One Hell of a Long Day
First off before you start reading let me say that this was written the evening after it happened. Its long, real long but remember I spent a LONG time sitting in a police station in China so your getting a long write up but you don't have to go what I went through. :)
Some context. I am in China house hunting, we are relocating here in February for work with Amazon. My wife is recovering from some surgery so I took our good friend Shari Zollinger with me, we've known here for 20 years, she knows our kids very well and is fluent in Chinese so she was a big help.
Shari and I left Amazon's office at 10:30 am, me armed with a map with a couple of areas that Tu suggested we go look around. We flagged a taxi and headed to the first suggested area that is northwest of ChaoYang Park.
At 11:15 am I had the tax driver turn down a side street, there was an apartment complex that looked nice so I pulled out my small GoPro HD video camera and rolled down the window and started filming a video for Stac so she could get an idea and feel for the area. We came to the end of the street and it curved around to the right. On the left was a very interesting housing development. The houses had red tile roofs and were two stories tall, almost like an American suburb in California with some Italian architecture influences. We passed by a blue sign with Chinese writing in it, which neither Shari nor I could read. Shari and I both commented from the back of the taxi that this area looked very nice. So as we pulled up to the entrance of the housing area, we asked the taxi driver if he thought we could go into this area.
There were guards standing out in front of the entrance. This is not unusual in China at all. Almost every place you go from parking garages, to office buildings, to apartment complexes have "guard like" individuals and they all have a faux-military look to them wearing long coats and big hats. Most of them are just personal security for the establishment. These guys though were wearing brown army uniforms. When they saw I was holding a video camera they shook their head that this was not allowed and they came walking towards. I pulled the camera back in and turned it off.
They walked up to the window of the taxi and asked to see the video. Most video cameras that you use these days have an LCD screen on the back of them that will allow you to review the video. The GoPro though is a very small video camera, made primarily for sports like parasailing. It has a very wide angle on it though and since its so small I like taking video's with it. Since the camera had no lcd screen I said I couldn't show it to him. This didn't seem to please him. He was just a entry level soldier, (we'll call him the private) he called over an officer in a uniform, we'll call him nice-guy-with-glasses. Mr. nice-guy-with-glasses asked us some questions about what we were doing, why were taking video and asked to see the video. Shari tried to explain to him that we were on a house hunting trip and that she was helping me because she spoke better Chinese to have a look around at areas. We didn't know it was restricted and we were sorry. He then said to wait, he didn't know how to deal with this situation.
Then he called over his superior officer, I will call him mr-insignia for reasons that will become apparent later on in the story. We repeated the process of telling our story. This time when they asked to see the video they asked if I could show it to them on a computer. So I pulled out my laptop, removed the memory card from the camera and put it into the card reader and plugged it into the computer's USB port. The files of the movie opened and I showed them the video of me filming first the video complex and then the housing complex. The entire video was very short, maybe 5 minutes long. He did not seem pleased at all, and told us to wait. Back and forth with more military coming out and back. And then after about 15 minutes waiting a police car pulled up in front of the Taxi. A sinking feeling that the situation had just escalated came over me; Shari and I looked at each other and said effectively "uh oh". This would the first of many escalations and sinking feelings for what would be a very long afternoon.
A very heavy set policeman got out of the car, two young "lackeys", who did not wear guns but had PSB arm bands accompanied him. He came up the window, again asked what we were doing and Shari started into her story for at least the third time, he only listened to her for about 30 seconds and then walked away and consulted with the military guys. He then came back and asked bruskly for our ID. I dug out my passport from my backpack and gave it to him. He flipped through it and immediately looked at the visa. Shari had left her passport back in the room, so she pulled out her wallet and handed him her drivers license. He disdainfully almost threw it back at her and asked where was her passport and her visa. She explained she'd left it in the hotel. This did not sit well with him at all. He asked to see the video on the computer which was still sitting open on my lap. I showed him. More consultation with the military. Then he came back to the taxi window with my passport still in my hand, reached over and shut my laptop and took it from me. He handed it to one the lackey's and had him go sit in the front passenger seat of the taxi and told the taxi driver to follow him.
More sinking feelings washed over me that things were escalating and spiraling out of our control. A simple innocent action was turning to have what appeared to be grave consequences. The police car turned around and we followed him a few blocks and pulled up to the police station. We entered and they motioned for us to sit on some metal chairs. We had been stopped in front of the military housing complex at 11:30 and it was now high noon. Our Taxi driver was instructed to sit down and wait. Shortly after we sat down the three military guys also walked in : Mr. private, the officer nice-guy-with-glasses, and his superior officer mr-insignia.
The heavy set police officer took my passport and my laptop with mr-insignia military guy and headed behind the police counter (where several other officers sat) and headed behind closed doors. The heavy set police officer seemed done with our case and handed us off to another policeman. More conferring and more waiting and waiting. It was only 12:06 but it felt like time was dragging by, each minute an eternity. I was feeling quite nervous, but really trying hard to stay positive, to not show any fear and to sit relaxed and smile at everyone in the station. An air of pleasant innocence if you will. This "hand-off policeman" came over to where we were sitting and asked us the same question, why were we doing what we were doing, why were we taking video etc. He seemed to for the first time genuinely care about our story and listen to what we were saying. He disappeared into the back and we waited.
And so we waited. We sat in a large lobby of the police station, the entry way was in the middle of the room. Opposite the entry was a long counter behind which sat several police offices. Scanner boxes sat behind them and squawked occasionally with dispatches. The phone rang several times, and different people with grievances or in trouble came and went. On either side of the entryway were 6-7 metal benches that faced each other, a good 20 yards separated them. We sat on the left; alone. Everyone else gravitated to the other side facing us but never looking at us. The Private and the nice-guy-with-glasses officer sat on opposite of Shari and I, our taxi driver sat next to them. Mr-insignia paced back and forth. None of them would catch my eye and meet my gaze. We were tainted, anathema; unclean. Each time I caught their eye I would smile, but they would quickly avert their gaze. Things did not seem to be going well at all.
In hobbled a couple of older gentleman and sat on the bench next to Shari while they waited for a policeman to talk to them. They were friendly and asked Shari if she was cold. She had on pants that were "shortish" and hung 3-4 inches above her boots. She assured them she was quite warm because she had on heavy wool socks or tights. They showed us how they had on multiple layers, 2 pairs of pants, plus socks and two coats over a sweater and a shirt and undershirt. This conversation and interaction relaxed us a bit, someone finally treating us like normal human beings.
Suddenly The Private who was standing by the door, looked out the window and seemed to see someone approaching. A large car or van pulled up outside the station, through the window we could see that at least 5-6 military guys got out all dressed in officers uniforms. Immediately nice-guy-with-glasses stood up, as did his superior mr-insignia and the 6 military guys came sweeping into the room. They said in Chinese : "Are these the two people", Yes they others said. The new military guys briefly looked in our direction and then they all exited the lobby through a side door and were gone. Once again Shari and I reacted in shock as the situation took another escalating gyre. Could things get more serious? Our relaxed feeling vanished and fear, concern, tension and heavy worry returned.
I was quite nervous, but tried to appear again as calm as possible. I could feel myself shaking in the small of my back, almost like a little chill, slightly from the cold but mostly due to nerves. I had a Chinese cell phone that I had borrowed from a co-worker in Seattle that he had picked up on his last visit. I texted Tu that we had been taken to the police station. He kept calling me and calling me on the phone but I didn't feel comfortable talking in the lobby. Finally I answered, and he said he would call his friend who was a police office and call Amazon's corporate counsel. He texted me with her name and phone number. By now I was nervous enough that I called her and explained what was happening and asked what I should do. She said that just to wait and that we could call her if there were any problems. Well I pretty much felt at this point that things were a problem, but hung up frustrated.
Back to waiting, waiting, waiting. By this time it was around 1pm. I predicted to Shari that we wouldn't be getting out of there until 3pm. I felt positive enough to feel like things would eventually work out, though things to be progressing very very slowly. The phone rang at the desk and one of the officers said in Chinese : "Yes we have two American's here" And some other phrases that we couldn't hear and I didn't understand. In a few minutes yet ANOTHER police car pulled up and a new police officer got out of his car and came into the building. We hadn't seen anything of the 6 military officers since they arrived, though the Private, nice-guy-with-glasses and mr-insignia remained in the lobby. The new policeman, who I'll call mr-external-policeman, conferred with the other policeman and he went into the side door where the military had gone and we again waited and waited.
By this time I had to pee. Bad! But I am not really a "use-the-public-restroom-type of guy" and you could say that I have shy kidneys. In front of others I can't always feel relaxed or comfortable enough to urinate. I didn't want to ask to use the bathroom because I assumed they would accompany me and watch me pee. By now I also had waves of paranoia where I analyzed every little bit of information that you had exchanged with the police and officers. Would they think if I tried to go to the bathroom that I was pulling some dirty trick and trying to flush evidence down the drain? Would it look suspicious? So despite Shari's insistence that we ask them where the bathroom was I sat there in what was growing discomfort. One O-clock drug onto 1:30, when Shari asked what time it was sure that it was 2pm, I said no only 30 minutes has passed. And we commented on how time was passing so slowly, like molasses on a cold day.
Then suddenly, but in a very strange an ominous fashion by now, the situation escalated again. Another car pulled up outside the station, this time a large nice expensive foreign sedan, the exact details lost in the surreal abstractness that had come over me. A distinguished looking Chinese man in his mid-50's dressed in street clothes : slacks and a button down shirt wearing a nice long light brown coat, (mr-light-brown-coat man) came into the lobby with a woman in her 30s. The 5-6 military offices came out of the side door, they all glanced over at us, with phrase of "these are the two", mr-light-brown-coat man gave us a very small wry look and they all disappeared in the side door. Good grief what could these guys possibly be? My thought was initially that this was the general that lived in those military houses.
At this stage it was very very apparent that we had stumbled into a very bad situation. We had stepped on a land mind, completely unaware that our very innocent actions would lead us here. The surreality of it all crashed down heavily upon me, it felt like I was in the throws of a force and power that I had no influence upon; a system that perceived every little detail in the worst possible light. Shari had mentioned to someone that she had learned Chinese in Taiwan, would that damn us a suspects even more? My laptop that they took was protected by Amazon security. Would they try to exam the files and assume immediately that we were involved in spying. Thought after thought raced through my head in a very hectic and worried fashion.
Around this time, Shari and I discussed that it would probably be good to see if we could get someone from Amazon to come help us. She called over nice-guy-with-glasses and asked him if it would help if someone from my work came and answered questions. He said he was not sure. While he was talking to us, one of the 5-6 military guys came out of the side door. When he saw nice-guy-with-glasses talking to us he got angry with nice-guy-with-glasses and had him follow him outside (he was going out for a smoke). It definitely felt like we had got nice-guy-with-glasses into trouble by talking with him. When nice-guy-with-glasses came back into the lobby he again sat down across from us on the bench, but would no longer in our direction at all. Shari tried one more time to ask him a question and he said : go talk to the police not me.
Meanwhile Tu called back and said that his friend who was a policeman said that we should try to work through the company to have them attest to my identity and their introduction for me to China and if that didn't work to get a hold of the embassy. Tu was going to get a hold of the head of security at Amazon, that he thought he had also been a policeman before and see what we should do. Another 20 minutes passed and Tu texted me : He would be to the station soon. Hallelujah someone was coming to help. At first I had been very hesitant to involve Tu, I didn't want to cause him any trouble at all, but Shari kept repeating that we needed someone besides ourselves to represent us.
While waiting for Tu, mr-external-policeman came out and asked us to stand up and come with him. Stunned I got up and asked if he wanted both of us or just me. He said just me. I gave a worried glance at Shari, left my backpack on the bench and followed him into the side door where everyone else had gone and entered a private room. I told him in Chinese that my Chinese was not very good and I couldn't really speak it. That is ok he said we can speak Chinese - English. He then proceeded to ask me several questions all in English. What was I doing here? Who did I work for? What was their name? I wrote down http://www.amazon.cn and said this was the Chinese company and the American company was Amazon.com. I told him it was a website where you could buy books and many many other things. He seemed to think for a moment and asked if it was Jou Yo, I said yes : joyo.com. He asked me who Shari was, how did I know her, why was she here? I answered as I ever had : To help me look for housing because her Chinese was better than mine; that we were good friends who had know each other for 20 years. That we were just taking video so that we could show my wife back home about the apartments that we were looking for. He said Ok. I asked him what could I do to help him answer the questions he had. He walked me back out to the lobby and told me "just to wait"; he had me sit down and told Shari to follow him.
She came back after 5 minutes and she said that he was less concerned about her passport, she'd offered to have someone go retrieve it from the hotel, though he had asked for her room number and asked to see her room card, but was very curiuos about Shari and I's relationship. How did we know each other? Where did she work? How come she was able to speak such good Chinese. Then we just sat and waited and waited again. He came back out and asked her to follow him again and he repeated many of the same questions to her.
At this point it was around 2:30. Our poor taxi driver had been sitting here for two and half hours. When we'd arrived at the station the meter read 31 rmb and I paid him a 50 but this hardly made up for what was a long boring afternoon for him. He seemed resigned to have to stay but not visibly upset or agitated; a quiet acceptance that this was the way things were. Suddenly a ray of hope as Tu walked through the door and with him Mr-Amazon-Security-Man and another young Amazonian. The 5-6 military guys and mr-external-policeman came out to meet them, they asked Mr.-Amazon-Security-Man if they knew me and he said of course of course he is my colleague, even though I'd never met the man before. They seemed a bit satisfied with this and they exited the side door. Mr-Amazon-Security-Man introduced himself as in charge of the Security for Amazon Fulfillment Centers. He said not to worry that everything would be ok, that we had taken some video of a very sensitive military place and that they were trying to figure out how to handle things. In a few minutes he and Tu were called through the side door and we sat with the young Amazonian who said he worked for Mr-Amazon-Security-Man. For the first time I felt like things might be coming to a resolution that would work out fine. I felt a ray of hope and I began to feel less worried.
Then mr-external-policeman came back out from the side door with Mr-Amazon-Security-Man and Tu and motioned for me to follow him. He left me in the room with Mr-Amazon-Security-Man and all 5-6 military men, mr-light-brown-coat and his female companion were not to be seen. One of the 5-6 military man, who I'll call mr-5-6-military-man-in-charge asked me a series of questions again about what we were doing and why were taking video, Mr-Amazon-Security-Man translated as I stood as serenely as possible and carefully and nicely explained the story for the 11 or 12th time. They brought in my laptop and they asked me to show them the video. They had me play the 7-8 videos on the card playing from the card reader. There were 6-7 shots of me taking video from the airplane window as we flew to Beijing and finally there was the very short clip of me filming the military housing complex. They had me rewind the clip several times as we panned across the blue sign with Chinese writing and pulled up in front of the guarded entrance. One of the 5-6 military man asked me why again I was taking the video and I assured him only to show my wife. "For no other reason?", no none at all I replied. I said I would never have done this very simple thing if I thought I would be here 3 hours later.
Then mr-light-brown-coat and his female companion entered and mr-light-brown-coat man approached mr-5-6-military-man-in-charge, mr-5-6-military-man-in-charge in a very friendly and familiar manner put his arm around mr-light-brown-coat shoulders who in turn leaned in to quietly speak to him. Mr-5-6-military-man-in-charge motioned to mr-light-brown-coat that they should talk outside the room. And so I and Mr-Amazon-Security-Man were left standing among 5 other military men. No policeman were present at all. My laptop sat on the table in front of me the clip paused on the guarded military station. Things were a bit awkward, but the tension seemed diffused. A few minutes later mr-5-6-military-man-in-charge came back in and said that they wanted a copy of the video. I told him through Mr-Amazon-Security-Man that he could have the memory card, I didn't want it or need it. He said no this would not be possible, but with a friendly demeanor.
The 5-6 military men discussed where to get a memory stick, and they said they might have to go buy one at the shopping store across the street. Suddenly one of military guys came into the room with a green memory stick. I plugged it into the back of the lap top and copied the video file. I then told them I would delete my copy of the clip. They watched while I deleted it and emptied the recycling bin. They then explained in the presence of mr-light-brown-coat and his female companion that they would prepare a report that said I had taped a sensitive military location, I would be asked to sign the report and we would be released! Then mr-light-brown-coat and mr-5-6-military-man-in-charge left the room while one of the 5-6 military men took an official red stamped piece of paper and began writing a report. Finally it felt like everything was going to work out fine.
After finishing the report, mr-5-6-military-man-in-charge came back in alone and gave me a friendly toned lecture that I needed to be able to read Chinese signs, particularly the ones that said forbidden to take photos. He then said that everything was resolved, that I was still very welcome to come to Beijing and he apologized for the length time it had taken to get matters resolved, but that they had to follow procedure. He was very nice, he and every other one, including myself was now smiling. I in a very relieved. In a conciliatory but sincere fashion told him that I appreciated his apology that I was sorry that I had also taken up so much of their time, that I was very sorry for what I had done, that I had no wrong intentions that it was very innocent act and that I still felt good about coming to Beijing. And despite everything; despite the nerves, and the shaking and the worry and the roller coaster of fear and emotion that I had been experiencing for the past 3 hours; despite at several points during the waiting swearing to myself there was no way in hell that I would ever bring me or my family to such a totalitarian and authoritative state : I really really felt his genuine apology and the feeling that the misunderstanding was over and that all was ok. It was a definite sense that things had needless gotten a bit out of hand. He and Mr-Amazon-Security-Man though did say, that surely I must understand that there were places in America where the same thing could happen, and I said yes if some strange foreigner was video taping suspiciously outside, say the private residence of President Obama that there would also be questioning and scrutiny.
Finally with a great sense of relief, they gave me back my laptop and my video camera and I and Mr-Amazon-Security-Man returned to the lobby. I quickly told Shari that all was resolved. And immediately following me were the entire cabal of military men existing through the lobby. All of them, who wouldn't look at me in the eye previously, were genuinely friendly and smiled and made eye contact and said good bye. I returned their goodbyes and said thank you and honestly I felt no remorse, just a great sense of gratitude to Tu, Mr-Amazon-Security-Man and that the misunderstanding had been resolved. After they left I asked Mr-Amazon-Security-Man if I could get my passport, he walked over to the Mr-External-Policeman who said that the military were satisfied but that he was not! He still wanted someone from Amazon to certify that they had invited me to work in the country. I went through my mailbox on my iPhone and found the name and phone number of the 3rd party visa logistic partner who possessed the Amazon Seattle corporate HR letter of recommendation and Mr-Amazon-Security-Man called her mobile and spoke with her.
Mr-External-Policeman was insistent that she come with the letter. So we waited again, but this time cheerfully and resignedly that this would soon be completely resolved. I was about to pee my pants by now and asked if we could use the restroom. Mr. young-Amazonian took us through the side door where everyone including us had ominously gone before, down the hallway to the bathroom where we Shari and I both relieved ourselves. We came back to the lobby and in a minute or two mr-external-policeman called Mr-Amazon-Security-Man over and consulted with him again. Mr-Amazon-Security-Man came back and said we were free to go, mr-external-policeman had talked to the 3rd party visa logistic partner on the phone and was satisfied.
Gladly, happily we exited the police station. I thanked Mr-Amazon-Security-Man over and over and he said happily "no problem" it was his job and he was glad to help but that he had to go to the Fulfillment Center and he needed to leave right away. We said our goodbyes and we left with Tu to go get some food. Whew. A quick couple of facts that Tu told us in the car.
mr-external-policeman : was a policeman from another bureau who was in charge of immigration issues, he really wanted to talk to the Amazon visa people to scold them for not taking better care of me, in letting me and Shari go out alone. (go figure)
mr-light-brown-coat and his female companion : were National Security, the Chinese equivalent of the CIA. WOW.
And that mr-5-6-military-man-in-charge was a Colonel, two levels below a general. And that more than likely what we had filmed was a very important general's home. We had had the very very unfortunate experience of video taping the wrong house.
Tu drove us away, it was 3pm, my prediction was right. We'd looked for houses for 5 minutes and spent three and a half hours with over at least 15 military guys, 4 different policeman and two members of Chinese CIA. And as Mr-Amazon-Security-Man said jokingly it would make for a very interesting story.
But the day was not yet over.... :)
Tu took us to a restaurant to get a light bite to eat since Shari and I had missed lunch. We had a couple of small dishes, some dumplings, some crispy skinned pork belly and Shari had some congee. We relished in the comfort food, but didn't eat too much as in a scant 3.5 hours we had dinner reservations to go eat roast duck at DaDong, the reputedly best Peking Duck in Beijing.
Tu then took us to go see FuLi Cheng or FuLi City a large apartment complex that was very near Beijing City International School. It was known to be quiet, safe with a nice interior area away from crowded streets with nice shops etc. We drove into the underground parking lot. We walked up the stairs and into the interior of the complex surrounded by many apartment high rises. Tu saw a phone number in the window of one apartment, called them. A real estate agent stuck his head out and he agreed to show us around. We waited (yet again but not with any trepidation this time :) ) for his colleague. They took to show us 3 different apartments in a couple of different sections.
One was on the 27th floor with fantastic views of the setting sun. It was only 3 bedrooms and about 147 square meters, it was pretty small but was only 8000 RMB a month. And the views were to die for.
One was on the 6th floor of another building, it was 240 square meters with 4 bedrooms, 2 kitchen areas, one to prep in with a sink and another adjacent room to cook in, with a very super small additional "nanny bed" for maid/caretaker and a washer/dryer area. There was a large kitchen table in the preparation kitchen. Next to that was a very large living room and across from it was a sitting room where you could read or do exercise. There were 4 other bedrooms besides all these rooms. It was very nice and rented for 19,000 RMB a month.
The final one was 208 square meters it had 3-4 bedrooms was on the 6th floor and was not quite as large and neither Shari or I liked it too much, especially the very ornate overly designed faux-french decorations. We liked the other two, and the neighborhood/area. Lots of people, walking kids and dogs, lots of shops and quiet.
We then left to drive to DaDong to meet a fellow Amazon co-worker. Tu was driving Shari and I. He said it would take us 40 minutes or so because the traffic was so bad. Around 10 minutes into the ride, Shari pulled out an altoid and offered me one. I took it and said that all of a sudden my stomach was really really rumbling, and I felt weak and sick. She exclaimed me too, I started feeling it like 10 minutes ago. My stomach was major gurgling and I had this overwhelming sensation of low lying nausea and a sense of dread that I would for sure be throwing up. Gurgle, gurgle, rumble, rumble. Off and on the waves of stomach nausea came and went and we kept driving on and on through traffic. Tu commented on how bad the traffic was, this was not normal and he pointed out how many buses were backed up on the parallel side roads. Finally after 40 minutes, with me dozing in and out of nauseous sleep, sometimes a little better but never really super worse we got to DaDong, we parked downstairs. I got out of the car and I just knew I was NOT going to be able to make it through dinner. Tu took one look at my face and said, lets go back home you look sick, do you need to go to the hospital? I said no that would not be necessary at all, I just felt sick. Off and on as we drove I drifted and dozed very lightly (I'd woke up at 3:30 that morning). Here I'd gone from such excitement to be out house hunting to the low low lows of the police station to being excited at the apartments we'd seen, to feeling just sick and miserable. What a day and a half. Whew. :( So finally we got back to our hotel and Shari and I apologize and thanked Tu for all he had done and we made our way to the elevator.
In my room after a few minutes in the bathroom, not throwing up, I felt 100% better and about 90% of normal with no feeling like I was going to vomit any more. Yeah! Shari knocked on my door and brought me over some calming lavender tea to drink before bed and I spent the next 90 minutes writing up this experience.
Several days later as I post this I've seen over 20 different apartments. I've taken giga-bytes of video of houses and apartments and hundreds of photos and not been arrested or questioned once. :) I realize now that I'd been very very unlucky a one-in-a-million bad encounter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A very innocent accident with a super small video camera with no LCD playback had spun out of control but in the end been resolved fine. As Shari said, other than not happening, it really couldn't have turned out better. I lost nothing and we weren't fined at all. And yes I am still moving to Beijing.