I've always considered myself a law-abiding citizen no matter what continent I'm on. But in the last year, I've apparently become something of an outlaw, at least by China's Public Security Bureau (PSB) standards.
It's not that I've broken any rules—I certainly haven't robbed any of those small Mom and Pop street stores or tried to short change a rickshaw driver even if he tries to short change me—but for some reason my visa and residence permit have been nothing but a burden since I moved to Beijing. And it has elicited quite a few visits from PSB officers and requests that I visit their offices.
It started two years ago when I first moved into my apartment. Finding the local PSB was easy; registering even more so. But only a week after unpacking my bags, the cops were banging at my door looking for me. I wasn't there, but from what my housemate said, the police officers seemed upset.
As she later explained, the police had asked if I, Brandon Taylor, lived in this apartment, to which she responded, matter of factly, "Why, yes, of course." The one officer, looking into his official PSB booklet, said "No, he doesn't live here," in as equally a matter-of-fact tone. My housemate shrugged, bewildered, and said, "Oh. Well then I guess he doesn't."
The next day I received a more formal phone call requesting my presence at the local PSB office. I'd need my passport and other residence documents.
At the station, one of the officers came out and asked to see my passport. Then the questioning began: How long have you been in China? Are you a teacher? When did you move into your apartment?
The officer produced a sheet of paper with an address. "This is where you live?" he asked, although it sounded more like a statement.
I looked at the paper. I couldn't read the Chinese characters, but I noticed the building and room numbers were wrong. "No, I don't. This is wrong," I replied. The officer looked at the paper, puzzled. I produced my apartment lease, with the actual address.
Turns out, there was more than one foreigner living in my apartment complex (Imagine that!) who just happened to move into his apartment around the same time as me. It was a simple mix up, but one that had me mentally packing my bags since I was sure that I was about to be deported. The fact that I'd left China for two weeks to get my Z visa also probably threw off their computers and personnel.
The PSB calls and visits would continue for a few more weeks until they finally got all the paperwork in order.
But problems arose again this year when I was trying to renew my visa and other permits. My employer had gathered the necessary documents, provided me with a new employment certificate and sent me on my way to the main PSB bureau near the Lama Temple to renew my residence permit.
When my turn came, the female bureau officer, in broken English, tried to explain that there was a problem with my temporary residence permit, pointing to the document. How could this be? I'd lived in the same place for the last year. This was the same slip with the same information I'd turned over the previous year.
I said I didn't understand. She said the same thing again. Annoyed, I repeated that I didn't understand. She pointed to her computer screen. "You do not exist," she said, also seeming annoyed. Somehow, I was no longer listed in the PSB database. I'd have to pay my local PSB station a visit again.
When I entered the PSB station, the officer I'd dealt with the year before was sitting behind the desk area for foreign residence permits. He looked up with a facial expression that said "You again?" but said nothing. I was given a new temporary residence slip and returned to the main bureau. With my documents in order, I finally turned in my passport.
I later figured out the latest discrepancy in my PSB paperwork was because my new housemate is also American and the PSB probably assumed that since he had moved in, I had moved out.
The whole experience was inconvenient, but in retrospect it was fun to be wanted by the law of a foreign land, giving the situation a Jason Bourne-like feel. I just hope next year these difficulties can be avoided, although I guess a few informal police visits is better than being accused of espionage.
The author is an American living in Beijing