Shivering and with lots of cold sweat I set out to the police headquarters. It was still dark, though I don’t think this day would get to see a bright moment. A gloomy twilight zone 24 hours per day. I was caught and had to pay for it. And this is China. Just last week, a guy was fined 2 million RMB and life imprisonment for not paying toll the way he should. Others were executed for paying too much to greedy officers in ways they shouldn’t… After all: this is China.
Of course, it wasn’t as bad as it appears above, and I had been here before for earlier fines, but I was about to go through a 30-minutes reeducation session and really, it is life changing! Especially now that I had to endure it for the 3rd time.
I was sitting on a hard bench in the main hall, waiting for my turn, surrounded by hundreds of other victimized criminals, although we prefer to see ourselves as criminalized victims, making noise of a thousand. I had wanted to arrive early, to be ahead of the crowd and spare myself the embarrassment of becoming the waiguoren sideshow. I arrived early, but others were even earlier. Many others. And so I was now sitting on the last chair available, too close to the door where a steady streams of people were brushing past -but more often against- my head on their way in, while a constant cold breeze was freezing my toes off. Hundred pairs of eyes were openly staring at me, somewhat amused, wondering with that always juvenile kind of excitement. (An excitement I well know from back in my days as a birdwatcher, long, long ago, when unexpectedly spotting a rare bird.) Another hundred staring rather hideous from behind thick sunglasses. I’m not sure about these sunglasses on dark days like this. You must be either stoned or ‘cool’. But since we are at the police station, I guess it is the latter. Chinese like to have a dark look at the world. It is not just the sunglasses. Car windows are also tinted and so dark that you wonder why they made the window there in the first place. At each traffic junction they need to turn down the window, take off their sunglasses and stick their head out just to assure themselves there actually is a junction. I try to remind myself of the bright side of all this: it does slow them down enough to be a real lifesaver! Anyway, going outside was not a solution either. Not only was it too cold, but nowadays, outside is where the smokers are. This is the result of a new law, banning smokers from all public buildings and condemning them into the fresh air. And because they all smoke two cigarettes at the same time, believe me, fresh air is hard to find.
Finally the door to the large ‘lecture’ hall opened and everyone started to run and push. Me too. This was important. You miss this session and you have to wait at least another hour for the next. This pushing may be part of the reeducation plan, though I’m not sure. I made it inside and was shepherded to my seat, all the way up, at the end of the last row of old wooden benches. The large flat-screen TV mounted on the blackboard was already playing. It never stops. And so my reeducation began: “Xiao haizi (small kids!), now we will teach you how to behave safely in the streets…” This introductory was obviously stolen from the neighboring school and meant to soften the effect on us, since within minutes blood was dripping from the screen, showing horrifying accidents. Even for the third time, it is shocking. I wasn’t the only regular here, I could see: others had brought newspapers and laptops and were using their time wisely. The supervisor -‘nurse Ratched’ is the only fitting name I could think of- whom apparently had left Ken Kesey’s Cuckoo’s nest for China shortly after McMurphy flew out, was constantly shouting but at no-one in particular, didn’t care less. Not me, I’m too law-abiding. I’d brought my Chinese language teacher, also my guide and guard, and we were fanatically chatting away about a new project of some sort, once in a while throwing a glance over to the screen where captivated bodies were pulled away from underneath big truck wheels. I was learning.
But don’t think less of China now. Don’t think these nation-wide brainwashing attempts are typical just for China. Not so, elsewhere, it’s just called differently. I remember well looking at the public TV announcements from the Dutch government each year in December, seeing 3-fingered boys, one-eyed men and headless stumps telling us, innocent civilians, their firework adventures. I learned a lot from them too!
And without it, the now so civilized Singaporeans would still be spitting chewing gum. With the same goals in mind, today’s cigarette packs in Singapore show large photos of horribly disfigured body parts in clinically sharp close-ups to make sure you don’t want to be next. And in America no president or lesser politician would ever be chosen if not for the foul and mind-numbing advertisement campaigns.
Then, finally, after the 30-minute ‘movie’ and another hour of waiting, it was my turn to present myself at the counter for confession and to pay the fine. Humbled I stepped forward. The young police lady looked up, checked my Chinese drivers license, hammered away on her keyboard, stared at the screen and said: “You have no unpaid fine.” This can’t be. I showed her the ticket I pulled from underneath my screen-wiper a week ago.
“No, really.” And she smiled the first smile I’d seen in this place, “Nothing to pay.”
“Please, let me pay a fine. I’ve come all the way and waited all this time… This can’t be for nothing!”
“Oh no,” she said, “it wasn’t for nothing, at least you’ve seen the movie.”