It’s not everyday your passport is confiscated by a small scary Chinese policeman…
The year was 2008. At the time I was barely twenty years old, barely able to call myself an adult, and barely able to assemble an outfit that didn’t make me look like an ambiguous teenager from the 90s. I’d just completed my undergraduate degree, a bachelor of arts majoring in Mandarin and International Relations, and as most arts graduates before me I was beginning to understand that there were absolutely no opportunities available to me in my country. After a series of fortunate events and solid arts graduate ambition, I had somehow managed to find myself in a tiny rural Chinese town teaching English to large classes of middle school students.
The town was Tiantai, a rural town I call small in the context of China, but a city that would probably be considered regular sized in the rest of the world. Tiantai is in Zhejiang province, about a four hour drive from the capital city Hangzhou, which itself is about an hour away from Shanghai. Before the arrival of myself and my best friend, the town boasted two other foreigners — A filipino lady named Jo and a Canadian man named Felix. Basically, we were very noticeable awkward Australians.
I taught at a fine institution known as Tiantai Foreign Language School and I lived on campus in a small apartment with my best friend that was also teaching. The apartment was given to us rent free and the school also provided three meals a day free of charge in the canteen. On top of all of this frivolous ‘free-ness’ they also gave us 2000RMB a month just to have, or to spend on whatever we desired.
My job was ridiculously easy. I taught about eight classes a week of conversational English to classes of middle school students. Students that actually wanted to learn english and loved class. Motivated, enthusiastic students that were terrifically excited to have one of the four foreigners in town teach them. I’m not even sure I could call it work — it was essentially just going to a classroom to have fun every day. Regardless of what it was, to all outside viewers it appeared that I was employed by a Chinese school to teach their children the beautiful English language with which I was blessed to know fluently.
How I had come to be in this situation was the result of a stock standard TESOL course provided by a miscellaneous college type institution in my home town of Brisbane in Australia. The course was a cheap, easy, garden variety course that spat me out with a diploma and the promise of practical teaching experience in China. According to my college I was undertaking ‘work experience’ at my school. The fact that the school provided me accommodation, food, and a small allowance was simply because they were nice and thankful for my service. Which is completely true. However, that’s not how it appeared on the other side. Which is completely fair.
After about two weeks of teaching I had begun to sink into a routine that I thought was going quite well. On one particular afternoon as I was sitting in my office preparing for my afternoon class of grade seven middle school kids, when I was informed by my teaching colleague that I was required in the principles office. I was told I had to go immediately with my passport and that someone would cover my afternoon class. My best friend Angie was told the same. We honestly had no idea what to expect but we obliged. I only considered bad things.
We were greeted by the deputy principle, some other teaching colleagues, and several police officers. Our teaching colleagues politely interpreted for us as our Mandarin was quite terrible and the locals in this town spoke a dialect that was incomprehensible to us. A small powerful looking police officer asked to see our passports. He inspected them carefully for several minutes then put them inside his briefcase and left. Now I know the most outrageous part of this sentence was that the policeman carried a briefcase…but let’s also remember he left the room WITH OUR PASSPORTS.
At this point, as you would imagine, alarm bells were ringing. Our questions were not being answered and instead we were told we were required to go with him to the police station. There was no real choice here, they had our passports afterall. When you’re overseas, that’s almost like confiscating your first born.
At the police station my bestie and I were separated and taken into different interrogation rooms. Luckily one of my colleagues was allowed to come with me to interpret, but my poor friend had to go alone and have another police officer interpret for her. A terrifying situation. In the interrogation room I was asked several questions about my intentions in china, how I had got there, how much money I had, what I planned to do, and when I going home. I was asked the questions harshly. The situation was not exactly scary, but it was ridiculously strange and upsetting. Especially because at this point there was no sign of my passport.
After about an hour of questions, another hour or so of just waiting, the principle of our school arrived at the station. This man was somewhat of a legend. He was highly respected, he was treated like royalty, he was almost a celebrity. He walked into the police station, straight to the small scary Chinese man that had our passports and greeted him like a good friend. They spoke briefly but within seconds we had our passports returned and were allowed to leave. That my friends, was a classic example of the Chinese cultural phenomenon known as ‘Guan xi’ or ‘good relations’.
(in China) the system of social networks and influential relationships which facilitate business and other dealings.
After all that my bestie and I left the police station gripping our passports tightly and feeling relief. Our Canadian friend Felix was waiting outside to pick us up. We got into the car and explained the traumatic events of the afternoon to him, realising on reflection that we had actually just witnessed some of the coolest facets of Chinese culture up close and very personally. Our friend Felix invited us to the Daoist temple he worshipped at. It wasn’t far, perhaps a half hour drive up a shifty road on a mountain just at the end of the town. We agreed, because really at this stage, how could we not?
When we arrived at the temple it was early evening and our friend Felix took us on a quick tour around and told us a little about Daoist traditions and worshipping. I distinctly remember there were fireflies in the gardens of the temple, which brightened my day completely. We met the master of the temple and he told us a profound story. I feel like that’s possibly the job of temple masters — to say profound things to people they meet. Whatever the profound story was I can’t recall, but it was something about brewing tea with cold water versus hot water. You’ll have to believe me that it was profound.
To end the day we had dinner with the monks of the temple and they practiced their English with us. It was a delightfully heartwarming end to an eventful afternoon. Our friend Felix drove us back down the mountain to our school and we went home. The next day we got up and went back to our regular routine. This time with a little bit more experience and perspective.
I can’t help but remember this story now as a fond memory, even though I know at the time I wasn’t fond of the situation. It may have been the first experience that made me realise that one of the greatest rewards and luxuries of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is familiar or taken for granted. Watching the two men use the Chinese system of Guanxi in such a real exchange was an experience I’ll never forget. This is something I had read about, studied, and learnt, but had never seen until that point. It was one of the first times I had seen in real life something that is such a basic and simple part of Chinese culture.
If all this could happen in one afternoon, it makes me think — the world is a book and those that do not travel read only a page. I will end with one more inspirational/cliche quote; Life begins at the end of your comfort zone, go forth and be uncomfortable!