This really could have been worse.
It’s Thursday morning. I’ve just dried off from the shower and started eating breakfast sans clothing. I’m in a hurry because I want to have an hour before class at the school to read through the material. My morning routine is maximized (unlike my writing) for time efficiency so I can wait as late as possible before leaving and almost be late (yeah, I know). Jessica left for class half an hour ago. Our front door doesn’t latch shut unless you lock it, so it’s closed but can be pushed open.
Suddenly there’s a knock at the door. I know it’s a Chinese person by the way they knock — repeated and insistent, as if they expect that you’ll try to ignore them. You couldn’t knock this way in Canada; it’d be really rude: *Bang-bang-bang!* [wait 1-2 seconds] *bang-bang-bang!* [continue repeating long after any North American would have given up.] My first thought is that it’s probably the neighbourhood committee collecting fees. Everyone tries to avoid paying — our neighbours have even told us to try and avoid paying. We pay ($1.50/month), but at this moment I’m eating breakfast, undressed, and in a hurry. I’ve already slept as long as I could; I don’t want to interrupt everything, rush to get dressed, and then open the door for what might turn into a conversation the will eat into my study time. It’s too early to get thrown off my groove.
So I ignore them. They keep knocking. I keep ignoring. We hear this routine often when our next-door neighbours are avoiding the neighbourhood committee people, so I know about how long they’ll keep knocking (longer than you’d think). Except this time they don’t quit. They make a phone call and keep knocking; I can hear there’s more than one. I can’t believe they’re still knocking! What do they want?! They crack the door open but can’t see me, and close it again. I can’t exactly confront intruders in the nude — well, I could but given the option… — so I throw some shorts on in time for them to crack the door open again. I open the door all the way and who do I see?
Three of Tianjin’s finest. Oops…
I invite them in — the place is a disaster zone — and stutter something about just getting out of the shower and not having any clothes on yet. They’re actually very polite and seem to be in good moods (I find out later the phone number they had on file for us was the school’s, and they’d phoned the secretary and angrily demanded that she open the door, not realizing it wasn’t our home phone and that she didn’t have a clue what they were talking about). They inform me that they need to see Jessica’s passport either today or tomorrow. There’s a problem with it that I don’t have the vocabulary for. The youngest cop finally says in English, “Time out.” They’re saying her passport, which she has with her at school, has expired (it hasn’t). After I repeat the stuff about being sorry for taking so long to get out of the shower and promise that we’ll go down to the police station that afternoon, they leave.
Down at the Station
I feel for those desk-bound officers; what nightmare of a work environment. Actually it reminded me of our English-teaching Taiwan-bǔxíbān days. The reception room is a giant rectangle with absolutely no sound-absorbing material — like an empty swimming pool with a roof (carpets are often considered unsanitary in China; mop-able floors are preferred). At one end of the room some neighbours are having a loud, animated argument before a police officer (police here seem to do a lot of on-the-spot mediating). At our end, four energetic Australian children have turned the place into a playground (their family has been required to fill out paperwork in person, rather than having their landlord do it for them like all the previous times). The Chinese grandma in line behind us laughs, “So chaotic!” and holds her ears.
It took about two hours. First they told us they didn’t have our information in the computers. We told them again about the officers coming to our apartment and phoning our school. They asked if we had a certain form, they hold up a sample which looks vaguely like something we maybe were given 18 months ago when we arrived. After 20 minutes of paper shuffling — during which we chatted with one of the officers I’d met that morning (he practiced some of his English) — the one at the computer finally holds Jessica’s passport right up to the screen for comparison. He asks again if we have the form, we say it’s at home, and he says, “Done!” We leave the officer simultaneously answering both phone calls and radio calls with three other family’s paperwork on the counter in mid-completion.
So it was our first time interacting with Tianjin’s police force, and I was pleasantly surprised. Nice guys!