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Another Night With the Cops

Note: While this will be posted November 15th, it actually concerns events that happened a few weeks ago.

After a long day of biking nearly 100km through the mountains, checking on the status of train tickets, and conducting an exhaustive luguan (cheap hotel) search, we gathered around the steps of the one we had selected in the small but dusty city of Jingdezhen. Our legs ached. Night had fallen half an hour earlier and the bustling streets filled with food vendors reminded us we had yet to eat. We all anticipated getting our equipment hauled up the narrow stairs, ourselves showered, and digging into a Chinese feast.

As usual a crowd of curious onlookers had gathered around where we were marshaling our material in front of the luguan in preparation for bringing it upstairs. People politely stood off to the side, looking and sometimes trying to speak to us in order to determine who these strange-looking folks with loads of odd equipment were and why they would ever choose to come to such a place as Jingdezhen. We answered questions as we unpacked, but suddenly one large, aggressive man in a nylon warm-up suit with buzzed hair broke through the crowd and confronted Drew. He stood close-by and bellowed“Where are you from, where are you from? What are you doing here? What are you doing?” so loudly that his voice resembled the horns of one of the many cars trying to get through the traffic jam we involuntarily cause every time we stop. He continued yelling when Drew, busy with un-attaching his bags, paid him no mind. I had half a mind to brusquely step in front of him and inquire if screaming was his idea of being polite. But no matter, he soon strode off, talking on his cell phone, and we managed to load up the rest of the luggage.

When I came down to pay for the room, I found the man in the warm-up suit and buzzed hair sitting with the boss. I gave the money we’d agree to pay to the boss, who gave it to the buzz cut, who gave it back to the boss, who gave it back to me. “Wait a moment,” said the boss, “you can pay after you register.” Great, I thought. Registering at hotels in China is required by law for every person each night they stay in a hotel, just like it’s required that every computer user at an internet bar register with their personal identification card number. Usually innkeepers don’t require foreigners to register, but sometimes it turns in to an exhaustive process where other parties are summoned to do the registering, multiple records are created for each person, and a copy of everyone’s documents are made. My worst fear (the cops themselves coming) evoked when the innkeeper told me to wait for someone else to come.

I sat down with the innkeeper and the buzzcut and waited. Soon a man with black slacks, a white button-down shirt, a high quality leather jacket, and the ubiquitous man purse toted by most Chinese middle-upper class men. He came in and sat down, and everyone else stood up. “Can I see your passport?” asked the man. “You are…” I prompted him, and he pulled out his police I.D. card. Outstanding. I produced my passport, and the man examined it. In the meantime the innkeeper whispered something to his 14 year old daughter, who rummaged through a box and brought out an unopened case of cigarettes. She opened them and handed one full pack towards the police officer, but her father snatched it away. He opened it up, knocked one cigarette half out of the pack, and offered it himself to the police officer, who accepted it.

“Why don’t we go to your room?” said the officer, to me. “This place is alright,” I said, indicating our current surroundings. “No, it’s ok,” said the officer, “it’s not a problem, let’s go to your room.” So we climbed the stairs and went to my room, where he told me I could sit down. “You sit down,” said I. He stood and examined my passport.

“Foreigners can’t stay here,” he said. The buzz cut entered our room, smoking a cigarette, and sat down on the bed. “What isn’t safe?” I inquired of the leather jacketed officer. “Your foreigners,” buzz cut broke in, “you’ll go out and people will know your not Chinese.” “So what?” asked I. “It’s not safe,” rejoined the officer, who was calling someone on his phone. He finished his call and pointed to place on my visa where it lists the date I obtained it. “This is the date you came into China,” he half-questioningly said. I started to lose my patience. “No,” I explained in a long sentence of quick elocution and no breaths, “that’s the date I got the visa, before I come to China I must have a visa so of course the date I got it will be earlier than the date I came to China.” “I know, I know,” said the officer. He sat down on the bed and contemplated the passport to see what else he knew.

He talked on the phone. The buzz cut watched TV. My stomach growled. “Foreigners cannot stay at this place,” said the cop again, “You should stay at a bigger, nicer hotel.” “We won’t stay at a nicer hotel,” I said, “so you’re going to throw us out on the street and make us sleep out there?” “No, no no,” said the cop, slowly shaking his head with the frustration of speaking to someone who doesn’t understand, “it’s not safe here.” “What isn’t safe?” I demanded. “This is just a private operation,” cut in the buzz cut, “they don’t have guards here like they do at bigger hotels.” “Well,” said Drew in English, “did you tell them we brought a lot of guns for our own protection?” I laughed. Possessing firearms in China carries a minimum sentence of fifteen years, or so I’ve been told.

“We’re calling the police commander,” says the buzz cut. “He’ll tell you about some safe things,” says the officer. Perfect. So we sit and wait. “You don’t understand, this area isnt really safe,” claims the police officer again. I’m getting fed up. “So there have been a lot of other foreigners who’ve been murdered here, then?” I ask, unleashing the worst of my sarcasm. “No, no no, it’s not like that,” says the cop, it’s just not safe. In the meantime I’ve gotten all the passports from everybody and the cop is slowly going through each one, stumbling between expired visas and English words he doesn’t understand. He asks me the same questions, over and over again. Where are you going? When did you enter China? Where did you stay last night? Buzz cut sits on the bed watching TV and smoking.

Footsteps sound on the stair and a new man with short hair, expensive clothes, and the arrogant air of the accidentally wealthy enters the room. Ah yes, the police commander. “Where you doing,” he greets me with appalling English. I look at the other cop, “What’s he talking about?” I ask in Chinese, volubly aware that not addressing the commander insults him. The commander takes the passports and looks at them as he smokes, one by one. We converse briefly in Chinese, with the newest arrival asking the same questions as his lower ranking counterpart, but in a more intolerable manner. “You, how many,” he breaks into English again. Both Adam and I answer at the same time in Chinese, Adam answering the question “How many people are you?” and me answering “How many nights are you staying here?”. Adam laughs. “Speak Chinese,” he tells our would-be English speaker. The man does, and we find out the question he was trying to ask was actually “How much money do you usually spend on a hotel room?” We tell him, and he looks through the passports again. He and the other two men converse in intelligible dialect. Obviously they are all locals.

Finally the lower cop draws some forms out of his man purse and starts to slowly, slowly fill them out. At this point we’ve all showered and are just waiting, our stomachs growling and a distaste for bureaucracy palpable on our sadly otherwise unoccupied palates. First the commander takes his stately leave of us. Then the cop finally manages to stumble through filling out the forms. Then it’s just us and buzz cut.

He tells us he’ll help us find a restaurant, a proposition to which we are not at all keen to accept. However, it doesn’t seem like we have much choice. As we walk around the streets, he tells us he has the mysterious job of “being responsible for this area”. He keeps his distance and doesn’t force a restaurant choice on us. Finally we find one and he ensures that the boss won’t overcharge us, and takes off, having made a somewhat graceful exit to perhaps the two most frustrating hours of the trip so far.

For us, Hunan was a mostly cop-free experience. We saw traffic officers at checkpoints who returned our waves with smiles, we asked street cops for directions who always helpfully obliged. I would like to emphasize that Chinese policemen usually make for pleasant interactions. But we found a slightly different situation in the hinterlands of Anhui and Jiangxi provinces. Quite often we were not allowed to stay at otherwise suitable luguans. Other times we had to spend the evening with the cops, filling out paperwork. Other times the innkeepers themselves had to go to some expense and trouble to copy or scan our documents.

The reason for these proceedings remains unclear. Cheaper luguans used to be completely unavailable to foreigners in China. Presumably the thinking was that foreigners should stay at more expensive places so they only see the best side of China, and so they leave more money behind. Now that it’s legal for foreigners to stay at most of these places, it’s unclear why some police departments demand that the otherwise silly paperwork be filled out. Perhaps they are really concerned about being responsible for foreigners staying at hotels without guards. Perhaps it’s simply left over thinking from the bad old days.

In any case, the effect for us is the same. We spend more time filling paperwork that will never serve a purpose. In the meantime we’re glad that the cops we deal with are polite, not brutal. We can also be thankful that it is only when staying in luguans where cops have sway over us, and that we can return to countries where our speech and family planning are not also managed by the government.

63 Responses to “Another Night With the Cops”

  1. michael durfey Says:

    “arrogant air of the accidentally wealthy”
    Love that quote!

    I’m using a different computer, and I finally see your progress map.

    Play nice with people who can put you behind bars.
    I don’t want to spend my money on the “Jim Durfey defense fund.”

    Uncle Mike

  2. Netzy Says:

    Jimmy - you better hold your temper…. expect the unexpected - always - just stand up straight and smile…. keep smiling…. do not talk about items that can hurt people…. love you - your mom. all of you are so brave..

  3. michael durfey Says:


    As always, any money I send the group must be spent on drugs, alcohol, and members of the opposite sex.

    SD Mike, the older

  4. Jo & Dean Says:

    Hi Jimmy
    We are finishing our Thanksgiving evening here in chilly Minnesota. Your Mom and Autumn are here - we are swapping music on the iTunes. Listening to John Kammam - good music. We know you have been riding all day while we have been here eating Turkey. But in solidarity with you we did not have ice cream (we know you are an ice cream nut). Hope you have a good time at the wedding.
    Sever & Jo (and Autumn & Netzy)

  5. Jo & Dean Says:

    Hi Jimmy
    We just looked through your November pictures.They are beautiful and give us a wonderful glimpse of you journey.
    We had a real fun visit with Netzy and Autumn.
    Stay safe
    Jo and Sever

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