Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Monday, December 22, 2014
Thursday, December 18, 2014
1. There's a need for an adjective meaning "having brought a situation to a resolution." In math, the term used is "resolvent." I think there's room for this term outside of mathematics.
2. There are two ways of looking at the North-Korea-v.-Sony conflict. One is the TMZ approach, which sees it as celebrity news. In this approach, the main take-away is that Angelina Jolie was insulted, or that Jennifer Lawrence is underpaid, or that Channing Tatum writes funny e-mails. But the more-noteworthy take-away shows up in what I'd call the Foreign Affairs approach: the United States just had its ass handed to it in cyber-warfare. Most Americans will take the TMZ approach.
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Sometimes when people move to a society that speaks a different language, they keep their last name intact. Other times, they translate their last name. One of my German ancestors came to America with a name that meant "horse herder" and kept his German name, Pferdehirt. Another of my German ancestors came to America with a name that meant "cathedral" and took the English translation as his last name, which is now my last name.
We have no plans to be long-term Chinese residents, but I've been wondering what we would do if we were here for the rest of our lives. Would we keep our English last name, or would we translate it to Chinese (大教堂, pronounced "dà jiàotáng")?
Some people might think that's not really an option if your last name is just a sound with little meaning, but you can pick a similar-sounding-but-easier-to-pronounce sound. This was how Mannahatta became Manhattan. That's how my given name would translate. My family name, though, has a meaning.
I think I would prefer to translate my name if I had to choose. Maybe I'm influenced by the fact that my ancestor already did it once in the past. If my family name had been set in stone for millennia, I'd be less cavalier about changing it, but since it's only been my family name for somewhere around 300 years, and I know what it used to be, I don't view it as something inviolate.
I began 2014 in marathon training. After the race, though, I loaded up on western food that I would be unable to find in China. I spent my last two weeks in America eating In-N-Out as frequently as possible. I boarded the plane the heaviest I'd been in over 10 years.
After a month in China, I had returned to what for me is a more-typical weight. At least, it looked like I had. I wasn't sure because we didn't have a scale. So in the weird upstairs part of our local grocery store, where you can buy everything from sporting equipment to underwear, we bought a scale.
As an aside, the over-abundance of labor here means every possible segment of the store is lousy with clerks waiting to perform some service you can do yourself. Many times we've arrived at the register ready to check out, only to then remember that we needed to have our vegetables bagged by a professional vegetable bagger, who then applies a sticker for the clerk to scan. We then abandon our vegetables.
Anyway, buying the scale was the same way. They can't trust you to present the scale at the register in front, I guess, so the nearest clerk takes it from you, writes a slip which you then take to a nearby register in the middle of the store for just such a reason, and then gives you the scale once you return with a receipt.
Here's why our Chinese scale is better than our American scale we left behind. Kilograms are larger than pounds--over twice as large! So my weight is immediately less than half what it used to be. And before you tell me that nominal changes don't matter, I'd like to remind you that nominal changes are the only thing that makes central bank activity meaningful. If people can make a successful career out of advocating for nominal gross domestic product targeting, I can base my fitness goals on nominal weight targeting.
Also, larger weight units mean less volatility in measurement. Over the course of a day, I move from one kilogram to the neighboring kilogram, not from one end of a ten-pound range to the other.
Of course, it makes weight loss a slower prospect. I've spent several weeks now working my way down through my current kilogram. (I could tell you which one it is, but I prefer to wait for some magical future day when I reach my ideal weight by following a strict diet of +C and dark chocolate.) And when I was so sick two weeks ago, I spent my time moaning in bed (not good moaning, not even disappointed moaning) thinking, "At least I'm losing some weight," only to be unpleasantly surprised by how little weight I actually lost. "Less than a kilogram?! But I pooped, like, 80 times!"
A Scottish colleague was talking about his summer weight loss and gave his figures in stone. An American colleague said, "I have no idea what that means. I'm not a caveman." I don't think I'd like weighing in stone because the units are too large. I could lose a forearm in an industrial accident and not even drop a stone. Good luck using haircuts to feel good about your food choices, too. In the past, I've lost a pound just from personal grooming. That would barely register on my kilogram scale, and be imperceptible if I weighed myself in stone.
Overall, as we approach the end of the year, I am down 1.3% from my weight last New Year's Day. Virtually unchanged, but with significant different 52-week highs and lows.
I hate the Elf on the Shelf. For starters, he's creepy looking. Sure, he's smiling, but it's the vacant smile of a sociopath about to strike. The Elf on the Shelf wants to watch you bleed, for the lulz.
Second, he's creepy acting. He's a voyeur. He's a narc. In a police state using informers, all people must be viewed as potential agents of the state. Even Winston Smith at least had a corner of his apartment that the telescreen couldn't see into. When you have to interact with people, though, even your spouse can inform against you.
The Elf on the Shelf does for children's toys what undercover informants do for interpersonal relationships. Some of your toys are watching you. There's always someone watching you, kids. Merry Christmas.
Some might argue that this isn't actually a bad thing. "How can you object to the Elf on the Shelf if you raise your children to believe in God? Isn't God just a giant mystical Elf on the Shelf?" I guess the way that most people present Him to their children, He is. He's aware of all your behavior, judging you for everything. Anything you think is secret isn't really secret. He sees you when you're sleeping, He knows when you're awake.
God's omnipresence and omnipotence isn't motivated by negative reciprocity as is often presented. "God so loved the world," not "God so hoped to entrap the world." State surveillance isn't motivated by finding out misdeeds to help their doers reform. The Elf on the Shelf isn't trying to help your child be better, he's trying to frighten your child into toeing the line. God wants to change hearts. The Elf on the Shelf, the state, and the popular idea of God wants to teach you to hide your heart.
Here's an article where the authors argue that the Elf on the Shelf normalizes the panopticon and prepares children for life in a surveillance state. By doing so, it is just another element of modern culture designed to make the next generation's citizens easier to control.
Some people might say, "Calm down. It's just a fun game." So is playing war, but many modern parents don't want their children playing shooting games that involve killing. And I don't want my kid playing a game that involves docility in the face of surveillance.
Anyone I know (even if only through semi-regular blog contact) who wants a copy of our family Christmas letter e-mailed to you from China (since I'm too cheap to pay international postage), leave a comment with your e-mail address. I won't publish the comments.
May the rest of you enjoy the blessings of the seas--no, you're dead to me.
I recently wrote about orgasmic-like disappointment noises. Loyal reader Alanna (who can list my entire family's real names, names on my blog, and names on my wife's blog), wrote:
Or, your wife is really disappointed all the time.
I don't doubt that's true, but I can tell you that her disappointment noises are distinctly different from those I hear around here. (I have more to say on this subject, but it doesn't pass my wife's censorship.)
Here's some baseless speculation for you (because if you take away this blog's baseless speculation, what does it have left, really?): what will precipitate the end of the world?
I believe we are not that far distant from technological advancements that will make possible the ending of hunger, disease, and poverty. And God will be fully justified in destroying the world when we use this knowledge to enslave each other for power and profit.
A future world with unchecked growth of knowledge and technology will be one where all men are eventually exposed to subjugation. Eventually, the world will be too advanced for all of us to withstand the attempts of its directors to ensnare us. Only if those with authority limit themselves, because of charity, will the world escape judgement.
As most of the world uses these technological advancements for dominance, in Zion they will be used in righteousness. The contrast between the two approaches will be extreme.
This brings us to my personal prediction for my own future: since I won't qualify for Zion, my family will be tortured, murdered, and eaten by roving bands of annihilists. And they'll probably eat me last of all so I can have the realization, "This wouldn't have happened to your wife and children if you had just developed the proper attitude towards money and things."
Sunday, December 14, 2014
The argument has been made that the Book of Mormon is a product of the 19th century. As such, the warnings about "secret combinations" are examples of anti-Masonic rhetoric then current.
My objection: if warnings about "secret combinations" are examples of historical anti-Masonry instead of predictions of current/future cabals, the rhetoric doesn't really matter to our day. This approach says, in effect, "Don't worry about secret combinations, because Masonry has subsided as a political phenomenon in modern America."
I don't believe the warnings are the product of the 19th century.
In 1979, a handful of Mormon scholars began an organization called the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, known as FARMS. It existed outside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon church or LDS church), even though many of the scholars were church employees through the church's university, Brigham Young University (BYU). It was a side project, but one that quickly grew in scope and importance. Eventually, in 1997, FARMS became a part of BYU. In 2006, FARMS became a part of BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (MI).
More recently, tension has risen between the original direction of FARMS and the direction of MI. In 2012, a major shift occurred. Many points of contention exist, but one of them is the assumption of the Book of Mormon's historicity. Classic FARMS work assumed the Book of Mormon "is a record of God’s dealings with ancient inhabitants of the Americas" (Introduction), while more-recent MI work has backed off that assumption.
Those who support classic FARMS work see this as troublesome because it appears to be a denial of the church's claims of Book of Mormon authenticity. Joseph Smith never said, "Here's some inspired fiction meant to teach true principles in allegorical form." Those who support the new MI approach say they are not abandoning truth claims when they bracket them for broader scholarly appeal. They say, "Some non-LDS scholars don't take the truth claims seriously, and this stands in the way of dialogue, so if we just lay aside the truth claims for the moment, we can work together on things that don't require the other scholars to convert to Mormonism."
Think of biblical scholars. Some might use the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as a guide to archeology, hunting for actual historical cities. Others might view the story more as legend, based on factual cities that were once destroyed, but not by miraculous raining fire. Others might say it's all a metaphor for how God deals with people. Others might say it's a story invented by man to teach proper behavior. Now, if the first group, the historical group, and the last group, the morality group, want to work together on something they both accept, like the biblical account teaches proper behavior, they might be prohibited from cooperating by their different ideas of truth. So the historical group might say, "To help us work together, we'll ignore the historical aspects of our beliefs for now." They're not saying they've changed their minds, only that the results don't depend on their truth claims.
There's room for both views. Some work doesn't require a truth claim, but some work does. The problem with the 2012 shift, as most supporters of classic FARMS understand it, is the suppression of work assuming an historical Book of Mormon because it gets in the way of other work, work that doesn't require an historical Book of Mormon, getting accepted by non-LDS scholars. It is, in effect, caving to the bigotry of non-LDS scholars who say, "I won't hear anything you have to say if you spend any time associating with people who believe crazy things." So MI scholars have said, "Look, we drove away the people who believe crazy things." Which then makes some people question if MI scholars believe the "crazy things" themselves, or if they've internalized the "crazy" adjective.
I side more with the classic FARMS approach. I find value in work made with "bracketed truth claims," but I question how necessary they are. I have read biographies of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Martin Luther, Mohammed, and Buddha, all written by "non-believing" scholars, and all say, "Look, it gets tedious to always write 'he claims.' Since he behaved like this was true, I'm going to write like this was true." The eagerness with which MI jettisoned the classic FARMS approach makes me nervous that some of the people at MI appreciate the opportunity to view the Book of Mormon as non-historical. And the connection between MI and BYU makes all this more confusing and more troubling.
Last week this issue received new attention because the first issue of the new-direction MI journal debuted. In it, the editor makes a few statements that give supporters of the classic FARMS approach reason to pause. I wrote a tweet about my rejection of MI scholars' new approach.
One of my readers responded angrily that I was spreading the problem. Imagine someone says, "X!" and I say, "Not X!" My reader was saying, "Whoa, people in the world say 'X'? I didn't need to know that! Shame on your for bringing it to my attention!"
I strongly feel I have a responsibility to support truth and counter error. I do not have a responsibility to only do this if you are fully informed, or to not bring troubling false claims to light. Such an approach requires me to be silent in the face of falsehood because at least one member of my audience might not be aware of the untruth and my refutation then gives the false claim greater circulation. And I will not be silent in the face of falsehood.
The Book of Mormon is a true "record of God's dealings with ancient inhabitants of the Americas." It has context as both a product of its translation era (19th-century frontier New York) and as a product of its creation era (ranging from pre-Tower-of-Babel Middle East to pre-exhilic Judea to pre-Columbian Americas). Contextual analysis that ignores the creation era is at best misleading and at worst dishonest. The Moe Szyslak objection yields the argument, and I will not accept it.
About once each week, while students are coming into class and talking to each other, I will suddenly hear the most authentic-sounding fake-orgasm noise. I'll quickly look up in shock. Invariably it is a girl making a noise of disappointment to her friend. They are discussing grades or homework or something. It is the noise Luke Skywalker would have made before saying, "I was going to Toshi Station to pick up some power converters!", had he, in fact, made a noise before saying that.
Here's the intriguing bit: nobody else in the room thinks this is a sexual noise. At least, no one even looks up. Which must mean one of two things: either my students are completely unaware of what an orgasm sounds like, or Asians sound different when they have sex.
Thursday, December 11, 2014
First we went for cognitive dissonance, placing the biggest shopping day of the year the day after the day of thanksgiving. But these things could coexist, right? I'm shopping for gifts to show my friends and family how thankful I am to have them in my life.
Then we went for subtle irony, moving the shopping day to actually begin on Thanksgiving. But this was still justifiable, maybe. I'm punching a lady in the face to make her let go of a flat-panel TV, sure, but it's only because I'm so thankful for my family that anything less than the best "door-buster deals" will be like a punch in the face to them. (A metaphorical punch in the face, not a literal one like I'm busy administering in Walmart.)
Now we're going for gonzo irony, like if Alanis Morissette guest-starred in the Seinfeld series finale. Now an increasing number of us are engaging in self-gifting on Thanksgiving. I'm not behaving badly because I'm thankful for someone else; I'm just behaving badly.
We probably already have the national justification ready. "I'm so thankful I have these resources available to me. I'm showing that gratitude by using them."
Here's a different approach to Christmas.
D&C 66:11 - "...push many people to Zion...."
Is there a difference between "pushing" someone to Zion and "pulling" him to Zion? Here the Lord makes pushing someone to Zion sound not only like a good thing, but also as something that is possible. How do we go about pushing people to Zion? What would I be doing right now to make this happen?
D&C 67:3 - "Ye endeavored to believe that ye should receive the blessing which was offered unto you; but behold, verily I say unto you there were fears in your hearts, and verily this is the reason that ye did not receive."
Dude. There's a term for this, but I think I'd go to hell for using it. I guess I get it; fear shows doubt, which shows belief that the Promiser could be a liar, which is not a view that gets rewarded. But still.
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Remember a few weeks ago when I speculated about ugly accents? Well, British people were asked too and some received negative scores.
One interesting thing to contemplate is whether regional accents are recognizable to others with sufficient inexperience listening to them. I'm struck by how many working-class British accents appear in American media as "sophisticated" accents. American people, Super Nanny and the Geico Gecko are not refined, they are the British equivalent of hillbillies. The Queen doesn't say "innit," even as a joke at family gatherings. I think many of these accents would receive favorable scores from Americans just because they are British.
I once had a business communications professor who was sort of cute until she started speaking with her New York accent. It was very awkward when she railed against the Philadelphia accent in class, not realizing that many of the negative attributes she associated with saying "wutter," her students associated with EVERYTHING she said.
Okay, not yet. But only because my skin is holding it on. I look like a mannequin in long sleeves that had its shoulder joint give out; I guess it sill has two arms, but in name only.
Here's what happened: I don't know what happened. My arm just up and died.
I woke up last Thursday and did some exercises, which involved push ups and holding a plank position while on my elbows. Then I went to work. I spent a little time leaning on my right elbow while I graded some papers, but not a lot of time and not too violently leaning. In fine, my elbow usage for the day was decidedly average. But when I came home that evening, my right elbow was a little sore. By the time I went to bed, it was tender to touch and visibly swollen throughout the entire joint.
Friday morning, nothing was better. Friday night, the swelling was even worse, and the end of the elbow was red. I used a marker to draw two circles outlining the redness and the swelling. Saturday morning, the swelling had extended and the redness now filled the outer circle. While my wife and I were out shopping, I bought an elbow brace and wore that for a few days.
Tuesday it seemed things were beginning to return to normal. I nearly had my full range of motion back, and I could do things that caused pain over the weekend, like donning a coat or carrying a child. But today I woke up and it was quite painful again, and getting into my coat this morning was painful.
I don't mind having a temporary injury, but I don't know what caused this, so I don't know that this is indeed just temporary. I keep thinking of Calvin Coolidge's son who hurt his toe playing tennis and later died. My elbow looks a little weird. Yesterday it finally looked like the other arm again, but today it's back to looking sort of dead.
I take it as a good sign that it hurts: dead body parts don't have working nerves. But my wife wants a medical professional to look at it. I have health insurance through my work, but like everything else here, it's impossible to figure out and those who know what you need to know can't be bothered to divulge. Plus, we'd have to pay everything up front and get reimbursed later, which isn't a good idea right before Christmas.
I'm kind of past worrying about it now, because it stopped getting worse and seems to have started (slowly) getting better. But if anyone knows what to do for an elbow that becomes sore and swollen with little to no provocation, feel free to leave a comment.
Sunday, December 07, 2014
Friday, December 05, 2014
After the bank, we took our clown car to the cell phone store.
There are two major cell phone providers here, China Mobile and China Unicom. Our kids were hoping we'd end up with China Unicom because, if you erase just a tiny bit of the letter M, it reads China Unicorn. (Okay, I was hoping.)
The good news: we ended up with China Unicorn. The bad news: everything else.
My wife's phone had stopped working just before we left America, so we knew she needed a new one, but we had hoped I would just need a new SIM card for my phone. But my phone doesn't work like that, because that would be allowing the customer to retain some consumer surplus. So we both needed new phones, a rather large expense to cover with just the money we had on hand until my first paycheck. My colleague said he'd been instructed to strongly recommend we limit ourselves to Apple, Samsung, and HTC. Translation: you Westerners are going to be thoroughly unimpressed with the quality of Chinese cell phones. Then they showed us the top-of-the-line phones which we couldn't afford.
Meanwhile, Leenoose, who couldn't open a bank account because he hadn't been told to bring sufficient cash for the minimum initial deposit, was being told that he couldn't just buy a Chinese SIM card for his iPhone, he'd have to buy a new iPhone. And he wouldn't be able to call Germany. He went outside to smoke until we were done.
Which was hours later.
Finally, they showed us the mid-range phones. We picked a model of Samsung phone. They didn't have it. But they didn't take the floor model off display. So we picked an HTC phone. Then they wanted us to pick our phone numbers from a list of available numbers. We said we didn't care, which seemed impossible to them. Finally, the clerk picked for us, giving us two numbers that are heavy on 4s, since 4 is an unlucky number here, so she had extra ones to give to people who weren't hung up on that.
So, so much paperwork later, we left with two cell phones with incredibly-limited plans. We cannot call internationally, we have 46 minutes of talk each month, and we have 240 text messages. Also, we have almost no mobile data before overages apply.
Evidently billing is not really a thing here. We signed a two-year contract, but we also had to pre-pay for a period of time. If we had paid for all two years at once, we would have received a discount, but since we didn't have cash for that, we paid for six months.
Immediately, we began receiving Chinese texts and phone calls we couldn't understand. We asked the Chinese colleague whose job it is to help with these things, but that was before we had learned that he wasn't actually going to help with these things. We were concerned that, with our severely-limited plan, these calls and texts were a real hardship. Finally, I got him to help remove me from the calling list. He took my phone, called a number, talked for a while, and then asked me for my passport number.
What? You need my passport number to not receive spam texts? After doing this once, he handed my phone back to me like he was done, even though the screen clearly showed several others that needed attention.
As best we could tell from the texts, my wife was close to going over her data limit towards the end of our first month here. I mentioned this to the woman who sits next to me at work, and she said she actually had gone over that month, and her phone had been turned off, even though she, like us, had given China Unicorn a giant pile of money. Evidently they do not apply your account credit to your account debit.
My work changed their wi-fi system, which made it so my phone says it's on the wi-fi network except that it's not. I became aware of this when my phone got turned off. We asked the Chinese colleague who's supposed to help us if he could translate the text messages for us. He said, "Call the phone company." At what number? And how would we speak to them? Finally, my colleague ended his reply e-mail with, "Let me know if I can help."
I went to see him. I said, "You say to let you know if you can help, be we did let you know exactly how you could help and you wouldn't do it." He said, "You still don't know what the texts say?" He told me quite condescendingly to call the text address (even though all other phone numbers here are 11 digits and the text address is five digits) and they have a menu option for speaking English (which we were supposed to assume, I guess, even though it's uncommon, and it's the mark of an "ugly American" to expect foreigners to speak English).
The woman on the phone told me to go to a newsstand and buy a pre-paid phone card, then call a different five-digit number, pick a different menu option for English, and enter the code to have the money applied to my past-due balance. But at the newsstand, they had a fancy-schmancy machine that just applied the money directly to my account. I got a text right then confirming that the money had been applied.
Unrelated follow-up: I saw Leenoose the other day, and he introduced himself to someone as Linus. But I still don't know if he ever got a bank account or a cell phone plan.
My school had all the employees open accounts at the same Chinese bank. They told us they chose this bank because it was closest to campus and because this bank would have English-speaking employees who could help us. Except the branch closest to campus can't do international transfers and doesn't have any English-speaking employees.
Anyway, the day that we were sleeping on the floor of the Houston airport, the other new-arrival teachers were on a mass exodus to the bank with school employees to shepherd them through the process of opening accounts. Since we arrived late, we would have to do this later.
After my first week of work, I had an appointment with one of my Chinese colleagues to go open a bank account. He would then take us to the cell phone store, so my wife had to come along, which meant that my entire family had to come along. I talked with him to make sure he knew about this.
That morning, he pulled up in his five-passenger car to drive us to the bank. And he had added another new-arrival teacher to our trip, a German kid named Linus (who introduced himself with a German pronunciation of "Leenoose"). Just the first of many, many instances of incomplete communication.
I sat in the front passenger seat with Jerome on my lap (China's cool like that). My wife sat in back with Screamapilar on her lap. Next to her was Crazy Jane with Articulate Joe on her lap. And next to them was Leenoose.
The reason we had to go with this colleague was because he could translate for us and help us understand the process. Except he couldn't. He knew enough English that it would be insulting to tell him his translating wasn't working, but not enough English to actually help us or the bank teller understand each other. We spent over an hour trying to describe a joint account. Next thing we knew, my wife had her own bank account. We hadn't brought enough money (still just with whatever we had exchanged at the airport) for two initial deposits. More talking ensued. It turns out, as best we can tell, Chinese people don't have joint accounts. If they just would have told us that, we would have stopped asking for it right away.
Leenoose was just as surprised as we were. "My parents have one bank account back in Germany," he said, making us feel super old. Thanks for equating us to your parents, Leenoose.
The only bit of information our Chinese colleague translated well for us was when a female bank employee wanted to let Leenoose know she thought he was very handsome. (The dude is. Seriously.) But it wasn't all poor translating: he also managed to leave necessary documents on his desk at work and have to go back and get them.
After several hours sitting in a bank, we left with two bank accounts, one of which had been drawn down to $0.16, and several hungry and annoyed children (including Leenoose). Of course, we then had the opportunity to go spend several hours at the cell phone store, but for artistic purposes (do you like how I just claimed to be an artist there?) I will leave cell phone encounters for a different post.
All the foreign teachers at this school have to transfer money to their overseas bank accounts to pay their bills. So it's only natural that there is no instruction available on how to do this. My boss's boss, who is also brand-new this year, went and stumbled through the process, taking notes, so the rest of us would know what was needed.
To transfer money, I need a tax form showing I legally earned the money. But I wouldn't get a tax form until I'd had taxes withheld. So for the first three months, if we wanted to have money transferred, we had to have a Chinese colleague do it for us. We would give him cash, he would deposit it in his account, then send the money to his American friend, who happened to be right there with him. This has some different limitations on it, though, so the Chinese colleagues had to take turns. When I needed to transfer money, I got to go with the guy who had taken us to the bank the first time.
Because he seemed to be under orders to make everything as difficult as possible, he had a different bank than all the other teachers. So we had to go to his bank, where the ATM let me withdraw nearly $2,000 with no ATM fee*. Then we went through a process that was completely unique to his bank, so I could learn nothing for future reference when I needed to conduct a transfer on my own. He told me the transfer fee would be ￥150; I gave him ￥200 and received no change.
The next month, with my newly-printed tax form in hand, I went to the bank on my own. Only the newest bank employee spoke English, but she didn't know how to do anything yet, so she had a supervisor standing over her shoulder training her. She declined some information that my American bank told me was vitally necessary, but my transfer went through, so I guess it was okay. Finally, she charged me a transfer fee of ￥100.
This past week, I returned to transfer some more. My employee from last time still only had "TRAINING" on her name tag, but she was busy, so I got the guy next to her, who said he could speak English, but then couldn't really. (He also wanted to know if the 6 I wrote was a 4.) He did not charge me any transfer fee at all.
So what generalizations can I make from my encounters with Chinese banks? For starters, nothing is uniform. The "fee" to do anything is completely fluid. Also, there will come a time in every transaction when the clerk's actions, expression, and body language make you believe that your request cannot be met and you're about to be arrested for even asking. This usually means you're almost done. And don't let the computers fool you: everything is still very much done by hand. The computers are only there to print out the pile of papers. Seriously. And you might think it is helpful to tell them how many yuan you want to transfer out, since that is how your account is denominated, but what they are really doing is first buying dollars and then transferring the dollars, so it's actually best to tell them how many dollars you want to buy. Finally, banks have a large collection of chairs where you wait for your number to be called. VIP customers get to jump in line, so you never really have a good handle of how many people are in front of you. You can think "my number's next" and have six people helped before you. But at least you get to sit and do something instead of standing on queue.
* = I withdrew $2,000 from another bank's ATM and my bank only charged me a fee of $0.33. The next month I withdrew $160 from my bank's ATM in a different city and my bank charged me a fee of over $4. The next month I tried to withdraw $650 from my bank's ATM and I received an error message because this exceeded my maximum daily allowance.