I am walking around China naked.

Not literally, on either count. I’m walking around Guangzhou, not China, because my current state of nakedness precludes going anywhere else. As of today I have no passport, or even a Foreign Expert Certificate. In European terms, no papers. No identification except a campus card and my ID NYC, which I suspect doesn’t cut much ice here. Once again, and just in time for a weeklong national holiday, I am grounded.

For those who witnessed my pre-departure meltdown last month, the rest of this post will come as no surprise. For those of you who didn’t: the paperwork allowing me to apply for my visa arrived on the Wednesday evening before my scheduled Tuesday departure. I took it to the Chinese consulate on Thursday morning, expecting the same-day service advertised on the website, which had worked just fine five years ago. “You can pick it up Monday,” the clerk said. “But I want the same-day rush service. I fly out Tuesday.” “We don’t do that.” For Americans that is cutting it way too close, and I very nearly canceled the whole semester.

As it turns out, that was just the beginning.

If one thing, beyond getting fired and/or deported for blogging, makes this my last working trip to China, it’s the bureaucracy. Americans don’t suffer bureaucrats gladly, or at least I don’t, and New Yorkers are particularly bad at waiting in (not on) line. In China, there’s never one step when three will do – like needing a third medical exam to use the pool outside my window. Or getting my own private, functioning Internet connection, a three-step process with China Telecom: buying a router online; going to China Telecom to set up an account; and finally making an appointment to have the router installed. Say what I might about Time Warner – and at the moment I have plenty to say — the process would take one phone call and one appointment.

Americans have a word for this kind of thing. It has eight letters, begins with a B, ends with a T and has an S in the middle, and it’s not very nice. The Chinese just call it life.

First there was the trip to the bank to set up an account so I can be paid, allegedly next Wednesday. Then the trip to get a local SIM card for a cellphone that I barely use but seem required to have. Not one trip but two to the photo shop to get enough little photos to hand around for all bureaucratic purposes – five for the medical exam alone. There I had to sign a receipt affirming that, yes, I was the person in the photo. (Doesn’t the photo itself confirm that?)

At the medical exam — never mind that I had already had one in New York — the first hour consisted entirely of bureaucracy. You wait in one line to confirm your appointment and get a number to wait in a second, then go next door to get your passport copied (which could have been done in advance), then go to the second line, whose sole purpose, as far as I could see, is to take a number for the third line, for the cashier (who takes your picture). Then you go across the street for the exam itself, which consists of about eight Stations of the Cross, from bloodwork to blood pressure to ultrasound of internal organs. At the end you’re handed a slip of paper and told to come back in three days to pick up the report. I was crestfallen to learn I’d have to go back; I would have to hightail it back to campus at rush hour on a Friday from a neighborhood with no taxis so that the application for my Foreign Expert Certificate could go into the mail immediately. The deadline was tight, I was told, and there’s a penalty for missing it.

The next day I went for my campus card, which took some time because the clerk let himself be interrupted by every Chinese person who cut in at my window. (They’re not shy.) Once I had the card, I asked to put money on it, which I’d been told I could do to pay conveniently for just about everything on campus. The clerk said something I didn’t understand about the canteen in another building. A few minutes later, I ran into my main handler, who explained that that office can’t accept money (no, just the fee for the card, which I guess isn’t money) but the canteen office can. In the meantime, I should come by her office to get the letter that would allow me to get a library card. Thanks, but another time.

Two days later, while waiting to sign some paperwork after delivering the medical results, I jubilantly texted my handler: “Got health report. Want pool card!” She texted back that I needed that third health exam to get it, and she’d tell me where. In the end, I decided to skip the exam, write off that pool (which no longer seems to be open all the advertised hours) and use the one at the hotel down the street. It costs more, but it’s freshly filled, has fewer screaming kids, supplies big, fluffy towels and is open whenever I want to go. At some point you have to decide which bureaucracy you have to put up with, and which you can simply avoid. That night, I turned off my phone and opened the sauvignon blanc early.

The final, most important piece of bureaucracy — the residence permit — is unavoidable. For once Hunan beats Guangzhou: one (admittedly harrowing) trip to the medical clinic; one trip to whatever office issued the residence permit; one week without a passport while the permit was processed. Here I was told there would be a return visit to pick up my passport and permit. I could have lived with that.

The first visit was scheduled for yesterday, one week before the national Golden Week holiday begins. I had booked a week on a Hainan Island beach and was concerned about having my passport back in time. (Without a passport, I cannot fly, check in at a hotel or, I’m told, buy a train ticket for so much as a day trip.) No problem! my handlers assured me; Immigration would furnish a piece of paper stating the permit was in progress and allowing me to travel. I had my doubts.

Off we trooped – another American, our student assistant and I – to wait 90 minutes in one department, then 40 more in another. I surrendered my passport; the assistant held onto our Foreign Expert Certificates to return to her office. (When I asked for mine, explaining that I had always had mine in Hunan, she said, “Different universities have different rules.”)

But that paper that would supposedly allow me to travel within mainland China did not materialize. For an extra 20 yuan ($3.50), I could have my passport and permit mailed; it might make it in five business days, but no promises. Five business days means next Wednesday – the last day before the country shuts down. “So there’s hope!” the student assistant said brightly. Sure, if you’re still young enough to believe in hope. Back home, as soon as I could connect to the Internet for more than five seconds, I canceled my booking. If the passport and my pay land in time, I may be able to get another one — if everything isn’t sold out.

It doesn’t matter, I tell myself. I’m already away. I can spend the time exploring Guangzhou. Five years ago I couldn’t wait to come here from Hunan for the Dragon Boat Festival.

I am lying. Well, one good lie deserves another.

What is this all really about: China’s centuries-old tradition of bureaucracy? Keeping everyone employed? Or, as a more seasoned American here stated flat out, control? To me it’s simply an exhausting (especially in 90-degree heat and 150 percent humidity), infuriating waste of time and energy that could be better spent – for example, on my students.

I’ve met one American teaching at this university who keeps coming back, another who’s been here 10 years, another five. Do they have to go through the same bureaucratic nightmare every time? And if so, why do they keep coming back? Something here must be worth it. I still think the work I’m doing is exactly what I should be doing at this stage in my life. I’m just not sure I should be doing it here.

3 thoughts on “Red tape

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