Dueling Police Stories, Part One: “When China Hates You With the Burning Heat of a Thousand Suns”

There are days when China likes you, and there are days when China hates you, and there really isn’t any way to predict when one or the other will happen. It’s not like in a regular relationship, where a negative response typically follows some form of stupidity or inconsideration. Were the local police to refuse to issue my residence permit because I’d ignored, and even mocked, China on its National Day, I would accept their revenge with a grudging sense that at least the laws of cause and effect were still in order. Sadly, it isn’t like that. Let me illustrate.

My friend and roommate Daniel is the head of the American Culture Center for Sport at the Tianjin Sports University. Yes, I said sports UNIVERSITY. China culls athletes and combines them with other athletes in order to produce the highest possible results in worldwide competition, like botanists trying to produce a new strain of grapefruit. I won’t examine here the sad lives most of these students have once their competitive days are over, nor the even sadder lives they have if they don’t succeed at a high enough level to have competitive days. You can read countless (and better) articles on the subject online. Instead, let’s focus on Daniel. The University of Minnesota wanted to create this culture center as a way of fostering better relations between China and America, the idea being that sports, particularly the way we perform and watch them, are a perfect indicator of how our cultures work. True enough. Daniel was put in charge of the fledgling program because he’s lived here for several years already, he speaks the language, he’s from Minnesota, and is a talented web-designer so could set up the center’s web page. After spending several months getting things set up last semester, and having a few get-togethers with important people, the center is up and running.

So much for preliminaries. On to the police station story.

Daniel returned from his summer vacation in late July, and spent most of the month of August setting things up for this semester. He had notified the Sports University (where he is also supposed to teach a few English classes) about his changing visa situation, and nothing much came of it. He notified them again in May, with another classic, “Oh, yes, we know” kind of answer which is vintage Chinese lingo for “we really don’t care.” Daniel got his visa in the States, came back, and assumed his university would process the necessary residence requirements because that’s what has always happened before. Alas, this was not the case, and the next thing Daniel knows, he’s getting reamed in a local police station for not getting his residence permit on time. Which, of course, he had no idea was a problem because no one told him. He raced back, got the documents they told him to get, and returned. “Where’s your work permit?” they asked him. “At the embassy in America,” he answered. Sullen disapproval. “You have to have that, too.” Which, again, no one had told him about.

He went back the next day with everything he needed, got it sorted out (but only after waiting around for over an hour and a half), and then went back to the immigration bureau. He arrived at 11:20, only to be told that the person he needs is on his lunch break and will be gone for two hours. Fuming by now, Daniel suggested (ha!) that said person didn’t need two hours for lunch. “Yes he does,” said the functionary behind the desk. Fine. Daniel went away, fumed for a few hours, then returned, only to realize that the person who was going to process all of his paperwork. . .was the functionary behind the desk. The one who had told him to go away and come back. Daniel refrained from cold-cocking the functionary (a cool decision resulting from a heated internal battle about which epics could be written; all I’ll say is that the functionary is awfully lucky he was dealing with Daniel and not, say, Russell Crowe), only for some other bureaucratic mishap to result.

At this point I lost the thread of the story a bit, but I do know the apex is Daniel’s final trip to the immigration bureau, after he’d already had to sign a special form acknowledging that he committed a crime (overstaying his visa), and was aware his record would have a permanent red flag. He was getting criticized by yet another policeman, and to him Daniel said, “Anyway, it’s my foreign affairs officer! He doesn’t know what he’s doing!” To which the policeman responded, “Ah. Well, we’ve called your foreign affairs officer in. He’ll be here in a moment.” Daniel said that probably wasn’t a good idea. Why? Hard to explain to the policeman that the mere sight of a such a mountain of incompetence might send you into a murderous rage, so Daniel just refrained from saying anything (another epic internal battle). His foreign affairs officer showed up, and immediately the policeman accosted him and said, “This foreigner here says you don’t know what you’re doing!” The guy put up a feeble defense, and the policeman insisted that, no, it’s his fault because foreigners don’t know what they’re doing and his job is to help them. Which is perfectly true, of course. It all got sorted out, and when they left the building, the foreign officer rounded on Daniel angrily and said, “You shouldn’t say that to the police! You didn’t give me enough time to get everything done!” (He had roughly five months.)

Daniel turned slowly, faced the man fought his greatest internal battle yet (Seriously, why aren’t there epic poems about this kind of thing? Kublai Khan was a mincing little bit of nothingness about dope-smoking in foreign lands, but somehow that’s in our textbooks. Whatever.), and said simply, “John, be quiet and go home. That’s what I’m going to do.” And that’s what he did.

And does it end here? Nope! When China decides it hates you, you should either flee to the countryside and hide in a ditch until it blows over, or get a helmet and a life-vest and prepare for the worst. Daniel had to go to Beijing on business for the weekend, but of course he couldn’t bring his passport because it was being processed by the immigration bureau. So he rolled the dice and brought a photocopy of his passport. It got him a high-speed train ticket (you have to present identification to buy a train ticket these days; another bit of genius bureaucracy which, although designed ostensibly to protect people from thieves and ne’er-do-wells, gums up the works even more than they were before, while the thieves just figure out another way to bootleg tickets), but it did not get him into the hotel room he’d reserved for the weekend. They refused to accept his passport copy, at which point Daniel sighed, said, “whatever,” and asked for his money back. They refused again. Company policy. Passport trouble has nothing to do with us. You paid the money, but didn’t bring the necessary documents. That’s your problem. The battle raged for quite some time, and Daniel even threatened to bring the American ambassador into it (they’ve met several times now through the course of Daniel’s work here), but they didn’t budge. “But,” the concierge suggested, “you’re welcome to sleep on one of the couches in the lobby.”

I don’t know about you, but if I were on a plane headed back to the U.S., and while waiting for takeoff a brace of police officers escorted a westerner onto the plane, seated him next to me, took off the handcuffs, and strode quickly away, and if upon inquiry that westerner explained, “I’m getting sent to jail in America because I stabbed a hotel concierge in the throat with a complimentary ballpoint pen from the lobby desk,” I would sympathize completely. I wouldn’t even demand more information. Yes, there would be that part of my still-active conscience which would recognize that such an act was objectively wrong, but I’d still buy my seat-partner a whisky.

Daniel didn’t stab the concierge in the throat. He returned to Tianjin, stayed the night, then went back the following day, where a different hotel told him, “Oh, a copy of your passport’s fine. Don’t worry about that.”

That’s what you get for trying to bolster cross-cultural understanding at a university-sponsored exchange center.

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2 Responses to Dueling Police Stories, Part One: “When China Hates You With the Burning Heat of a Thousand Suns”

  1. James says:

    Wow.

    Daniel is truly patient.

  2. Cindy says:

    Oh my lord.

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