Wednesday, June 6, 2012

You know you’re in China when…

My first night back in China I staid in Shanghai with my friend Owen. The next morning he took me to one of the many transportation offices around the city where you can buy tickets for the high speed train to Beijing. Owen travels to Beijing quite a bit, and had just bought a ticket there the week before. When we arrived at the intersection where the ticket office was, we could see the sign from the street, but the office itself looked dark. When we approached we found that it had been completely gutted. What had once been a storefront squished between other stores was now a gaping hole in the wall, with boards, bricks and other debris littering the floor.

It’s not so much the fact that the office had moved, but the sheer suddenness and frequency with which this happens in China that makes every day living here an “adventure.”

And this of course is not quite as strange as an experience my friend Calvin had last year. He had just moved to Beijing and was staying in a hotel until he found an apartment. One morning when he stepped out of the elevator into the lobby he found that the hotel lobby had been completely gutted overnight. All that remained was piles of debris on the floor and a man on a ladder taking out some electrical wires. Not sure if Calvin ever had to pay his hotel bill…

My most recent adventure after my return to Beijing was trying to register with the local police department. All foreigners staying in China have to register their residence with the local police within 24 hours of arriving in China (if you stay in a hotel, they will take care of this for you). Of course this is one of those bureaucratic regulations that ends up being a lot more complicated than it should be. Last time I had to do this, I went to a small police station just down the street from my apartment. It was pretty easy. This time however, finding the right police station proved to be more difficult.

A few days after my arrival, I asked around and found a police station near my apartment complex. When I arrived however the police informed me that this was the wrong station, and in fact I had to travel several miles to a big police station that was supposedly in charge of registering people in my complex. This would involve riding my electric bike across a large highway and along a river, the policeman said vaguely. He gave me the name of the station and told me to ask people along the way where it was.

So I set out down the highway and 20 minutes later arrived in the general area where I thought I was supposed to be and started asking around. When asking directions in China, you should never rely completely on the directions of the first person you ask, even if he/she seems 100% certain of what they are telling you. Chinese people would sometimes rather lie and make up a story, than lose face by admitting that they don’t know the answer to your question. They also tend to give very vague directions. So after asking about 5 different people, I finally found myself starring at the gate of the police station about 100 meters in front of me. There was just one problem: a river lay between the police station and me.

Ironically I was standing under a giant bridge, but since this was a highway bridge there was no way to get on it and no pedestrian or bike crossing. Looking around, I went up to an old peasant, trollish-looking man who appeared to be camping out under the bridge and asked him how to get across the river. “I’ll take you across on my raft,” he said, “But you must promise to someday give me your first born child…”

Ok, I was kidding about that last part. He basically just told me there was a bridge a mile to my left, and a mile to my right, and I could pick one. Then he went into the normal “Chinese peasant who’s never seen a foreigner before” routine and started asking me all kinds of questions. I gave him the shortest answers possible and then took off before he had an opportunity to “make friends” (i.e. ask for my phone number).

After another 10 minutes riding up and down a series of bumpy, half paved, half dirt roads, I made it to the police station. I was anticipating some trouble, since I was technically late in registering and there is a fine associated with this offense. I told the officer that I’d had trouble finding the place (which is partly true), and she let me off the hook. Rules in China are generally flexible. After that I began the long journey back to my apartment…

Finally, this post was partly inspired by a thread that’s been passed around by email recently: 42 Things You’ll See Only in China. Check it out, it depicts quite accurately and humorously many of the strange things that happen here.