

I laid the pieces carefully on the counter and smoothed them out so that they almost joined.