On Friday 15th of August at 1:30 I decided to put all of my clothes except for the ones I was wearing into the 24 hour laundry round the corner. This may appear to a random remark with no relevance to anything but all will become clear later.
I've had the week from hell and it began a few months ago. It all started when I decided that I would quite like to go home to England for the summer but would need to have a summer job to pay for it. I've taught for many summers at a summer school in Harrow and applied to do it again this year. Now, for those who don't know, if you teach in England you have to have what used to be called CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) checks and are now called DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) checks. These are to ensure that you have no criminal record that would stop you working with children. Unfortunately, if you work overseas, part of this is that you must also have the local equivalent. China, where I work, doesn't have a local equivalent. The school in England went to a great deal of trouble to help me with this and I also went to a great deal of trouble to arrange a letter from the Chinese authorities that would act in place of such a document. I gave my passport to the police who kept it for over a month but eventually returned it with a letter. In that time I had been corresponding with the school to arrange things. On the same day that I got the passport back I got the news that the Chinese authorities had, yet again, changed the visa process.
I need to digress for a moment and explain about visas. To work in China you are supposed to have something called a residency permit but that's only issuable in the city where you are working. To qualify for the permit you need to already have a Z-visa which is valid for thirty days and gets converted to the permit. Once it's been converted the theory is that the residency permit can be renewed indefinitely without needing to get a new visa. This renewal has to take place a month before your old permit expires but generally takes about a week to accomplish.
Or so it has in the past. The new rule was that in order to get the renewal you must turn over your passport to the authorities for twenty days during which you will be given a receipt that, in their words, “will act like a passport for identification within mainland China but will not permit you to leave the country.” This meant that I would be unable to go to England. I wasn't very pleased by this and the school I was to go to even less so. They told me that they will not consider employing me again as long as I am resident in China.
Here's where it starts to get complicated. Pay attention there may be a quiz.
My existing permit, for Baiyin – a city in Gansu – expired a week before my teaching was due to finish. A few days after my teaching finished I was due to fly to my new home in Yangshuo. So a month before it expired I handed my passport in to get a one week extension that would give me time to get to Yangshuo and hand it in again. As days went by I became increasingly nervous. I didn't want to try to fly leaving passport behind. Finally, on the evening before I was due to fly, my administrator returned my passport with a visa that had (for no reason I could fathom) been extended for four weeks. I flew to Yangshuo.
In Yangshuo first of all I had to go for medical checks and having passed those I was sent to the PSB (Public Security Bureau) in Yangshuo where a very belligerent policeman questioned my at length about where I would be living in the city (I don't know yet), who was my contact at the school (I don't know yet), how I had got the job there in the first place (I know but had been instructed not to say because it would cause “complications”), why I had left my previous school (I told him) and where was my document from the school permitting me to leave (I didn't have one).
He told me to go away and return when I could provide answers.
The next day someone else went on my behalf and somehow answered all the questions. However I was instructed that I needed to visit the PSB in Guilin so the next day I went to Guiln and handed in my passport. In return a piece of paper saying they would return it twenty days later.
Twenty days passed during which I did, not without some difficulties, travel around China using the document I had been given.
I returned to Yangshuo and on 15th August at 2:30 my passport was returned to me. For whatever reason – incompetence, bloody-mindedness, Satanic evil or just because they could – they had issued an extension that expired THAT DAY at Midnight after which I would be illegally in China. My company said I would have to go to Hong Kong and get a new visa.
Remember what I'd done at 1:30?
That's right, I had no clothes at all except the ones I was standing up in. I told you the relevance would become clear. Nevertheless, and over my protestations that I would arrive at the border AFTER the visa expired, I was placed on a bus going to the border town of Shezhen.
I arrived at the border nine hours after the visa expired. Unsurprisingly they noticed and detained me. I was kept for about four hours after which I had to sign a document which was written entirely in Chinese except for the single, rather ominous, sentence, “I admit to the above crimes”.
Now, to back track for a moment, I had been told to make my way to Tsim Sha Tsui where, at Chungking Mansions I would be able to find a room for about 150 Hong Kong Dollars a night. The trouble was I couldn't find a room. At any price. Chungking is a huge rabbit warren of a building filled with hostel businesses and because it was a summer holiday weekend every single one of them was full. Outside touts were offering rooms for anything up to 1800 HKD. Eventually, despairing of ever finding anywhere, I met a guy in one of the hostels who spoke fluent Cantonese and had negotiated a room for 600. They had another room and after some haggling on the phone my company said they would pay 600. I checked in for the night.
It was Saturday and I couldn't do anything about the visa until Monday. On Sunday, with my new friend's help, I located another hostel in another district for 450 HKD and moved.
On Monday I went to the Visa agency that had been suggested. The took one look at my “I admit to the above crimes” document and refused to apply for my visa. They told me I had to go to the Chinese embassy. My new friend agreed to accompany me.
At the embassy, after filling in forms and queuing for a long time I went to one of the visa windows where the lady took one look at my “I admit to the above crimes” document and told me I must go home to England and apply from there. My friend interceded in Cantonese, explaining the circumstances of my overstay and with visible reluctance she agreed to process my visa and told me to come back on Thursday.
From then on things went relatively well. I booked a flight for Friday, picked up my passport (with only a thirty day Z-visa, but at least it got me back into China) and made it back to Yangshuo on Friday night where I picked up my clothes and changed into something clean for the first time in a week.
Of course, at the moment, I still don't have a residency permit, just a thirty day single entry visa. I am hoping that nothing else extends my week from hell. The three months that it's lasted so far is quite enough for me.