Trouble In Beijing


First trouble is, you can scarcely breathe. See that air pollution? It’s not fog. It’s air so thick you can taste it, and believe me, it doesn’t taste good. This shot is actually at the port in Tianjin, but it was the same everywhere.

But that was the absolute least of my worries. No photos will accompany this story, because I was afraid that if I took any I might get arrested. Seriously.

One side thing I’m doing on this trip is visiting a series of Education USA offices, helping to recruit foreign students to come to the college where I work. Education USA is under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State, staffed by local people, and is usually located inside an American embassy building. That’s the case in Beijing, and I had been warned to be prepared for the fact that the building was a fortress.

Oh yes, it definitely is that. But I have an appointment with an Education USA staff person, I’m an American and I have an American passport, and it’s my embassy, right? What could possibly go wrong, except everything?

I present myself for the appointment, accompanied by my Chinese guide. I’m sure it doesn’t help that he’s dressed like some sort of teen hip-hopper, in a long denim duster with a hoodie underneath, but I don’t really know if that makes any difference.

So I show up at the east gate at the Beijing embassy as instructed, half an hour early, figuring it might take some time to get in and find my way to her office. I show my passport at the gate, show them the name of the person I’m supposed to meet, and they refuse to let me in. And by “they” I mean the Chinese guards surrounding the place. If you imagine, as I did, that our embassies are guarded by crisp battalions of our Marines, you’re in for the same surprise I got.

The guards say no Americans are allowed to come in by that particular gate. I have my Chinese guide with me and he argues with them, gives them my contact’s name and tells them I have an appointment. They ask for her phone number, but I don’t have that. Oops. What I do have is a bag with Education USA printed on it that I was given in Tokyo, and I show it to them, but they have no earthly idea about the program. I wave my passport around quite adamantly, and they definitely know I’m an American, but they still refuse to let me into my own embassy, and they aren’t the least bit nice about it. No one there speaks English at all, and they show no sign of sympathy for my plight. Finally they tell me to go to the west gate. Just to get rid of me, I guess.

I’m at the east gate, going to the west gate. The circumference of the embassy is enormous. I’m not good at judging distance, but it’s probably half a mile all the way around, maybe more. We finally arrive at the west gate, which turns out to be the entrance to a parking structure. The guards tell my guide no one is ever allowed to go in by that gate, unless it’s for parking. Also, they don’t speak English and are totally unimpressed by my passport.

A small group of Americans walks out and I beg them to help me. They say they are only “contractors traveling with diplomatic passports.” Uh, yeah, right. They’re inside the embassy, they’re contractors, and they have diplomatic passports. I sensibly refrain from asking them who they work for, because I don’t think it would be in my best interest to know that.

One of them does take pity on me and finds and calls my contact’s number. No answer, straight to voice mail. The west gate guards deny me entry just like their east gate brothers, and they tell me to go to the south gate. Are you sensing a pattern here?

At the south gate they won’t let my guide come with me, no Chinese people allowed, they say. I kind of panic, because now we’re going to be separated and it’s not clear how we will meet up again, and I’m going inside a gate but not inside the building, and I can’t understand a word anyone says. Having no choice, I walk to the entrance of the building alone, but guess what? They won’t let me in either, because I don’t have a phone number for my contact. I didn’t have the wit to ask that “contractor” guy for the number he had called, so distraught was I at the time. The guys at this entrance are friendly and even smile at me, and they speak a little English, all a welcome change, but they won’t let me in. I ask to see an American officer. No can do, you can’t see any American without an appointment. I’m an American, this is my embassy, and I can’t see anyone. Then they call someone at the east gate, who tells them to send me back, this time they will let me in. I feel caught between Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day and Dante’s nine circles of hell, but I go. Reluctantly.

When I get back to the east gate, a little more than an hour after I first arrived, a nice lady comes to meet me and lets me in. She’s a colleague of my contact, who, as it turns out, was on leave for the day even though we had an appointment, which is why no one answered her phone.

The meeting with the nice lady goes well, and it turns out to have been a worthwhile exercise in frustration and rage. However, and I can’t say this strongly enough, WTAF? The Chinese “guard” our embassy (or, as a shipboard friend suggested, hold it hostage), and an American can’t get in. If it had been an emergency would they have let me in? If I had been bleeding to death would they have called an American to help out?

I hate to say this, but I really don’t think so. I always thought that an embassy was a place of refuge for its citizens. How wrong I was. Take heed and be prepared. Your embassy may not be your friend.

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3 Comments on “Trouble In Beijing”

  1. Char Says:

    You are sure cool under fire. It sounded like a very frustrating and scary experience. ~Char

  2. Damn. That sounds frustrating… and scary! I probably would have walked away quickly.

    A few years ago, I had to arrange for an entire Chinese political delegation to come to California for a joint US/Chinese government conference on transportation. My job was frustrating. The Chinese changed the date three times, which meant I had to change dates at the venues and rearrange for food, lodging, translators, etc. But they all seemed to think it was just my job to be greatly inconvenienced.

    They turned out to be very nice people. But if you think the Chinese treat all people equally, it is not true at all. We provided excellent accommodations at the San Jose Fairmont Hotel, but we had to give the highest-ranking person the best suite… the Presidential Suite, where we often housed the US Secretary of Transportation when he visited — and President Obama, as well. But no…this Chinese official complained that the room was not good enough. But he grudgingly accepted.

    Fortunately, that was the worst of my problems. I did have a funny encounter, though. This top official said that he did not want any prostitutes coming to his room. I explained that this certainly would not happen. He replied (through an interpreter) that he heard that there were “girls on the alley.” After stifling a laugh, I replied that it was a restaurant called Grill on the Alley.


  3. […] Of course their was a darker side. On the morning when there happened to be a month’s worth of rainfall deluging the city in a few-hour period, causing flooding in the streets and a general disappearance of taxis, I had an appointment at the American Consulate. Let me tell you, if you are planning a visit there, arrive at least half an hour early. The security there was even more intimidating than when I went to the embassy in Beijing. […]

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