I don’t have many embarrassing happenings in China anymore. I pride myself in knowing enough about the culture by now not to have stupid foreigner moments, but last weekend proved I don’t have my act together as much as I thought.
Last weekend, on our American black Friday, I decided to take a weekend trip to Nanning.
I had wisely purchased my bus ticket the day before, a 2 p.m. departure, to make sure there’d be room on the bus for me.
I had U.S. dollars, Chinese yuan, my credit card and my Chinese ATM bank card tucked away in my purse. After all, I might just find a great bargain somewhere and need plenty of money for a big purchase.
I had my suitcase packed, including my swimming gear. I even brought my wetsuit along in case the pool water (not heated) was too chilly for my mandatory swim whenever I visit the big city.
In other words, I was ready to go.
I was especially smug at the bus station when I ran into one of our English Chinese teachers who was going to Nanning as well. Our 2 p.m. bus was full so she had to wait an entire hour until 3 p.m. when the next bus left.
“You should have bought your ticket yesterday, like me,” I said knowingly. “You wouldn’t have to wait so long.”
She merely smiled and nodded.
I next clamored on board and settled into my seat.
The bus pulled slowly out of the station and we headed along the countryside access road that leads to the expressway, 20 minutes ahead of us. The attendant passed out our free water bottles. The bus fell silent while the overhead travel TV played Chinese music videos of modern singers.
We had crossed the bridge out of town and were cruising along when I started digging around in my purse.
Oh, my gosh.
Where was my passport??!!
Sure enough, after all my prep work, I had forgotten to bring my passport, the one thing they tell us as foreign teachers never, ever to do.
The passport ID is absolutely necessary for all foreigners in China. Not only could I not spend the night in a hotel without it but because Longzhou is so near the Vietnam border, we have a check-point before entering onto the express highway. Everyone on the bus must show their ID cards to the checkpoint police. They walk the aisles and we must produce our identification documents.
For the Chinese, it’s not such a big deal if their card is left behind. They merely get off the bus, sign in at the checkpoint table and get back into the vehicle.
But for the foreigner, you must have your passport or you can’t go on any further.
What would they do if I didn’t produce my passport was something I didn’t want to find out.
So in the silent bus, the foreigner’s lone voice had to shout out to the bus driver and attendant, “I’m so sorry!! I don’t have my passport. I have to get off the bus.”
The driver immediately slowed down but continued driving slowly along. The attendant popped her head up over her seat, stood up and gave me an “Uh-oh” smile. Everyone in the entire bus was staring at me as well.
A bus discussion ensued as to whether I could continue onward or not.
I said I didn’t think so. The foreigner must have a passport.
The driver agreed with me and nodded.
The attendant, however, looked thoughtful. A few on the bus said I could get by but they were Chinese. They had no idea that foreigners can’t just sign in as they could and continue on their travels.
Finally, the driver stopped the bus in front of a remote police station along the road. Surrounded by sugarcane fields, I got off with the attendant who helped me with my luggage. The driver said I could catch a ride back to town at the police station. The little attendant, bless her, went with me to tell the officers I needed to go back.
Unfortunately, there was not a soul manning the station. It was completely locked up.
I insisted the attendant go back, the bus continue and I would get a ride back into town. I wasn’t sure how exactly I would do this. After all, I was in the middle of nowhere, but I figured I could flag down a private car, play the pitiful foreigner card and get myself a ride.
At that point, I was so embarrassed about my stupidity I just wanted everyone to leave me alone to fend for myself. Holding up the bus and making everyone late on their journey to Nanning was not something I wanted the foreign teacher to be remembered by.
Although I started walking back along the road, the bus driver refused to continue onward. The attendant did return to the idling bus but for a long time, the vehicle sat there while I looked desperately for a passing car to hail.
Finally, the attendant came running back to me and insisted the driver wanted to take me back to the station in Longzhou. It was O.K. We were very close and I could exchange my ticket for another one.
Reluctantly, I let her help me back on the bus where I apologized to everyone profusely.
I was so upset that the woman sitting next to me said, “Don’t worry! It’s OK. We don’t mind.”
Well, maybe she didn’t mind but I certainly did for putting everyone out.
Naturally, quite a few of the station employees were surprised to see our bus pull back into the terminal. With my luggage in tow, I quickly clamored off the bus, waving gratitude to the driver. My ride then backed up and sped away in a hurry, already 20 minutes late.
I was ushered into the bus tickets’ back office where I had to exchange my bus ticket for another day, leaving on Saturday morning and not Friday because the buses were already full for the day.
And to make matters worse, my colleague, who was patiently waiting for her 3 p.m. bus, spotted me.
“Why are you back so soon? What happened?” she asked with great concern, rushing over to my side.
“I forgot my passport,” I moaned. “I’ve never forgotten my passport before! I feel so stupid and embarrassed.”
Her words of sympathy?
“Yes,” she smiled smugly, her 3 p.m. ticket in hand. “Next time, you mustn’t be so careless.”
From Longzhou, China, here’s wishing you Ping An (peace) for your weekend, the first Sunday in Advent.