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You know what a pain it can be to have to cope with the red tape in a strange country. Like teenage acne, this is something you just have to accept and bear with such good grace as you can muster.

China is no better in this respect, and quite possibly a bit worse. Some things are easily sorted out, like the registration in your local police station (when you finally manage to find it. There’s plenty of them all around, but apparently only some deal with this sort of thing. The aborigines always seem to know the name of the right one, but never the location, so it takes a lot of asking around). The station will usually be empty and all you need to do is show your passport and the rent contract to the nice lady behind the counter. 2 minutes later you’re a proud owner of a relevant piece of paper.

And now the tougher bit begins. As a scholarship student, I was issued a single entry student visa valid for 3 months from the issuing date. It had to be exchanged for a resident visa in the Baoan Ju aka the Security Bureau. First all the papers need to be taken to the school office where everything will be copied multiple times and a little extra document will be issued. The good thing is they have the necessary application forms, so you leave with a full set of documents stapled together by someone who’s done it hundreds of times, so you can rest assured that everything’s as it should be. The bad thing is that usually all the students are taken to the Baoan together in order to sort things out with as little hassle as possible. But because I don’t live in the dorms anymore and I don’t require a course in Chinese before my proper studies, the International College of the China Academy of Arts seems to have written me off and I don’t get any notices or anything, so basically I didn’t get to go when everyone else was going. I was left to fend for myself.

For some reason the guy at the office insisted that I go on a specific day (because he was going to call them or something and tell them I’m coming. Never mind), so I said “Ok, Tuesday”. That meant I had to be there at 8.30 to get a number or I’d have to wait for a few hours. But – my mistake – I couldn’t be bothered to get up that early. For various reasons, one of them being my Dad calling me at 4.30 am (“Oh, so what’s the time difference? 6 hours? Okay, I’ll know the next time”. Seriously. Look at the map, Dad, of COURSE it’s going to be 6 hours! And even if it was less, you called me at 10.30 pm of your time, so it would definitely and absolutely be after midnight here!). So in the end I got there about 11, after biking around one square for 40 minutes in search of the Baoan. Again, even though it’s a huge municipal institution, somehow no one in the area knew where it actually was and they kept directing me to the local police station, where in the end I got the exact address.

Here’s where the Kafka-like story begins. First of all: the building itself. There’s actually many of them. Here a huge entrance to an empty hall, where Chinese citizens sort out their trips abroad. There a huge entrance to an empty hall where they sort out their resident permits. And down the alley… there’s a small glass door to a small hall overflowing with hapless foreigners waiting to be served by 3 workers…

Okay, maybe it wasn’t overflowing right then. It actually looked pretty okay. But no sooner did I enter than a guard told me there are no more morning numbers for now, so I might as well go and come back at 2, when they’ll be distributing the afternoon numbers. Ok, so I came back at 1.30 to find (this time for real) a crowd of people in front of the closed door.

1.31  People chat and chill out. I sit down to finish my lunch jianbing.
1.39  People begin to crowd in front of the door. They seem to know more than I do, so I decide to join the congregation, but unwisely choose a spot at the back instead of fighting my way inside the crowd.
1.41  Inside the office a hand appears from behind the curtain. People in the front try to step back so the door can be opened, while people at the back push forward in order to get to the door.
1.43  For some reason the crowd starts to divide itself in two parts: to the right – people with leftover numbers from the morning. To the right – people without numbers.
1.45  Some commotion at the door, but doesn’t seem like anything much is going on.
1.46  People from the right side mysteriously disappear. The numberless left side becomes the centre and both flanks.
1.47  Some people are beginning to emerge from the crowd holding small pieces of papers that look like numbers.
1.48  As I get closer to the door, I notice an XS-sized Chinese lady surrounded by desperately looking people. This – I realise it with a shock – must be the number distribution centre. Everywhere around me there are hands pushing forward and it feels like a line for bread in a famine relief effort. Some Chinese onlookers observe it all with a smirk on their faces: for once they get to see a crowd of foreigners behaving like cattle, not the other way round.
1.49  The hands drop down. The numbers are all gone. I realise I’m in deep s***.

This system is seriously flawed. It’s based on a cruel, Darwinian competition which intrinsically precludes the success of delicate, gentle, non-pushy specimens (such as… erm… my humble self). A person not able to claw their way towards the Number Mistress might go there every day and fail every time. Might this be a clever way of ensuring that only the strongest individuals will be able to stay in China? But surely that would go against the party line! *

Secondly, even assuming that there’s some hidden sense to this way of dealing with the situation, don’t try to convince me that a diminutive Chinese lady with a voice of according volume and no knowledge of English is the perfect person to send into a crowd of towering, impatient foreigners!

The situation was not looking good, but I persisted. I went inside the office, found a worker and complained to her that my Uni told me to sort it out today and not any other day, and what am I supposed to do.
‘Do you have your documents ready?’, she asked. I produced the documents to show that yes, they were ready.
‘Okay. Wait here.’
So I waited. After a minute I thought she must’ve meant that I should wait till they deal with everyone possessed of numbers and if they have time, they’ll sort me out. That’s what they were telling the people whose visas were expiring in the next few days and who absolutely had to apply for new ones. So I might as well sit down. But I decided to stick to my spot and after another minute or so, miraculously, the lady turned away from another five people she was talking to, passed me and on the way casually slipped something into my hand. Yes! I had a number!

After that it was easy. Two hours of waiting for my turn, a sudden flash in my face (the visa photo – apparently with a nice pillar in the background)  and my application was in. Oh, joy! And it might have been so bad… Thank you, Chinese lady!

One last Kafkesque/conspiration-theory-movie detail. As I was leaving the building, I glanced at a form stand next to the door. There was a slip with two photos from a photo booth. I looked closer.
Naturally, the photos were of one of my flatmates.
Small world? Nah, there must be something more to it <a knowing nod>

A cheerful after-thought: they didn’t send me to have a medical check-up again (have they started believing foreign doctors now?), so I didn’t have to have another STD test or (I know it’s crass, but it’s happened before) to defecate into a plastic container to be used specifically in the hospital environment (for fear of planting a strange sample? The mind reels in a number of unpleasant directions…).

Update: 5 working days later I was a proud holder of a residence permit. Yes! I’m now officially a legal resident of the PRC till the 30th of July 2012!