In preparing for Christmas, I decided to buy some small Christmas gifts and send them to America. Shopping was the easy part (except for my Dad—it is a well established fact that he is hard to shop for). I knew that going to the post office would be a pain, so I kept putting it off. And when I finally did go, it was even worse than my expectations. It was not primarily language issues, but a complicated and unclear system. I ended up having to go twice, so I got plenty of experience in the necessary steps for navigating the post office. The good news is that by now the packages arrived at their recipients; I waited to tell you about this experience until that was established. Please note: the steps may be quite different at another location.
Step One: Upon entering post office, figure out where to go. After wandering inside a bit, I found an employee to ask (employee #1). He pointed me in the direction of another counter.
Step Two: Get customs forms from Employee #2. She gave me two different forms, and more than I needed of one of them. I thought that was just so I would have extra if I messed up in filling them out.
Step Three: Fill out the forms at another table. I used some of the extra ones because I didn’t read the instructions on the back regarding what language to use first.
Step Four: Figure out where to go next. I went back to the where I got the forms and Employee #2 directed me to “the packaging table” where I had to talk with Employee #1.
Step Five: Discussion with Employee #1. First, he informed me that I was actually supposed to fill out those custom forms TWICE for each package. Second, some of my packages had fun items like barbeque flavored instant coffee and coconut flavored instant oatmeal. I couldn’t send them air mail, he said, because they are powdered. Why I can’t send powdered items, I do not fully understand but I would guess it is either some sort of anti-terrorism rule or Employee #1 didn’t know what he was talking about. So I had a couple of packages that I knew I would have to do more shopping for, requiring a return trip to the post office.
Step Six: Fill out a second copy of customs forms for the packages that didn’t require more shopping.
Step Seven: Assemble packages. Employee #1 got the boxes out, boxed up my items, and weighed my packages.
Step Eight: More discussion about what can and can’t be sent. Employee #1 didn’t like the ornament I bought for my brother-in-law. It too was “ji bu liao” (it can’t be sent). This time I really couldn’t think of any legitimate reason to not send it, so I asked why. He didn’t really give me a reason, but was vague. I said I didn’t understand. I meant, I don’t understand why not, but he interpreted it as I don’t understand your words and called over Employee #3, who spoke English. While I was waiting I was fighting back tears, because all I wanted to do was send home my presents, and I really didn’t want to have to have to shop for new gifts for both my dad and brother-in-law. It turned out to be a good thing he came over, because he was more helpful. First, Employee #1 and #3 had a conversation about whether or not it could be sent. I really don’t think that they had any particular rule, but Employee #1 didn’t really know what it was so he thought it might be suspect. I also think he liked saying “ji bu liao” because I heard him say it to at least one other Chinese customer while I was filling out the forms (that guy was also confused and asked why). Eventually they decided that I could send it, but if U.S. Customs didn’t like it and sent it back I would have to go get it from the post office (and I would assume pay more money). I said that was fine, because I really couldn’t think of a reason that they wouldn’t like it. Eventually all my boxes were packed, weighed and had the first of the necessary official red stamps.
Step Nine: Pay for the boxes, back at Employee #2’s counter.
Step Ten: Wait in line to send packages at another counter. There was a sort of line in the tile on the floor at the appropriate place where we would start a line in the United States. That was totally the wrong place to stand I discovered as I watched people cut in front of me. The thing to do was pick a counter and stand right behind (or possibly next to) the people who were already there. Then as soon as they were done (possibly slightly before) you could start your business.
Step Eleven: Make it to the counter and explain the the clerk what you want to do. Employee #4 was very helpful, although the first thing she said was that I also had to write the address (return and destination) on the boxes themselves, in case they get separated from the customs forms.
Step Twelve: Write addresses on boxes. I stood at that counter, writing all the addresses for the third time while Employee #4 helped other customers.
Step Thirteen: Watch Employee #4 do her work. For every package she had to enter it into the computer, send the customs forms through some machine (with carbon between them, so I assume adding some sort of printing), stamp each form and package multiple times, and eventually rubber band the customs forms to the box (I guess at some point they get added on more securely).
Step Fourteen: Pay the postage.
Step Fifteen: Walk out of the post office, over 1 1/2 hours later with the knowledge you’d do it all again the next day. This is China.
The next day I repeated the process, but I got to skip steps one, four, five, eight, and ten. I also was smarter and moved step twelve to before step ten. I also took a few photos along the way, since I knew this experience was worth a blog post. Next year, I might stick with Christmas cards.