So, apologies for leaving you with that cliffhanger. I would have finished the story sooner, but I was, as you may have surmised, hanging from a cliff at the time, which is not a good blogging situation. To go completely un-literary and let out all the dramatic tension at once in a disappointingly matter-of-fact way, the thing that happened was that I’d lost my passport while getting out of a cab rushing to the airport at the break of dawn to catch a plane for a business trip because I’d apparently slept through my alarm. I would have made it, too, a world-record head-on-pillow to passed-security-check in less than an hour. But I happened to drop my passport while getting out of the taxi, or else I left it in the taxi and the driver stole it (he was visibly irritated that my promised tip for “driving like hell” was less than he’d expected, even though he drove more like a lukewarm purgatory and tips are totally not standard here anyway).
As soon as I realized that my passport was gone I knew that I was in for a bureaucratic nightmare, and before I left the airport I decided to document every twist and turn of it as proof of the extent to which ridiculousness can get when being bounced around between government agencies. So for the first two days I wrote down everyone I called (starting with the two phone numbers given to me by the airport information desk) and everyone they told me to call, and everywhere someone sent me and everywhere the people at that place sent me next. I was at any given time following no less than two different threads of inquiry, but never more than four.
That visit to the neighborhood police station was in fact my third regarding the issue; the first was to report the loss and get the corresponding certificate I’d need to not be treated like an illegal alien if I couldn’t produce a passport. The second was to ask for a police officer to escort me to the traffic bureau, as the traffic bureau (which I had called twice on two different numbers given to me by two different people for two different reasons, though I didn’t put that together until later; almost nobody states the name of their office when answering the phone. I have, in fact, been remonstrated for doing so at a previous job) had advised me that though I might be able to read the taxi’s license plate from the security camera, the tapes were confidential by nature and could only be viewed by traffic and police officers. The officer I met that second time was a young man who probably meant well but lied (convincingly) to my face, telling me that only the officer to whom I’d reported the loss originally was authorized to follow up on my case, and she wouldn’t be back until the following week for the evening shift (by which time the traffic bureau would be closed). When I calmly explained why this was unreasonable and asked to see a supervisor, he refused repeatedly. This is the part where most experienced expats switch to the yelling method, but I just didn’t have that in me. I’d already been chasing police, government agents, taxi companies, info desk workers, lost-and-found workers (did you know that Beijing has a citywide lost-and-found, but that nobody ever answers the phone?), immigration officers, and radio presenters (a last resort), and I was ready to just come back the following week and talk to the much more reasonable woman.
The thing is, though, when I came back the next week (as per the previous post), the woman I met was not the woman I’d met the first time. I explained to her that I’d lost my passport and needed to see the officer to whom I’d originally reported the loss. Her expression didn’t change; she has a weird way of maintaining intense eye contact without betraying any emotion.
“What do you want to talk to her about?”
“I need to go to the traffic bureau to look at the traffic tapes and see if I can read the taxi license plate.”
“Oh,” she said, and pushed a button on the desk. I heard the latch on the metal door slide back. I was momentarily confused. She was continuously expressionless.
“Come in,” she intoned. I went in. It was the first time I’d ever been invited into anywhere over the whole process. Mostly I spent my time trying to push people to the very edge of their usefulness, because nobody, nobody, nobody will be proactive enough to even begin to think of a solution that isn’t immediately apparent. Except for this woman.
She led me through the back door of the reception booth, through the darkened waiting room of the main hall, into a back hallway and up a flight of stairs. She didn’t explain where we were going. She made light talk about why I hadn’t already gone home for the night, and that she didn’t think foreigners ever had to work overtime. Just as that topic died out, she stopped abruptly, pushed open a door with one hand, and beckoned me to enter with the other. In the middle of the room was a sort of control booth with several monitors and switchboards, and the wall facing it was completely covered with TVs, each one showing a live feed of a traffic camera.
I thought about the apparently well-intentioned youth from the week before. I thought about strangling him, and I thought about hugging the woman who brought me here. After a moment’s consideration I deemed both options to be somewhat weird, so abandoned them, took my seat at the control booth, identified the correct camera, asked the tech to play back from the correct date and time, and watched a younger and more bepassported me walk up the street urgently searching for a taxi, walking further and further towards the next intersection, and finally walking so far that he de-gestalted into a binary fuzz.
So I redirected my energies to getting a new passport, which was its own maze full of passive-aggressive Minotaurs, including, to my slight disappointment, the very same police officer who had so generously and reasonably led me to the traffic camera room, who later scoffed and mocked me for “not being able to think clearly” when she thought I was applying for documents in the wrong order. She was wrong.
So was the agent that the company hired to help navigate that maze. As I’d managed to lose my passport before completing the transition between a “working visa” and a “residence permit” (which apparently never happens), my case was so special that nobody knew quite what to do with it, and everybody had different answers. The agent, returning from the labor bureau in search of a necessary document, informed me that it simply could not be done, and that I’d have to talk to the American embassy about getting a new Chinese work visa.
In case you were wondering, yes, whenever someone suggests that you go see one country’s embassy about getting a visa for another country, it’s time to begin ignoring that person as long and as hard as possible.
Thus, much to the consternation of the implacably patient and helpful HR elf who had been overseeing this project, I demanded that the agent return my documents immediately and that I was going to do it all myself. Which, you might be happy to know, I did.
The woman at the labor bureau, upon hearing my tale and asking all the necessary questions, replied that it couldn’t be done because there was no way to produce the necessary proof that I actually had a work visa in the first place, and that I’d have to go back to the States and start over. I’m guessing that’s about as far as the agent got before giving up. I explained to her that the immigration bureau would be able to prove that I’d entered the country on a work visa, and she took a moment to consult with a co-worker, before returning and explaining that even if she gave me the work permit (the “necessary document” the agent had failed to get), the immigration bureau still wouldn’t be able to give me a residence permit without a work visa. I explained to her that the immigration bureau (after consulting a very large and very dusty black binder hauled out from a back room) had already assured me that this could be done, and she went to find her supervisor, who asked me to tell the story again from the beginning, then called the immigration bureau, talked for 20 minutes, then hung up, looked at me, said, “OK, we can do it,” and walked away.
The rest was pretty smooth.
Blah blah blah, another bureaucracy story. I probably shouldn’t have written this much (if you go back and read the intro, you’ll see that I didn’t intend to), but if you’ve managed to persevere to this point, then welcome to the end of the body and the beginning of the conclusion.
All that stuff got settled in September, and now it’s December, which means I haven’t written anything in forever. Mostly that’s because I was dreading trying to retell that story (the part I managed to tap out above is but a mere cherry-picking of highlights), but it’s also due to laziness. Now I’m not lazy, because I’m extremely busy. Between work and my weight-loss plan (can you believe I’m actually solidly overweight? I always thought I was kind of a squishy normal), I have very little time for laziness, which means I’m usually doing something.
As you can plainly see.
But now the time for that is over, and the time for sleeping is begun. Good night, Internet. Good night.