If I Could Go Back In Time, I would Dope-Slap Myself.

Nothing in China is very complicated except the culture, the bureaucracy, the politics, the language, the history, the relationships, the drinking games, and the people.  After living here for a while, I really miss how easy it was for me at home.  Here, I’m functionally illiterate, not to mention dealing with a sea of cultural and linguistic complications.  It really makes me value being able to do something autonomously, like speak or order food at a restaurant.  Even speaking in English is very hard in China.  I never realized how broad and deep my vocabulary really is.  When speaking to the Chinese, however, I have had to learn to quickly adapt the way I speak.

  • Everything I say is in the simple present tense.
  • I do not use the perfect tenses.
  • I use little words.
  • I usually use very few different verbs.
  • I usually repeat myself a lot.
  • I usually repeat myself a lot.
  • I.  Speak.  Only.  One.  Word.  At.  A.  Time.
  • I try to annuncia-t very clearly.
  • My sentences are very short.

It’s amazing how much you start to salivate over complex vocabulary after talking like this for a few months.  I was watching some TV show on my computer a few days ago and one of the characters said something like, “…a litany of complaints…” I immediately sat up and got a little chill down my spine.  Litany.  What a great word.  Then today I found out that I can set my screen saver to the word of the day.  Today’s word:

Capricious|kəˈpriSHəs, -ˈprē-|

adjective:  Given to sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behavior: a capricious and often brutal administration.” 

Oh yeah, talk nerdy to me.

More than anything, however, I’m struggling with the complicated government officialdom in China.  It is very complicated and very expensive to get a Z (working) VISA for China, so when that folder arrived in the mail from the embassy in Washington D.C. I was elated.    “At last, I am done with this whole complicated, bureaucratic bullshit,” I thought to myself.  That was months ago while I was in Portland.

If I could go back in time, I would dope-slap myself on the back of my head.

One of the first things I realized when I got here was that my work VISA actually doesn’t allow me to work in China.  Yes, seriously.  It allows me to enter the country for work purposes and to apply for a work permit.  Once here, I had 30 days to register my residency with the police department.  That was fairly easy, except that after we’d filed it, the police department decided that it couldn’t use photocopies of our passports, so we had surrender our passports for inspection for a few days.   That still didn’t fully resolve the paperwork issues.

We also had 30 days to file for a “work permit,” which is totally different than the work VISA or the residency permit, except that it gets glued into your passport, just like the Z VISA, and it requires all the same forms, passport photos, and medical exams.  This process takes about a week or two, during which time you have to (again) leave your passport for processing.  The residency and the work permit are also filed separately and at separate police stations.  This means that I got my passport back from Nantong for a few days before having to take a bus back into Nantong to apply for the work permit and leave my passport for processing.  However, the police station had misfiled something when I’d applied for the residency, so they couldn’t find me in their computer system.  No problem; just take an hour bus ride home and come back a few days later.  A few days later, back in Nantong, our files had made it into the computer system and we were allowed to surrender our passports again for inspection and processing, or about another five business days.  Don’t ask me to explain this, because I am not totally sure myself, but somewhere in the process we applied for a “foreign expert certificate,” which is basically a Chinese passport for foreigners working in China.  So, to run it down, the required documents I needed to obtain to legally work here are:

  1. A Z VISA
  2. A residency registration
  3. A work permit
  4. A foreign expert certificate

Each of these things has a different purpose, although I can’t exactly tell how they are different.  Each of them requires a number of other forms and hoops to jump through. As I started this process in January, essentially, I was ready to just focus on living and working in China.  When the last of the documents was approved, I was glad that I could lock my passport in a drawer and forget about it.

If I could go back in time, I would dope-slap myself on the back of my head.

Just a few days later a policewoman followed us home and asked to see our passports.  She spoke no English and made no effort to tell us what she wanted.  She sat in our living room and talked on her cellphone very loudly for 10 to 20 minutes.  She then invited two Chinese men into our apartment.  The first one was another cop, I believe, who had a camera to take pictures of our passports.  The second man was our neighbor who was there, I assume, to be helpful, although I am not sure how as he also spoke no English.

They were basically friendly, and I know she didn’t mean to, but she crossed a lot of my cultural lines.  Things that seem acceptable and normal to Chinese people do not always seem acceptable or normal to me.  I also didn’t know exactly what to expect—I was a little worried she would try and take our passports for further processing, but this time without us knowing exactly why, where, or for how long.

Growing increasingly angry and concerned, I refused to let her take a photo of my passport until she told us what she wanted.  We spent another 20-30 minutes trying to communicate and to contact someone at WEB to talk with the policewoman.  I got surly and defiant, which is not a winning combination with the Chinese police.

We were finally able sort the matter out, ages later.  Relationships are very important in China so before they left, the Chinese tried to repair the damage by being extremely friendly.  At that point, I should have been gracious but, from my perspective, there was very little reason to be polite.  Bottom line, she pissed me off and, not being Chinese, I pissed her off right back.  I think the neighbor tried to smooth things over after by inviting the police into his home.  We could hear them talking below us for another hour.  I don’t speak Mandarin, but boy was she pissed.

If I could go back in time, I would dope-slap myself on the back of my head.

A few days later we went into exile.  It’s complicated but, basically, the policewoman was throwing her weight around, partly because we insulted her and partly because she wanted to act like a big shot.  As a precaution, the school put us up in a nice hotel in Nantong and we had to commute to work for a few days.  We now have to re-register for residency in Rugao, but the policewoman is insisting that the headmaster herself come to register with us, which is ridiculous because all they really need is my signature on a form.  But this policewoman wants the school to know how important she is.  Even the Chinese think she’s nuts, but there isn’t much we can do about it.

Every damn thing is like this in China.  Just as another example, I finally realized I couldn’t get along without a smart phone anymore.  I bought one from EBay because, even with the shipping and customs fees, I can still get a 16 gig IPhone for slightly less than an 8 gig here (and they ONLY sell 8 gigs in Rugao).  The phone is due to arrive between the 28th and June 2nd, but yesterday I received an email from FedEx.  In order to clear customs I have to fill our four separate forms, which are in Chinese.  I also have to send a copy of my passport photo page, visa, entry stamp, and a sales receipt back to “Kevin” at FedEx.  I ordered and paid for this phone weeks ago, and that included an enormous fee for customs and taxes.  It’s ONE iPhone.  You would think this wouldn’t be so complicated.  Had I known how important it would be to have a phone in China, I could have just gone to the Apple store before I left and gotten an unlocked iPhone that very day for much less.

If I could go back in time, I would dope-slap myself on the back of my head.  But I can’t.

I think in the end it will all be worth it.  It will all be one fond memory of the trials I faced to do something amazing.  Right now though, I can’t help but wonder if I’ll be sending copies of my passport and filing for residency right up until the day I leave.   A lot of my experiences here have been really wonderful.  Some have been not-so-wonderful, but that’s life and that’s travel.  It’s easy to say how I should have handled the less wonderful aspects of China, but that’s hindsight.  And, in hindsight, sometimes those messy situations make life rewarding.  Beauty is often found in complexity, and that makes China one hell of a beautiful place.



  1. If only we could all go back and dope-slap ourselves every now and then! Sounds like that policewoman has some serious issues with you – what did you do?! If it’s any consolation, it sounds very typical of the type of BS we get here in Thailand too – the joys of working abroad!


    • Ah yes, the joys of working abroad! It took some time but we got it all worked out. We just had to go to the police station in Rugao and re-register (since we were technically registered in Nantong). This really isn’t a difficult process at all. She was extremely passive aggressive about it— it took the other foreign teacher 5 minutes to do this, and then it took another hour and a half to get Jackie and mine done— but other than that, it was simple 🙂


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