Friday, September 22, 2006

For all intents and purposes, I speak Chinese. It's not pretty, it's rarely accurate and it often requires elaboration with hand gestures and sound effects--but I speak it, and more often than not, I get my point across.

However, after two and a half years in this mad place, I have learned that there are two places where I should never ever try to impress anyone with my rudimentary grasp of the Mandarin language: airports and police stations.

With my new job, I fly a lot, so I'm always in and out of airports. If you speak Chinese, especially if you've got a face like mine, you are simply subject to more rules, regulations and inspection. My asthma inhaler always raises questions at security, and I have found, that instead of trying to explain what it is, it is far easier just to ramble away quickly in English. Nine times out of ten, the English of the person on the receiving end is far too limited to understand any explanation employing higher level medical terminology, and they know this, so rather than even making an attempt to interrogate me, they just wave me through.

Police stations, in any country, can be intimidating, and I think in China, they are more so. But police stations here are everywhere, and they are very much an integral part of Chinese life. Beyond maintaining law and order, police here get involved in people's daily lives. All residents, including foreigners, must register with the local police station when moving house. Police stations manage the distribution of identity cards, and children, once born, must also have a record on file with the police.

Today, I went to my local branch of the Public Safety Bureau to reregister after getting a new visa. The last time I did it, it was a snap, and everyone at the station was very happy to chat with the new American girl who looks Chinese, but can't speak the language very well. (But they did tell me that I spoke well enough to be understood, and that with time I would improve.)

This time around however, it was a completely different story. The woman beyond the counter, in a stiff blue blouse with navy epaulettes, her long black hair pulled back from her small, clean face meticulously, refused to register me. She explained, with the help from a guy in the queue that I had violated a regulation requiring foreigners to register within 24 hours of arrival.


It was at least a month between the time I moved into my new place and the time I actually made my way down to the police station to formalize everything. What the hell was this woman going on about?

She then grilled me as to why I had taken nearly three weeks since the renewal of my visa to come into the station. The truth of it was 1. I'm a busy kid. I travel all over hell and gone, and when I'm in town, my time is usually stretched to the limit, and 2. I didn't think it was that big of a deal.

"Wo you shi," I said. It's the Chinese catch all phrase for, "I was busy. I was too lazy. I didn't feel like it..." It works in every situation, and no matter what the truth is, no one will question it. Except at the police station.

Madame Civil Servant, with her small lips painted carefully with red lipstick, told me that since I hadn't come in time, I would have to go to the district station, which was located somewhere deep in the hutong.


So off I went in a cab, meandering along the small alleyways of the old part of town in search of my Public Safety fate.

But this time, I got smart.

"Where do I register?" I asked the guard who looked as though his grasp of Mandarin may have been questionable, let alone his familiarity with English.

"She's a foreigner!" he yelled to his colleagues.

So at the gate I waited until they produced someone who could speak English. A guy came out, told me I did something wrong, I apologized like a bumbling foreign idiot, and then he went, with all my documents, back into the massive district office. He came back about fifteen minutes later with a handwritten piece of paper and said, "Sign this."

"What is it?" I asked, like every good American girl born to a lawyer father. He gave me a slightly irritated "how-dare-you-ask" look, but then said, "It's a warning!"

I signed it, apologized profusely, promised never to be so negligent again, and then made my way back to the first place. On the way, I stopped for a sesame bun from a street vendor, and we chatted a bit about why I look Chinese, but speak Chinese with an accent.

Back at the station, the Heavy Hand of Bureaucracy had been replaced by a very pleasant middle-aged woman. I handed her all of my papers, and made no mention of my written warning. She processed everything quickly, and with a smile, and asked me some basic questions about where I was from. Very much to my surprise, she gave me my registation form, valid for the year, and made no reference to the discrepancy between today's date, and the one found on my visa, and then sent me on my way.

If only I had come later in the day, in the first place! That's local bureaucracy for you! Man, you win some and you lose some.

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