I’ve just returned from 5 days offline and out of Suzhou – two things I’m generally quite adverse to subjecting myself to. It was rather refreshing.
As the last time I got my visa in Suzhou the woman told us in no uncertain terms not to come back, Mags and I knew we’d be heading to Dalian this month when my visa expired. Any trip to Dalian is generally a welcomed one for Maggie, as it means she can visit with her family. For me it means squirming through uncomfortable Chinese conversations with my inlaws, and getting drunk with old Dalian friends.
We flew in on Wednesday and went straight out to Jinzhou, Maggie’s hometown about 20km outside of Dalian. After dropping off our bags we headed directly to the Jinzhou police station.
Though you’re supposed to register with the local police station within 24 hours of arriving anywhere in China, this was the first time I adhered to the rule – and with good reason. The first step to securing a visa in China is obtaining a sheet of paper from the local (and sometimes district) police station confirming that it’s cool with them if you hang out in the area.
You’ve got to love small towns. We had forgotten to photocopy something, and with the station’s photocopy room closed for the day the cop drove us down to a copy shop.
We were on a pretty tight schedule to get things done, as it was late Wednesday and that left only Thursday and Friday to complete the visa process before the weekend hit (I needed to leave on Sunday to get back for Monday). Happily the officer was quite intrigued that this small-town girl had hooked herself a foreigner and had brought him into their tiny district, and the whole process was the most congenial of any such visit I’ve had to make to a police station here in China.
Stopping to pick up a DVD player for Maggie’s parents. My, somewhat misguided, attempt to give them a nice gift. I’m sure that it’ll be gathering dust beside the microwave in the spareroom in a matter of days.
Back at the apartment we sat down to a banquet-sized dinner of seafood – a ritual everytime Maggie returns to her sea-side home after living with the land-dwellers of the south. A love for seafood is something I share with my wife, so I was not disappointed.
Day Two: 110
Having stayed up virtually the night before we left trying to get work done, I was happy to lie in a bit Thursday morning – quite contrary to the 5:30am rising of my inlaws.
Eventually we wandered our way into Dalian. Not being certain when the PSB takes their lunch, we decided to browse around Victory Square and grab a bite before heading over to the visa office.
It’s amazing how familiar Dalian is to me, even after having not lived there for more than two years now. There are certainly a lot of aspects about Suzhou that I am more familiar with (namely bars and restaurants), but when it comes to shopping, for whatever reason, I can navigate Dalian like a champ.
After a big plate of málàtāng we grabbed a cab to the PSB. Picky cabs are rare in Suzhou, so I was a bit thrown off when after giving the cabbie the address he said he couldn’t take us. He tried to lay some lame excuse about traffic on us, but we knew it was just because our destination was within the 8RMB base fare. Fuck that. I refused to get out of the cab. He took us. Asshole.
Interestingly enough – not the biggest asshole cabbie of the day. But more on that in a moment.
We got to the PSB and dutifully took our number. After waiting for 30-40 minutes, our turn came and we approached the visa officer. Very kindly (a drastic change from our experiences at the Suzhou visa office) the officer explained that we were at the wrong PSB – Jinzhou-based applications had to go to kāifāqū, Dalian’s shiny tax-free development zone – roughly the same distance from Dalian as Jinzhou. Sigh.
A bit bothered that we had wasted so much time, we were still in high spirits of finishing the visa process that day. It was only 2pm, leaving us plenty of time to get up to kāifāqū. We grabbed a cab and headed for the light rail station.
Arriving at the light rail station I was getting out of the cab, crossing over the backseat so as not to exit into traffic, and my foot hit the dirty plastic cover encasing the car’s emergency break. Apologizing , I continued to get out of the taxi.
And that’s when it all went to shit. The taxi driver jumped out of the cab and began yelling at us, accusing me of accosting his rust-eaten, early 90s model Santana. Not believing I could have done any “real” damage, I tried to ignore the driver and cross the road, but he wasn’t having any of it.
He yelled at us to come back, which – being the stupid whelps we are – we did. We listened to him bitch about how I maliciously, and with full-force intention kicked (he kicked the air for effect) the plastic cover and snapped it completely off. To prove his point he went back into the car and, with some effort, yanked the piece off.
Now, with a crowd starting to gather, he clearly illustrated where I had broken it – at the front of the piece of plastic. From the back seat. Where I hardly had room to move, never mind leverage to cause damage.
Not wanting to stand in the middle of the street, I moved us over to the sidewalk – unintentionally giving the mob more room to grow. Maggie, bless her heart, said to hell with all this and called 110, the Dalian police department. She explained the situation to the dispatch woman, emphasizing that the the taxi driver wouldn’t let her or her foreigner husband leave.
The cops showed up, the man showed them the tiny plastic tab (one of six that held the piece in place) that he was accusing me of having broken. You could almost hear the cop’s smirk. Looking to solve this stupid situation as fast as possible the cop asked the guy what the thing was worth. The cabbie feigned that he didn’t know and had to call a friend.
A minute or so later he came back and said it was about 20 RMB.
20 RMB. I don’t know who thought the guy was a bigger idiot – me, the crowd, or the cop. The cop deemed that if it was worth 20 RMB new it must be worth 10 RMB used and proposed that I pay the 10 RMB – tacking on that if we disagreed, we’d be solving things downtown.
Of course I paid it. I would have paid 20 RMB just to have not had to waste my time. But, of course, that’s not what this was about. Fortunately Maggie’s calling of the cops killed the cabbie’s quick con, where, through the course of arguing with us in public he was intending to extort a much greater sum.
Now 3pm we hopped on the light rail and headed for kāifāqū. Time was getting tight, but we were still confident we would make it well before 4:30-5pm – the time in which we assumed the office closed.
It was with the resigned chuckle of two people who’d had a hell of a day that we read the “Due to a meeting today, the Foreign Visa Window will be closed at 3:30pm” sign. It was 3:40.
We headed back to Jinzhou – heads low and utterly defeated.
Adventures in Korean
To lift our (my) spirits, we took Maggie’s parents out for dinner. During the time in which I lived in Jinzhou I came to love a tiny Korean restaurant, and Maggie thought it’d be nice to take them there.
I stunned me that despite Dalian, and the North East in general, having a huge Korean population, Maggie’s parents had lived more than half a century and not ever tried Korean food.
Fortunately, her father, not unlike myself, is entirely carnivorous and so BBQ’d meat wasn’t too difficult a sell. Her mother couldn’t stop asking Maggie in hushed voices, “So, this is really what they eat?”
Day 3: Visas, Brooklyn and Meatloaf
Fortunately the second time was a charm. We returned to the visa office bright and early and relatively smoothly were given a 1 year, multiple entry, infinitely renewable visa. Maggie explained the troubles we went through trying to get the visa in Suzhou, and how rude the visa officer was to us both. With that the visa officer turned to me and (in English) said, “Welcome” and then in Chinese called me a “son-in-law” of Dalian.
I can see why people hate moving away from their hometowns in this country.
Later that day we headed into Dalian. I had plans to meet up with Rick and Alex at the electronic city, where I hoped to pick up a Sony Playstation Portable for my 24 hour train ride back to Suzhou on Sunday.
Late to arrive, Rick and Alex had done 80% of the PSP hunting for me, even going so far as to source out who seemed like the best vendor (great guys, them). After a bit of haggling I secured the coolest toy I’ve owned in a while.
On top of the 8 GB of movies, music and video games I can slap onto it, it also has a built-in wifi card that I can connect and browse the Internet with. I even went so far as to pickup the cables so I can hook ‘er up to the TV – allowing me to stream video from my PC hard drive, over the wifi, through the PSP and onto my TV in the other room. Too cool.
From the electronic city we headed up the road and hit Brooklyn, a relatively new bar/eatery that Rick had been raving about during his visit to Suzhou the week before. The place had me at cheap cold Dalian gānpí and reasonably priced bacon-wrapped meatloaf.
Day 4: Hand-made dumplings, farewell to Jinzhou and one horny fucking dog
Saturday night I had arranged to crash at Rick’s to allow for an easy jump to the train station the following day, and the ability to go out and not have to worry about catching the last train back to Jinzhou that night.
For lunch Maggie’s mom, Maggie and I made dumplings from scratch – something I’ve had rather few opportunities to do (it’s up there with speaking Chinese and playing mahjong as things I should know by now). The dumplings were admittedly better than the frozen ones I usually eat, but a helluva lot of work.
We got to Rick’s early in the evening and finally met his famous dog: Pepe Q-Tip. I’ve never met a dog so excited to see me. He didn’t stop humping things nearly the entire time we were there. Rick, a man with a sense of humour, bought Pepe a giant inflatable hammer that he can pleasure himself with. It squeaks. Fecking hilarious. (and he’s available ladies)
Tearing ourselves away from the infinitely entertaining Mr. Q-Tip, we hit up a great (and cheap) little Japanese BBQ place where we were met by more friends: Devon and a kiwi named Nick.
After dinner I said my goodbyes to Maggie – as she had to catch a train back to Jinzhou and so couldn’t join us on our trip to the bar. We hit up Noah’s, the first bar I ever went to in Dalian, which has barely changed at all.
It’s funny how perspectives change over time. I remember I used to think that Noah’s was a bit pricey (when compared to 2RMB fake beers at the chuar stand), but now looking at their prices, it’s easily 10 RMB cheaper there for a pint of Carlsberg than it is at the cheapest bars here in Suzhou.
But it’s not just the location, I guess it’s also my station in life that’s changed. When I lived in Dalian I was a poorly paid ESL teacher, and every RMB counted. Now, I’m by no means well-off, but certainly doing better than I was in those days – making 10 RMB here or there not such an issue.
Still, it made the copious zài lái‘s all the sweeter.
Day 5: A day on the train
After a alcohol induced sleep, broken only once when I woke up to find Pepe Q-Tip snuggled up against me on the couch staring me right in the face, Rick and I headed out for some breakfast. We met up with a friend of his, Tom, that graciously filled up my PSP with some games for my journey ahead.
Then I got on the train. And nearly exactly one day later, I got off. Fuck it was long. I had done the trip before, but it was with Maggie and so much more entertaining. In fact, other than an occasional “damn” or “yes!” while playing my PSP, I didn’t say a word for 24 hours.
With only limited seating available when we bought the tickets, I was confined to the top bunk in the sleeper train, and I only removed myself from it 3 times the entire journey. I likely wouldn’t have moved at all had it not been for the 6 pack of Qingdao beer my mother-in-law insisted I take with me. Bless her heart.
So, home now. It’s great to be back and great to see Addie again. Maggie and I filled a lot of time up in Dalian joking about what she was up to back here in Suzhou.
It’s also great to be back online. Contrary to what I thought would happen, I didn’t start twitching when I pulled out the plug for 5 days. Still, nice to be reconnected.
This is Maggie’s dog “mao mao” – I know she wasn’t mentioned in this extremely long post, but I couldn’t resist including the picture. The dog is as round as a ball. Seriously, fattest little dog I’ve ever seen.