Saturday, April 19, 2008

"Don't Worry. You're an American."

It was an interesting night.

The last couple of weeks have been filled with lots of good food, some good hiking, time with friends and work. Today was a relatively mellow day: a friend and I were able to leave a daylong event early and have lunch, then I had some time to do some errands before meeting friends in the evening.

While getting ready to meet friends for dinner I received a phone call. "Make sure you have your passport. There was an anti-foreigner demonstration in front of the French embassy today and the police are arresting foreigners without the proper documentation." Last week there had been a sting operation on a number of places where the police suspected there was drug activity by foreign nationals but now the focus was becoming more general. Usually I carry a photocopy of my passport and my police registration (everyone here is required to register their location with the local police and we are supposed to keep a copy of the stamped form with us at all times) but tonight I pulled out my passport so that I'd be prepared if I was stopped and the police decided that photocopies weren't sufficient. I asked a friend to carry it so that I wouldn't have to hold a purse while I was dancing. I also called several other foreigners to pass on the tip.

Dinner was at Impressions of Yunnan, with fried cheese, Yunnan latkes, shrimp, asparagus and other amazing food, followed by drinks at the Rickshaw. Conversation during both was carried out in a combination of English, Italian, Pidgen English, Yoruba, Spanish and some Chinese, and covered global politics, today's demonstrations and arrests, child poverty in China and how it is being addressed, and the global diaspora of Africans. Light topics, all.

After the clock struck twelve our group headed over to Salsa Caribe, our usually Saturday night spot for dancing to a live Cuban band and recorded music spun by a fab Cameroonian DJ. A number of local dance clubs have been closed down in the past week or two so the dance floor was much more crowded than usual. Based on the unusual composition of the patrons tonight, the clubs that were closed were popular with the African and gay communities in Beijing.

At around 3:30am a friend tapped me on the shoulder to tell me that another friend had to step out: "A friend of his was arrested because he didn't have his passport with him. S. had to go get it and take it to the police so he would be released." It suddenly struck me that the friend holding my passport had left an hour earlier and I hadn't thought to get it back. Oops. Oh well, what was done was done and there was no point waking someone up unnecessarily; I'll get it back first thing in the morning. I kept dancing. The dance floor became more and more crowded and my dance partner, a foreign reporter who has his pulse on just about everything that happens with the expat community in Beijing, decided that we should head next door to somewhere a little less packed. When we arrived I said that I wanted to be careful, I didn't have my passport. He asked me to repeat what I said, unsure that he had heard me correctly, so I did. He laughed.

"Don't worry. You're an American. The Chinese might do some crazy things but they still respect your country."

I know he's right but I still prefer to be cautious.

The music wasn't great so we headed back to Salsa, a packed dance floor and good music. Shortly before 5am some of us decided it was time to leave. We walked en groupe to the street and got into taxis, with the agreement that we text message one another when home safely, 'just in case.'

I'm fine. I'm safe. I'm here completely legally and am not breaking any laws (other than occasionally jaywalking). But at the moment I feel like I have a slightly greater insight into the concerns of the many foreigners living in the U.S., both legal and illegal, who are constantly worried that they might be stopped by the authorities and deported.

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