I sit between 2 officers who neither look at me, nor speak to me. We race through traffic, with lights on, as though we are in some sort of emergency. We nearly crash once.
It starts to hit me then. This is really happening. This is the turn my life is taking.
10 minutes earlier, I was on stage, finishing the chorus to Zombie by The Cranberries. I closed my eyes while I played the chords and took a vocal break to let my guitarist shine. When I opened them, a moment later, there were a dozen immigration officers telling us to stop playing. Some were in plain clothes. Others were in uniform. None looked friendly.
He walked up to the stage and called me by name. The wrong name, but close enough.
“Maria, you’re coming with me”.
I put down my guitar and tried to call over the owner of the bar, Jack. He made eye contact with me, and promptly looked away. He backed into a corner.
My drummer called over to our band manager, who was in the audience. The police noticed him, and all swarmed him. He’d recently had surgery, and I could hear him telling them not to push him, he was in pain. They continued to push.
I jumped off stage and walked over to my friends, who were sitting wide-eyed in the audience. My husband was over at the bar, but I knew I couldn’t make it over to him in time to say anything. I knew I couldn’t run either. Cameras are everywhere in China. They’d find me before I could even get home.
I laughed and said ‘this isn’t a noise complaint’, when my friends said it was too early for them to already be complaining. I downed the half pint of cider I had left in my glass, as I see them manhandling my manager and pushing him towards the door. One of the officers spotted me, suddenly remembering that I was there. She looked angry. She shouted at me to get moving with them. I complied, but it didn’t matter.
She grabbed my arm, pushing me along. I said ‘you don’t need to force me. I’m compliant and I’m coming with you’. She pinched the fat under my arm and kept pushing me ahead.
I remembered that my phone was in my hand, and I lifted it to check the time. As soon as the woman noticed, she tried to grab it right out of my hand. Instinctively I held on and pulled away. What would you do if someone tried to grab your phone? It’s a lifeline. A man grabbed me from behind and lifted my arm into the air with one of his hands, grabbing the phone out of my hand with the other. 8:08pm.
We got to the police vehicles. There were many. My husband later told me that there were at least 6 or 7. I wasn’t in the mind-frame to count. I heard our manager asking to be put in the police car with his son, who plays drums in my band. They refused and led him to a separate car. I was escorted into a police truck.
It all seems funny. My farewell party. I was arrested for singing at my farewell party. At 8 o’clock at night, long before noise could be an issue. I wasn’t even paid to be there. It was my farewell party, after all. A wonderful send off and a great way to end 9 years living in a country I have loved for so long. A country I’ve called my home.
Then I think of my husband. He had tried to hand me his phone as I was being escorted into the car. I told him to keep it, and that they already had my own device. He looked worried. This is what makes me break down and start to cry. The idea that Dave is hurting. The idea that I have caused him pain. I am lucky enough to be married to someone who really loves me, and who always has my back. I know that this ordeal…however it turns out…will be as hard on him as it is on me.
I don’t allow myself to break down. Tears stream down my face, but I refuse to sob. Instead, I try to reach out and remind these people that I’m a person. And also to show them that I’m not arguing with them and that I’m not combative. My instincts tell me that I should make connections.
I wait a few moments. I can tell he’s a little uncomfortable, but at least he hasn’t shouted at me, pinched me or grabbed me. I tell him ‘this was my farewell party. I’m leaving China in 6 days. I’ve lived here 9 years’. His response is short, but it says a lot.
“I’m just following orders”.
When we arrive at the police station, I’m told to get out of the car. I look around immediately to see if my bandmates are there as well. They are. Some relief. They look as grim as I feel, but at least I’m not alone.
Once in the station, I’m told to sit on one end of the room. My guitarist is sitting all the way at the other side of the room. My drummer and the band manager are standing near the police desk at the front of the room. The officers are asking them something. No one pays any attention to me.
Suddenly, I remember a piece of luck. My guitarist recently got his green card. Before I can think it through, I say out loud ‘He has his green card!’. Chaos ensues as we’re shouted at in both Mandarin and English to be quiet. We aren’t allowed to speak.
They call me over to the desk at the front of the room. That’s when I see the stack of files on the desk. They rifle through the stack, and I can see so many of my friends in there. Visa photos, addresses, phone numbers, passport numbers…It seems like half of the people I know are in that stack. They find my file and pull it out of the pile. They say they want my passport. I tell them I don’t have it, which annoys them again. Everything I say annoys them. They tell me I’ll need to have someone bring it to them. I remind them that they have my phone, and they say it’s not a problem. No further information.
They put a big black tracking bracelet on me and lock it. It seems like overkill, with the 2 giant metal doors that they closed behind us, but I was also just arrested for singing, so overkill seems to be the theme of the night.
They take me to a room where I remove my shoes and replace them with a pair of prison issue slippers. Things are starting to feel real. And scary.
The woman who kept pinching me comes over my way, once I’m seated again. She has my phone. My lifeline to the world. She holds it in her hand and demands to know my password. I give it to her, and she writes it onto a sticker, which she sticks to the back of the phone.
She then opens up Wechat, and finds my husband in my list of contacts. She tells me to tell him to bring my passport and that she’ll send him the location. She puts the call into speaker phone mode, and holds it in front of my face. Dave picks up. I hear his voice and it sounds worried.
“Are you ok? Are you safe?”
I respond that I am safe and that the officers are being very nice, but that I need him to bring my passport to the location that will be sent to him.
Her finger hovers over the ‘end call’ button throughout our 10 second conversation, and she promptly hangs up on my husband as soon as I’ve finished my sentence. Then, my phone disappears once again.
A while later, I’m being escorted through a metal detector. I’ve removed all my metal accessories already, but I still beep. My manager has trouble going through. He’s in a sling, and they make him take it off. He’s obviously sore. He’d only had surgery a week before. His shoulder must be aching from the way they pushed him out of the bar.
I motion to my chest to indicate that it must be the underwire in my bra. I don’t know why I think of that particular excuse…I’m not even wearing a bra with underwire…but I really don’t want to be strip searched, and that’s what pops into my head as an excuse. They accept it. We move on.
Then I’m brought into my interrogation room. My bandmates are moved further down the hall into rooms of their own. My previous experience in interrogation rooms were dark, quiet and scary. China upgraded since 2006, though. Now, interrogation rooms are bright, florescent, and bare.
They sat me down in a boxy wooden chair. It had to be at least 40 years old. It was uncomfortable, which was the point. It also had a wooden bar across the top, that they folded over my lap when I sat down. It is designed so that the person being interrogated can be locked in, with a simple padlock. As they lower the wooden bar over my lap, I feel like I am being locked into a roller coaster that I had no desire to be on.
The questions start off simple enough. “Why were you at the bar?” “Do you have an entertainment visa?” “Was the bar owner paying you to be there?”
My mind races. I know there is no point lying. They have my phone and they can see my transactions, ads about our shows, videos of our music. It might seem silly to an outsider that I would have all of this on my phone, but I had been playing in China for 8 years without issue. In my last 6 months, I probably got a little too cocky. Surely, I’m not going to get in trouble now.
I try to answer in ways that allow me to be honest, without throwing anyone under the bus. I feel the need to protect the bar owner, and my band manager. They are my friends. The last thing I want to do is rat them out. “I was at the bar because it was my farewell party. I’m moving in Vietnam in 6 days”. “No, I don’t have an entertainment visa. I’m a teacher. I just sing for fun”. “No, Jack has never sent me money to play music at his bar”.
All 3 statements are true, but they don’t make them happy. They open my phone and start scrolling until they find my chat with the bar owner, Jack. There are no transactions in that conversation, because Jack has truly never paid me. I always received my small performance payment from my band manager. They realize that quickly and find our list of transactions. I can’t protect him now.
They ask why he sends me so much money and I laugh and say “Because we’re friends??” in a funny kind of way. They don’t find it funny.
The man in the baseball cap, who keeps calling me Maria, enters the room as I say this. He comes right up to me and shouts in my face ‘THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE! DON’T LIE TO US!’
I admit that it is payment for some of my performances but that I was not being paid for tonight’s performance. Looking back, I find it funny that I thought that this would somehow make a difference.
The evening continues this way. They ask me questions. I answer the questions directly and honestly. Any time they think I’m lying, I get screamed at. I think they just like screaming. I also think that they’ve watched to many episodes of Law and Order. This all seems like something from a bad TV show where a rogue cop is trying to get information from a bad guy who is holding back answers.
Then, they come in with the stack of files that I’d seen an hour earlier. They go through each file and ask me which people were musicians.
My husband is in the file. I laugh and say ‘no no, trust me, he is NOT a musician. He tries to play guitar, but he’s horrible”. I immediately feel guilty for saying something that is neither true, nor nice, but I feel a little better knowing that I am protecting him with my bad joke.
I keep making jokes. Looking back, I think it was a coping mechanism, but at the time, I just wanted to keep things as light hearted as possible. They shout at me more than once, but I can’t seem to stop.
The woman who translates for me appreciates my humour and I can feel her softening towards me. She knows that I’m telling the truth, even though I’m not being as serious as I should be. I think she understands that I’m just scared. She shows me kindness, and I cannot overstate how grateful I am to have her there with me. She’s the closest thing I have to a friend at the moment.
She gives me a smaller stack of files. She asks “Do you know these people and are they in your band?”. I feel sick to my stomach. I’m being asked to rat on some of my favourite people in Suzhou. People who have done nothing wrong, other than share my love of music. People who have made my life in Suzhou a richer place.
I go through the files and admit that I know them all, but also state that none of them are in my band. This enrages the person I have now decided is my nemesis. The man in the baseball cap, who keeps calling me Maria.
He comes right up to me once more, screaming in English: “Stop LYING to us! I can legally incarcerate you for 30 days! I will do it if you keep lying!”
I choke back a sob and say with alarm in my voice ‘I’m not lying! There are only 3 people in my band, and they are all at the police station here with me!’.
My translator realizes her mix up and corrects herself. “Do you know these people, and do they perform in Suzhou?”
They bring me a red ink pad and make me put a thumb print on each of their files, as a sign that I acknowledge that they too are criminals. I feel sick each time I press my finger down on this stack of papers.
I tell them that I don’t think any of them make money, because they only perform occasionally, but the man in the baseball cap laughs again and says ‘it doesn’t matter’.
The interrogation is over, and all that’s left to do is sign my statements. They translate them into Chinese and print them up. My translator goes through every page with me and tells me not to worry, that they’re going to let me go tonight.
I thank her and ask her when I can get my passport back, because I already know that it won’t be returned to me tonight. She looks uncomfortable. The man in the baseball cap comes in again and says “we will be keeping your passport and your phone”. I explain that I’m leaving for Vietnam in 6 days, and he laughs at me.
“You’d better cancel your flight!”
That’s when the floodgates open. I begin to cry inconsolably. I sob as I sign my statement. Page after page. Fingerprints on top of every signature. I can’t stop crying now. My translator hands me a tissue and tells me that it’ll be alright. She says: “You’ve been honest and behaved well, it won’t be too bad”. It doesn’t make me feel better.
When I’m finally allowed out of the interrogation chair and lead back into the room with the metal detector, I sob in relief when I see my drummer sitting at a table, looking bored. He’s young. He doesn’t realize how serious this is. He also doesn’t have a flight to Vietnam in 6 days.
I see a small clock and realize that 2 hours have passed since I arrived at the police station. It takes another 3 hours to process the 3 of us. I learn that my guitarist had been saved by his green card and was released.
Fingerprints. Palm prints. Mug shots. Footprints. Retinal scans. DNA swabs. It takes 3 hours because, in true Chinese fashion, the internet keeps dropping.
We sit in the room together. Now that the interrogation is over and they’ve gotten what they wanted from us, we are allowed to speak. We make bad jokes. My manager assures me that I’ll be on my flight in 6 days. My drummer complains that he’s hungry.
Then, they tell me I can leave. I am startled because my two friends cannot leave yet. They aren’t finished with their processing. I ask if I can use my phone to call a taxi. Nothing is done with cash in China. You call a taxi, and can’t just flag one down. You pay with your Wechat wallet. I realize that I don’t even have my keys.
I’m told that I cannot use my phone to call a taxi. I explain that I have no way to get home. The officer in charge of processing laughs and says to me in Chinese “That’s not my problem”.
Luckily, I know Dave’s phone number by heart and they have a landline that I am allowed to use. It turns out that he’s waiting outside the police station for me.
I’m lead out of the processing room, and back into the room where my shoes are waiting. I see an old black chair with restraints built in. My heart stops for a moment, and I’m grateful that this wasn’t used on me.
They remove the tracking bracelet from my wrist and give me back my jewelry and belt. Then, they’re opening metal doors and letting me step into the night, where I can see my husband waiting for me, along with a few other friends of the band. He wraps me in his arms and I break down once more.
The aftermath of this night was truly a roller coaster. I was let out of the interrogation chair after just 2 hours, but my mind stayed restrained there for 6 full weeks. There was a total lack of transparency throughout the ordeal, and the immigration officers broke many of their own laws throughout the process.
I wasn’t given any paperwork or even a business card when I left the station that night. They had my phone and my passport, but I was given no information about how I should proceed, or what I could expect. And although we made several trips to the immigration office, trying to get answers, we were told over and over that ‘someone would be in touch within the next 3 months’.
It was an infuriating situation, made worse by how helpless I felt. I tried to write a letter of apology to the immigration office, and even had a friend translate it into Chinese for me, but they refused to take it. I tried talking to several different people, and had many friends call in on my behalf, but no one was told anything. In fact, when we came looking for information, most of the people working in the immigration office seemed to think it was all very funny.
Eventually, we got in touch with the Foreign Affairs Bureau. They were very surprised that several protocols had been breached by these officers and they promised to get in touch and try to get some information for us. Immigration called us and asked me to come in to sign some paperwork within 30 minutes of my departure from the Foreign Affairs office. The next day, I went in and signed post dated paperwork that should have been given to me the night of my arrest.
At this point, you might be wondering why I didn’t go straight to the Canadian Consulate or embassy, but in reality, there is very little the embassy would have been able to do for me. And of course, by getting the consulate involved, we would be escalating things, and possibly embarrassing the officers, which is really something you don’t want to do in a situation like this. For this same reason, I did not get a lawyer directly involved. We did, however, get some very good advice from 2 lawyers, but they never represented us officially. We were told over and over that we just needed to be polite, apologetic and humble, and that this was the best chance we had at a speedy resolution.
I learned a lot about the SIP Immigration people in those 6 weeks. I learned that they actually have a lot less power than they would like. They wanted to deport us and they couldn’t, likely because the offense was too small, and Beijing rejected their request. They wanted to charge me a higher fine, but once my paperwork went up the chain of command, the fine was lowered. Once more, my infraction was so small that they couldn’t justify such a big punishment.
I learned that the people in charge of SIP immigration truly have a mean streak, and that they enjoy their work a little too much. Whenever I had to go in to sign paperwork, the man with the baseball cap (who’s name was James, I learned later) would smile at me smugly as I signed paperwork and heard the charges being laid against me. He continued to use every opportunity he could to shout at me and be rude to me each time I had to go in to sign more paperwork.
They also found various ways to make things worse for us. The lack of communication was bad enough, but they also did other little things as well. They refused to call the bar owner themselves, and insisted that we should be the ones to bring him in. They accused us of not being apologetic enough, and used this as a reason for all the delays (keep in mind that I tried to write a letter of apology and it was rejected). They knew I was losing my apartment and would very likely lose my job due to their delays, but their response was always the same: “that’s not our problem”
Eventually, Dave had to leave the country without me, because his visa was up, and getting the cats to Vietnam was becoming complicated. That was a devastating blow to both of us, because it was bad enough dealing with all this together…never mind in different countries. He flew out on July 26th, and landed safely in Hanoi with Hugo and Poe later that night.
I had to move into a hotel on August 7th, because new tenants were moving into my apartment. I didn’t lose my job, in the end, but I did get moved to part time, which affects us financially. I’m enrolled in an online program at the University of Sheffield starting in September, and if I had lost my job completely, I would have also had to leave the program. It was an enormous source of stress for me.
But, having said all that, I am truly grateful for all the people who helped me out during this horrible time. I had friends emailing me many times every day to check in, during those first 10 days, before they gave me back my phone. So many friends called in on my behalf and told immigration about all the animal rescue work I do in China, pleading that they be lenient with me, because I’m a good person. And of course, so many people got together with Dave and I, to distract us from the situation, and sometimes to just listen while I cried in frustration. We have many beautiful, wonderful and kind people in our lives, and for that, I’ll be eternally grateful.
Even people who hardly knew me checked in when they heard about what had happened. I was surprised how many of my acquaintances had their own stories about Suzhou Immigration. Sometimes for simple things, like forgetting to register with the police within 24 hours of returning to Suzhou after travel. Others were fined for working at a different branch of the same school. Some were even locked in that interrogation chair for 4 days, only allowed out when they went for COVID tests, and for 8 hours at night when they were given a blanket and told to sleep on the floor. It seems like everyone I know either has a story about immigration, or knows someone who does.
You might be wondering how I didn’t know this could happen, and the truth is, I did know that singing while on a teaching visa was an infraction. Having said that, I had been singing in Suzhou for 8 years without issue. I had even performed at the request of the government at several events. One of my performances was aired all across Jiangsu province. Many police officers in Suzhou know me by name and have come to my shows as well. One night, a few months ago, we actually drove a police officer back to his station after I performed. He was too drunk and we saw no problem giving him a ride.
So why was this a problem now, you might ask? Well, it was all about timing. Dozens of expats were arrested in Suzhou the same weekend I was. As it turned out, Xijiping, the president of China, was visiting Suzhou later that same week. No one knew about it, because his visits are always kept very quiet ahead of time. It’s very likely that the immigration bureau wanted to look productive when he arrive, so it’s plausible that the only reason I was arrested, was to make them look good.
I was finally allowed to leave China on August 16th. I was scared they’d pull me aside at the airport and interrogate me again, or that I could get in trouble for my expired visa, but none of that happened. When I finally made it through immigration at Pudong airport, I had to sit down and cry in a bathroom stall for a while, because I was so relieved to be out.
Needless to say, things are much better now. I’m in Vietnam, back together with Dave, Hugo and Poe. The 3 weeks Dave and I spent apart were full of video calls, and frustration, but we’re stronger than we’ve ever been. I had to pay a 10,000rmb fine (about $2000 Canadian) and sign my name about a hundred times, but that was my only ‘real’ punishment. Really, the time I lost this summer, and the stress of it all was a much bigger punishment. I can always make more money, but I can’t get those 6 weeks back, and I can’t forget everything I went through.
So there you have it. That’s the story of my last 6 weeks in China. It was a horrible time, and if you’re reading this because you’re thinking of moving to Suzhou or to China in general, I’d honestly discourage it. I had many amazing times there, and a few years ago, it was a great place to live. But now, foreigners are feeling less and less welcomed by the government. The people are still lovely, and it’s a beautiful country with so much to experience, but it’s impossible to know when they’re going to arbitrarily enforce a rule, and make your life illegal.
To all my friends and family who got me through this tough time…thank you.