Dueling Police Stories, Part Two: “When China Should Hate You, But Doesn’t”

Then there’s me. I had the same situation–I needed to get my residence permit–only I knew about it further in advance. Oh, there was still some hating going on, what with my university forgetting my visa paperwork entirely, prompting a series of frantic phone calls from me ten days before I was due to return to China, but I knew what I needed to do nice and early. Still, though, there are times when China’s hatred of someone else can bounce off onto you, like water from a fire hose. So I went into this process fully prepared to get screwed.

Not only that, but my caché with whatever cultural collateral gods exist in China was very, very low after two full weeks of curmugeonly, Ebenezer Scrooge grumbling about the city behind its back. I hadn’t been ripping it to pieces, the way I did when I came back from Taiwan last year, but it was still enough that I realized I should probably expect some lousy treatment. I started the morning by being unable to find my passport for several hours. If that’s never happened to you, let me just say that there are few fears greater than that in China. It will widen your eyes and loosen your sphincter for the duration. Without your passport, in China you’re nobody. You’re practically a criminal. Replacing it is a guided tour of the sixth ring of hell, which if Danté had had any sense at all would have been a single, massive government office. By comparison, replacing a lost driver’s license is about as complicated as a trip to Office Max. So I was pretty much losing my mind for a while. Then I found it. Under a book on the floor. (A Chinese dictionary, as it happens; is that irony, or just garden variety stupidity?) The only thing worse than realizing that the cultural collateral gods are trying to destroy you is realizing that your own stupidity is already doing the job quite well.

And maybe that’s what tipped the scales. Maybe China realized that my morning spent thinking I had become the bureaucratic equivalent of a caste-system untouchable was enough penance for one day. I like to think so, anyway. It would suggest there’s a kind of elegant logic to what at first glance appears to be insanity. Anyway, I took my passport, packed my bag full of study material, mentally prepared myself to be at the local police station the rest of the afternoon and still have to return the next day in a series of mounting legal lunacy like the kind Daniel had to endure, then arrived and saw. . .that the four people in the office were happily slicing up a watermelon on the reception desk.

You might have seen this as a bad sign, but I didn’t. Watermelon is a universal sign of good times in China. Other foods could go either way. Someone eating street food out of a cheap styrofoam container might be happy or angry. Ditto with a big cup of tea. But watermelon? That’s the kind of thing you bring to dinner parties here. All the employees in the little office were practically giddy. They got the thing sliced open, then promptly offered me a slice. I politely refused, mostly because I figured I was going to have to handle several documents, and didn’t want to do so with sticky hands. (Note: always accept a piece of watermelon if you can. I didn’t, but I forgot that when you’re eating with someone here, you’re no longer an annoying foreigner with a passport; you’re a fellow watermelon-eater. It’s not exactly the same kind of intense camaraderie as the Light Brigade or the Fellowship of the Ring, but it’ll earn you points with the people in the police station, and that’s never a bad thing.) When one lady had finished a slice of watermelon (another rule: never rush a Chinese person eating watermelon), she took my passport and sat down at a computer. It took us a few minutes to figure out I was already in the system, and then she asked me for my old passport number, which I had forgotten. She searched for it by my birthdate, and the first file that came up was a Korean girl. “Ah yes, that’s me,” I confidently asserted. “I used to be Korean. I changed my hair and my face.” The lady cracked up laughing, as did one of her co-workers. We joked about that for a while, and then she moved on with the process. (Yet another rule: if you can make someone laugh, you’re golden.) After five minutes she told me it would be 2 RMB. Quite embarrassed, I realized I hadn’t brought more than 1.5. Again, more stupidity. She just waved her hand. “Don’t worry about it.” Then she handed me my permit.

So, to recap. Daniel’s experience with the police = criticism, incompetence, laziness, a criminal record, and a forfeited hotel room. My experience with the police = watermelon, laughter, a free residence permit, and complete efficiency. Daniel has worked hard to prepare a series of cultural events for two universities from two different countries, in order to increase cultural exchange and understanding. I spent all summer in America and France gaining weight from, respectively, Mexican food and high-quality wine and cheese, then grumbled about China for two weeks. Which of those people would you reward with a good day at the police station, if you were a country?

Not that I’m complaining, mind you.

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