When the police knock on your door, it’s best to have clothes on

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!

8 thoughts on “When the police knock on your door, it’s best to have clothes on”

  1. Brilliantly written! But now the yiwan yuan question: What did they REALLY want? From the end of your story it sounds like they just wanted to make sure you had a certain form in your possession? They didn’t want to SEE that form? They didn’t really need to check J’s expiration date? What’s your theory (if it’s one you can post publicly like this)?

  2. right, we walked out of the police station going, “Well, don’t know what that was all about, but at least it’s over!” We know all our documentation is correct. Personally, I think it’s one of two things. Either they entered the dates wrong into the computer a year and half ago and just noticed it know because they are double-checking all the foreigners during the Olympics, or they’re just ‘checking up’ on some local foreigners as they occasionally do (this was suggested by our school’s director, who’s lived here for over 15 years).

    but i’m totally just guessing. because of the way the expiration date is written in Jessica’s passport, it would actually be pretty easy for an overworked secretary to glance at it and type in the wrong info.

  3. Things are done on a grand scale here. You don’t build just one apartment block, you build a whole forest at at time.

    The most interesting archetecture in Tianjin is the old stuff from the 19th century in the foreign concession areas (where foreign governments basically built their own little cities). Each nation’s section has it’s own nation’s style: the French, Italian, German, and British sections are all pretty distinct. (You can see photos of these in the related links on this post.)

    There’s relatively little traditional Chinese archetecture in Tianjin. You can see a little bit in the Nanshi photos, and of course there’s the ancestral temple complex.

  4. My dad started flight training in Hong Kong this past week. He mentioned to me the loads of paperwork that go into a jobe like his in China. I can see how a simple typo error like mentioned above could lead to the police checking up on you guys.

  5. definitely. there are lots of possible reasons beyond our control for why they’d ‘check up’ on us. we assumed it was one of those. especially right now, saying that the rulers are paranoid is a massive understatement.

    before the Olympics even weirder stuff happened to some classmates: drive-by video-taping by the police, and then a sudden phone call demanding that they meet at McDonald’s, where a policeman asked them if they knew of any foreigners who wanted to cause trouble during the Olympics. whatever. all our paperwork is fine and all we do is go to class and play tourist.

  6. Your photo’s of Tanjin have been awesome. You guys are giving us a great picture of the place. I noticed the skyline in the background of one of your photos. All the skyscrapers seemed to have a similar design. That must make the city look different and yet beautiful compared to America with all its diversity in architure.

  7. I have been unlucky with these “knocks” on the door, the first time someone knocked, I was in the shower, hoping to god that nobody would knock. It was a bunch of old ladies, luckily I could call my friend on her cell and she would talk to them….

    But I wasn’t so lucky when a woman that looked like an angry tiger, came to check up on my gas or elec meter or both I don’t know. She starts talking, but I can’t do anything, I tried calling my friend but she was busy, I motion “phone is bad” she waits with a bunch of cash in her hand, I tried calling another friend, but before I could dial anything she leaves. Maybe I should put up a sign “Foreigner; Please be Patient” with a giant smiley face.

    Another stupid moment was again when I took a shower, someone was knocking real quietly… I decided to ignore them, but it seemed that they could hear me or see through walls, because they wouldn’t stop, I had shaving cream on my face, but they kept on knocking for like 5 minutes, I decide to open since it could be the police, but turns out it was 2 young guys who wanted to know if their friend lives here, well just one look at my face told them the answer.

    Then there was the Paperboy with 3 fingers on his hands like a Mutant Turtle had, nice guy, tried speaking english, but I accidentally slammed the door on him.
    It was an accident.

  8. ha! i bet they all had some fun stories to tell their friend after visiting you.

    It’s different in different neighbourhoods, but for our gas a guy comes around regularly to check the meter and charge us a few kuai. plus the neighbourhood committee person.

    I saw where you live on the map. You are pretty close to the Yin2 He2 Guang3 chang3 – that’s the public park on the other side of the amusement park. If you’re looking for something fun to do (before next week), find out when the big Olympic matches are on and go down there to watch them on the big outdoor screen.

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