It’s been kind of a funny week between appointments with the government, conversations with my driver, a refrigerator that freezes things solid, multiple air conditioners that freeze me solid and getting used to living in an apartment building with zillions of other people serviced by two very slow elevators.
Both Monday and Tuesday mornings were consumed with trips to see the police and the immigration authorities lest I go off the grid and create mischief. When you come to China and stay in a hotel, you are automatically registered with the police the moment you hand over your passport at the front desk for review. All the major hotels are linked into the system, and the tracking of your presence happens in the background, out of sight of visitors. I think westerners might react poorly if they knew the extent of the system, but since they never see it no one is any worse for the wear.
But this is not so for those of us who live in apartments, managed by regular people. Once you obtain your permit for living and working here, the next step is to tell the police where they can find you if they need to. This means a visit to the local police station accompanied by an immigration representative (in other words someone who knows how to smile a lot and speak Chinese). And if you leave the country, you must re-register within 24 hours of your return. Our immigration service makes it easy – they will come and pick up your papers and do all the leg work – but you do have to plan around it. More than one of my local friends has been taken in the back room, had their passport borrowed and then been giving a stern lecture culminating in an opportunity to pay a 500 RMB donation to the state. It doesn’t sound like fun, and I’m told it isn’t.
So in the spirit of cordial international relations I had Mr. Jiang pick me up and take me downtown for the process.
I had been given the phone number of Mr. Wong, the agent in charge of shepherding me through the process and I had Mr. Jiang call him for directions. I had a good idea where the station was having walked by it once before but I didn’t think I was going to be able to explain it well enough. My direction giving can be precise at the block level but getting to more general locations can be tough. It would be like knowing the street you wanted to go to in Omaha by starting out in Florida and saying “Go to Missouri, turn left and I will give you more detailed directions when I see something I recognize.”
We were on our way and in the area where I knew it to be but it came as a surprise when we drove right by the station which was pretty clearly marked with giant police insignias. I let Mr. Jiang continue on down the road for a bit, figuring at first that he knew something that I didn’t but when he started to scratch his head I gathered it was time for an intervention. I told him it was about a block back on the left. He did a U-turn and took us back finding it himself on the second pass.
Neither of us knew what Mr. Wong looked like so Mr. Jiang rang him up again and we quickly determined that he was the guy walking by us with the phone ringing in his pocket. Leaving Mr. Jiang behind, Mr. Wong and I went into the station.
You’ve all seen enough spy movies to know precisely what a police station in a provincial Chinese city looks like so I won’t bother using the word “drab.” A glass walled conference room off to the right was imprisoning a slow moving fly who didn’t really convey a sense of urgency about escaping. In another room off to the side, a bank of television screens displayed what a bunch of cameras were seeing somewhere outside. It mostly looked like they were conducting surveillance on a bunch of parked cars. I was told that we had to wait, apparently the landlord and his agent, Mr. Yin also played a role in the process of keeping track of me. In the meantime, Mr. Wong had me sign a couple of sheets of paper and told me to go sit in a chair and to be quiet. Mr. Yin showed up as did the landlord and his buddy and they all huddled with Mr. Wong to complete a pile of papers. Mr. Wong grabbed a blue one, got a policeman to stamp it and motioned me to follow him out the door, I was apparently done. I did have to wait though for Mr. Yin has he was coming back to my apartment to supervise the installation of the drapes we had ordered last week. Before that though I suggested we stop at China Telecom to pay my phone bill.
In China, you don’t pay your phone bill via check or direct bill. You haul yourself down to the office and hand over the money based on your usage. This must be done before the 26th of the month, or no dial tone for you buster! Since I knew that I would be out of the country next month I asked Mr. Yin if I could pay two in a row. Actually it would be more accurate to say that I tried to ask Mr. Yin through my grasp of the language and the Qingwen application on my iPhone. Based on the look of complete confusion in his eyes, I am sure I must have been asking in some dialect of Mandarin formerly used only in the 18th century Imperial Summer Palace. He didn’t get where I was going so he called Maria my relocation consultant and let her do the translating. She either said “Yes” or “No” depending on one’s interpretation of her sentence structure and I decided to let it go. We arrived, went in cutting in front (or maybe not) of dozens of people sitting and waiting for something, paid and headed out.
We arrived at my place (across the street from the phone company) and we went up. Mr. Yin pronounced “Beautiful” at seeing one of the horse scrolls I had purchased. The landlord and his buddy came and did a quick job of checking out my moving in process. I don’t know why, perhaps they wanted to see if I was putting too many holes in the walls. The drapery guy was already waiting by my door and he got to work fast installing the sheers and thereby softening up the yellow chemical glare that the mid-morning sky presents here. From the top of his ladder he told me that he likes American NBA “Very much!” Before leaving Mr. Yin called Maria again and told her to tell me that the landlord had graciously offered to chip in $500 for a coffee machine. A nice gesture.
Tuesday morning I had to go and register at the local immigration office as the address on your work permit must reflect your genuine place of residence. Mr. Jiang had a better idea where this place was but I still had to point it out. This stop was far less interesting than the police and the only strange thing here happened when the female agent sitting next to the guy doing my paperwork took one look at me and quickly retired to the back room to don a surgical mask. I guess she figured I was just in from the land of H1N1.
Tuesday afternoon I blew out of work early for a trip to IKEA to gather some additional goods for my house. The more I visit, the more I like it – the stuff is inexpensive, attractive and relatively well built. I got a large cartload of things ranging from soap dishes to end tables for about $400. Checking out was pretty special as I had buried my reusable IKEA bags on the bottom, and the checker was working like a banshee. The stuff kept piling up at the end of the belt, the thin pieces jamming themselves under a divider between my counter and the next one over. I was reduced to working on the floor, filing three bags at a time while trying to figure out a way to wrap the glasses and plates I’d chosen with the few hand towels and rag rugs that I’d purchased. For a moment or two I thought I was in the old episode of the Lucille Ball Show where she and Vivian get jobs working on a candy assembly line. The experience continued back at my building when Mr. Jiang and I tried to commandeer an elevator only to be stymied five or six times by the rush hour crowd and the right side lift that decided to go to the basement and stay there.
I’m really enjoying my time with Mr. Jiang, my new driver. Her doesn’t have a lot of English, and I have only slightly more Chinese so our drives to and fro are characterized by both of us struggling to make ourselves clear, me using the iPhone, him scratching his head and both of us laughing. He’s far better company than the first guy who wanted to take me out cruising for prostitutes and the second guy who had this cool gangster vibe that just didn’t work for me at all. Yesterday I tried to convey the concept of “maybe” trying out a few words in Chinese and substituting “perhaps” as an alternative. Mr. Jiang really had the little gears spinning when suddenly just snapped to it – a very cool moment. “Perhaps” he repeated. Today we discussed the word for what we call “pot stickers.” Here they are called “jiao zi” and I offered up both the common restaurant name and “dumpling.” Mr. Jiang’s translated version was more along the line of “dumpeling.” In the spirit of the Dragon Boat Festival which happens to fall on the 28th (5th day of the 5th New Moon), we also had a go at “Zong zi.” These are bamboo husks filled with sticky rice and steamed. Some are meat filled, some are sweetened with fruit and if the description sounds a bit like a tamale, well, that’s precisely what they look like. So we had a conversation about those which then extended to chiles, both red and green and whether or not Americans like hot food. I informed Mr. Jiang that I did, but that My Lovely Wife did not and that in general most Americans would agree with her. He added that he did too.