a little relief

Shanghai Travel Blog

 › entry 7 of 14 › view all entries

I’m on the plane to Shanghai, typing this in a Word Document that I’ll cut and paste into travbuddy later this afternoon when we get to our hotel.  I forget where I left off but I think I briefly described my plight of being robbed within one hour of arriving in China on Wednesday morning.  I’ll try to describe what the past 3 days have been like but I’m sure I won’t do justice to describing the absolutely overwhelming sense of stress, frustration, anxiety and helplessness I felt as I dealt with the Chinese Police and the PSB’s, Public Security Bureau’s, in Guangzhou, Dongguan, and Shenzhen.  I consider myself to have a fairly high threshold for these emotions but I have to tell you, I was almost at the breaking point and it kind of scared me.  Even now as I start to recall what happened the feelings flood back and I’m starting to feel very anxious.  I’d rather just forget it and put it behind me but unfortunately I’m really only half way through this mess.


After I discovered I’d been robbed, the hotel manager came over and listened as Nelson translated what had happened.  The Chinese language always seems to have such a sense of urgency to it, with different inflections and volumes for each word.  You could say, ‘I hope you have a wonderful day’, in Chinese and it’d sound like you were pissed off and chastising someone.  The manager walked over to the corner in the seating area where Alan, Brian and I had been sitting, picked up the phony computer bag, brought it over to me and asked if I was sure it wasn’t mine.  I’m looking at him like, you’re kidding, right?  This computer bag was beat to crap, and empty.  Yeah, I’m pretty sure this isn’t my computer bag (idiot).   So he calls the local cops while the three of us try to piece together what’d happened.  Brian and Alan kept apologizing for not having kept an eye on the bag after I told them I was going to the men’s room, and I kept trying to assure them that it wasn’t their fault.  Still, they both felt very responsible.  Like Dongguan is any different than Chicago, New York or Cleveland.  Well, at least in this sense.


A Houjie Town cop and his assistant arrived; the distinction between the two of them being that one wore a light blue shirt with epaulets with one wreath-type insignia on each, and his assistant wore a light olive green shirt with epaulets without any insignias.  Other than that, they looked exactly the same, as I’ve found do most Chinese.  They were about 15 years old, 5’ 5”, 135 pounds, black hair, with roughly a dozen wispy looking whiskers on their faces.  It reminded me of how young teenage boys who start to mature don’t want to shave off the little growth they have because they want to look manlier.  Nelson again translated what had happened while the cop and his assistant looked at the “crime scene” and examined the empty computer bag.  For a brief second I was going to ask them if they could dust the bag for fingerprints, but realized I’d watched too many CSI episodes.  Then they asked the hotel manager to show them the security tape and they walked away.  I asked to see it too but they wouldn’t let me.  I think already mentioned in a previous posting how they saw how the guy had watched us while he pretended to talk on his cell phone and kept moving closer over about 10 or 15 minutes, then replaced my bag with the phony one and walked out of the hotel. 


Nelson told me I had to go to the Police station with them so he and I got into their car and drove off.  As an aside, I have to tell you this cop car, which was some kind of small Toyota SUV, reeked of something between vomit and feces.  As we sat in a large room with a dozen or so desks, we told the officer what happened, again, while he wrote out his report.  Behind us was another cop screaming at some kid for something.  I mean, this guy was pissed, and he was yelling so loudly our cop motioned for us to follow him upstairs to another interview room.  I asked Nelson what the cop was yelling about and he said this kid’s brother was in jail and he was trying to get him out.  I’m not sure why that angered the cop so much.  After our cop took our statement and presented us with an official report that I was to sign, for which I placed an awful lot of trust in Nelson’s ability to interpret correctly, so that I wasn’t actually signing something that said I’d just smuggled 5 pounds of heroin into China and killed a man in the process, he drove us back to our hotel.  I’d later learn just how important having that report was. 


If you want to travel anywhere of any distance in China you must have a driver.  This may sound classy, but trust me, it’s anything but.  The only qualification for being a driver is that he has a vague sense of actually knowing how to drive, or has at least observed someone else doing it at some point in his life.  Not only are the drivers insane, but they have no regard whatsoever for lanes on a road.  It’s an absolute battle royal between cars, motorbikes, bicycles, most of which are piled ridiculously high with stuff, and pedestrians. 


The four of us pile into our driver’s car, which like most things in China is on a slightly smaller scale than in the west, and attempt to explain how to get to our first appointment, which is a vacuum cleaner factory in Houjie, pronounced, hoo-gee-ah.  Houjie is a suburb of Dongguang, which is in the province of Guangdong, in southern China.  There are three primary cities in Guangdong Province, which is similar to a state in the US; Guangzhou, Dongguang, and Shenzhen.  I became very familiar with these cities even though I’d never heard of them before, and was amazed to learn that each of them has over 10 million people.  Guangzhou looks like Chicago, but bigger.  The skyscrapers are really incredible and the wide, beautifully maintained boulevards look like Michigan Ave….in an Asian kind of way.  Shenzhen and Dongguan on the other hand look very different, but are equally as large. 


Anyway, our driver drives us through Houjie, which is a very depressed area, with piles of garbage and bricks and abandoned buildings and dozens of garage fronts that line the sidewalk and act as businesses where people are preparing food in one, next to a machine shop in the next, with a car repair place in another next to a clothing store.  One store sold nothing but aluminum foil figures.  You’ve gotta wonder why the owner thought there’d be a market for that kind of thing.  As we drove by, apparently it was lunch time and dozens of these workers sat on their haunches like little frogs, which seems to be the preferred position if you’re not standing or sitting, on the sidewalk using chopsticks to shovel rice and vegetables into their mouths.  As we approached the factory we passed a guy on a bicycle with a couple dozen cages of chickens strapped to the back of his bike.  It’s amazing what these people carry on their bikes.  The other day we saw a guy with 4 large propane tanks strapped to his bike.  One errant spark and he’d be a Chinese roman candle. 


Our meetings went well, although everyone we met with seemed so young, I mean, like teenage young, and I don’t think it’s because I just turned 53 the day before.  Yes, that’s right, 53.  Sheesh.  We were in a very small, very hot, meeting room where people from engineering and purchasing would come in to discuss things with us throughout the afternoon.  At one point toward the end of the day two guys came in, one of whom was named Stickle—and I mean his first name—and the whole scene of these two guys who spoke no English talking to Nelson in both Mandarin and Cantonese as he translated to us, reminded me of the scene in The Deer Hunter with Robert DeNiro where he’s playing Russian roulette with the two NVA officers.  At one point Stickle stopped to ask Alan and me if we understood any of what he was saying.  Yeah, sure we do, we’re both fluent in Cantonese, and we’re deeply offended by what you’re saying about us.  Very, very weird meeting.  Afterward Nelson said that workers in this factory are paid the equivalent of $100 per month for 170 hours of work.  That’s a little more than 50 cents an hour.  And these guys are twisting my arm over lowering the price of our drive belts from 20 cents to 19 ½ cents.


That night I called the US State Department in DC to ask if I needed an original copy of my birth certificate to replace my stolen passport and how long it would take to get a new one.  This guy was very reassuring.  He kept calling me, ‘my friend’, like, ‘my friend, don’t worry about a thing’ and ‘you don’t need anything at all, my friend’.  I should’ve known that when a government official refers to you as his friend, you’re in trouble.  He told me I need only show up at either the US embassy in Beijing, which is a 4 hour flight from Shenzhen, and for which I’d need a passport to fly there, or the US Consulate in Guangzhou, which was only a two hour drive from Shenzhen.  


So the next morning Nelson arranged a driver to take me to the US Consulate in Guangzhou.  Unfortunately, the driver only knew that Guangzhou was somewhere northwest of Shenzhen two hours away and had no clue where to go once we got there.  His MO was to stop the car in the middle of traffic, hop out, run up to a taxi a few cars ahead and frantically ask for directions before the light turned green.  He’d then run back to my car, get in and say one of only three words of English he knew; ‘Sorry’.  I stopped counting when he’d done this 10 times before we even got to the Consulate.  He also had this totally nauseating habit of snorting phlegm with all his might, loudly spitting it into a tissue and then throwing the tissue out the window.  This, combined with the most horrendous breath from rotting teeth that would literally fill the car every time he spoke on his cell phone, constantly triggered my gag reflex.  Every time I saw him reach for a tissue signaling he was to start this process I silently plead with him, ‘please, please no, you don’t have to do this, please’ then looked out the window and focused on something as we drove so that I didn’t vomit. 


When we finally arrived at the Consulate we discovered it had moved to the other side of Guangzhou, about 45 minutes away.  This is when I heard the second thing in English the driver could say; ‘Oh my god’.  The problem with this was that it was now 11:15 and the office closed from 11:30 until 1:30.  I used the cell phone Nelson gave me and called to beg them to stay open until I got there, lying that I was only a few minutes away.  They told me that someone would give my name to the guard and he’d let me in.  Maybe they knew I was lying because this wasn’t true. 


When I arrived at a little after 12:00 I finally got the guard to let me in and I went to the passport processing area where I explained what had happened and what I needed.  They gave me several forms to fill out, told me to get two passport photos taken and come back at 1:30.  When I sat down a guy two seats over from me said he’d overheard me say that my passport was stolen.  He was an American, which lately is like seeing an angel.  I told him what happened and when I told him it occurred in Dongguan, he laughed and said he’d never met any businessman who traveled to Dongguan who wasn’t robbed.  I tried to laugh too but it came out as a weak, ‘huh……’.  He told me about two friends of his, one of whom was arriving at a hotel in Dongguan and put his luggage down after he got out of his cab.  While he talked to the bellboys about taking his luggage to his room, a van pulled up, a kid got out, grabbed his suitcases and jumped back into the van.  When the guy saw this he started to yell for someone to stop them, but no one understood English.  When the van drove up to the gate, they opened it and off they went.  Everything he had, including his laptop, passport, money, and clothes were gone.  Another friend of his was walking down the street with his computer bag over his shoulder when a couple kids on a motorbike sped up, slashed the strap of his bag and sped off with it.  I tried to gain consolation from knowing that I wasn’t the only person to go through this. 


It turns out that getting a passport replaced is not a huge deal.  I had a new one by 2:30 that day.  As I left the Consulate I told my driver that I needed to use the restroom, which I did by pointing to the ‘man toilet’ sign and holding up my hand as if I were telling a dog to sit and stay.  He nodded his head in acknowledgment.  When I came back my driver was standing by the elevator door arguing with three local cops.  I don’t know what he did to make these guys mad but all four of them were really angry.  I thought, for god sake, I can’t leave you alone for 2 minutes?  The elevator doors opened and we both quickly got in while my driver continued to argue with the cops as the doors closed.  When we were safely inside the two women in the elevator and I learned the third and final English word my driver knew, ‘Fuck’. 


Next we had to go over to the Public Security Bureau to get my travel visa.  Having a passport actually means very little, it’s the visa that allows you to actually travel anywhere.  As you might imagine there isn’t just one PSB in a city of 10 million and we didn’t find the right one until 3:00, again by using the stop, run, ask, apologize method.  We took a number and watched the screens above each of the 10 PSB officer positions indicating which number was being ‘served’.  My number was 467 and they were currently serving 395.  I calculated the average time it took for each new number to be called and determined that I’d be sitting there for roughly another 3 weeks.  Everyone in the room was in the same boat I was; lost passport-needs visa, stolen passport-needs visa, must leave country tomorrow-must have visa, etc, so everyone’s nerves were pretty raw, and the PSB officers couldn’t be less impressed with anyone’s story, no matter how dire.  Each time a number was called that had a 4, 6, or 7 in it my driver would grab my hand holding the number and excitedly point to it then to the number on the screen. 


The PSB closes at 5:00 and the magic number, 467, was called at 4:55.  I tried to calmly explain my case but each time he just said, ‘visa take 5 day’.  I started to lose my patience—big surprise, eh?—and said that it was an emergency because I had to leave for Hong Kong Friday afternoon and then fly to Shanghai Monday afternoon.  Apparently wanting to spend a nice weekend in HK doesn’t qualify as an emergency, but I was persuasive enough to get him to agree to Monday morning.  When I asked him why it couldn’t be ready on Friday at closing if it could be ready on Monday when they opened he just walked away.  I thought it was a totally logical question.  I decided to not leave my passport with them for the visa process because he said I could get it in Shenzhen where I’d be staying until Friday afternoon.  That way I wouldn’t have to drive the two hours back to Guangzhou to get it.  We left the PSB at about 5:15 and waded through rush hour traffic for the next 3 hours on our way to Shenzhen. 


The next morning I went to the PSB in Shenzhen with Nelson.  Having him by my side made me feel much better because we were at least able to communicate.  This PSB was set up the same way as the other one in Guangzhou, you take a number and watch the screens.  At 11:30, all the screens went blank and the officers got up to take their 2 hour lunch leaving dozens of people hoping for better luck at 1:30.  Nelson and I ate at a local Chinese restaurant where absolutely no one spoke English.  When the bill came I handed the waitress my credit card and she stared at it like, what the hell is this?  I’m thinking, it’s a platinum American express card, the advertisement says it’s accepted all over the world.  It could’ve been made of actual platinum and she wouldn’t have cared.  I paid the 1,700 yuan in cash and we left. 


I hoped that we’d get the female PSB officer thinking that a woman would be more sympathetic to a person’s troubles.  Boy was I wrong.  She, too, couldn’t have cared less about my needing to be in HK for the weekend.  Furthermore, she said the guy in Guangzhou gave me the wrong form to fill out, I needed the official police report which I hadn’t brought with me, I had to go back to either the office in Dongguan where the crime was committed or Guangzhou where I got my passport, and that it’d take 5 days to process.  This meant that I’d have to stay in Dongguan for the next 5 days and miss an entire week of business appointments.  Even if we drove the 45 minutes back to our hotel so I could get the official report, and then drove an hour up to Dongguan, we’d still have only 30 minutes to spare before the PSB office closed, and that’s if everything went smoothly.  It was at this point that I felt myself losing control of all my emotions.  I thought that I literally wasn’t going to be able to control myself and it scarred me. 


We rushed back to the hotel and while I went to my room for the report, Nelson told the front desk that I’d be staying another night.  Then we drove to Dongguan in search of the PSB.  When we got into the city Nelson told our driver that he was going to get into a local taxi, assuming that he’d surely know where the PSB was, and that the driver should follow him.  When I started to get out of the car too Nelson told me to stay with the driver.  As Nelson sped off in another taxi we tried to follow him but every hundred feet or so another car pulled in front of us and before long we couldn’t see Nelson’s taxi.  To make matters worse, all taxis are the same; green and beige VW Passats.  I really started to panic when my driver excitedly looked back and forth through traffic for Nelson’s taxi and couldn’t find him. 


When we got to the PSB office it was set up totally differently than the others.  This one was pretty much a free-for-all with people just vying for position and the attention of the officers behind the counter.  Nelson waded in and got a new form for me to fill out and while I did that he tried to maintain his position in the crowd.  Shortly before 5:00 I was handed a Certificate of Travel allowing me to at least book a hotel room and fly to Shanghai for next week.  Unfortunately, my new visa won’t be ready until next Friday and I have to appear in person to pick it up.


Alan came up with a great idea.  We could fly to Shanghai Saturday and spend the weekend sightseeing, then continue on our business schedule over in Suzhou, about an hour and a half away.  Then rearrange one appointment on Friday for Thursday, fly down to Shenzhen on Friday, drive the hour up to Dongguan to pick up my passport, and drive into HK for the weekend.  That way we’d still be able to spend weekends in Shanghai and HK, just in a different order.  It was brilliant in it’s simplicity, er, I mean, complexity. 


So here we are in Shanghai.  I think I made a brief posting at the China Southern flight club in Shenzhen airport.  I was very relieved when the gate agent looked at my Certificate, stamped my boarding pass and welcomed us to visit the flight club.  I’m cautiously optimistic that the other half of this process will work out.     


merk says:
Yikes!! Bummer of a day.

I had to chuckle when I read through your day though. You waiting in line reminded me of Michael Keaton in Beetlegeuse where he was waiting in line holding a number like 1,000,000,000 and they were serving number 14. That's when he tricked the guy with the shrunken head...oh well, I digress.

After reading this, writing my @#$% business plan seems like a sweet deal. Thanks
Posted on: Oct 24, 2007
laurenmerker says:
Wow Dad. All I can say is- That sucks...
Posted on: Oct 15, 2007
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