A Cautionary Tale for Expats in China – a Guest Post by Lionel Carver
Even though jailhouse stories have become the stuff of cliché in Hollywood films, I figured somebody somewhere would want to know about my time in a Chinese prison.
Like many foreigners in China, I arrived in Shanghai in search of the “jade dream.”
Unfortunately, finding work that did NOT involve teaching English was not as easy as I had hoped.
I had met many people in Shanghai – locals and foreigners – with startup businesses, and so I, too, thought it would be great to jump on board a venture to capitalize on China’s growing economy.
The first company I signed up with, a small real estate startup, seemed like a good opportunity because Chinese real estate prices were soaring.
The cost of illegal immigration in the United States.
Unfortunately, they never actually paid me a steady wage. They also led me on with false promises of the coveted “Z” Work Visa. These two withholdings were a double-edged sword because it prevented me from earning enough money to renew my visa let alone stay in or get out of the country.
Eventually my 3-month tourist visa expired. I thought I would be okay as long as I laid low—but I was wrong. There are eyes everywhere in China, especially on foreigners.
It was in Huaqiaozhen, a suburb of Shanghai, that everything began to unravel. I had just signed a lease for a cheap, shared apartment, but, strangely, the landlord never came to collect the rent or sign the contract.
One Saturday morning I awoke to a knock at my door. I answered, thinking it would be the landlord, only to come face to face with a PSB (Public Security Bureau) officer checking identifications for registration.
Luckily, he didn’t speak English, so I phoned up a trusted friend to tell the officer I would register the next morning. I spent the rest of the day packing my stuff and moving out.
I fled to Baoshan district in northern Shanghai, and with the last of my savings acquired a cheap apartment, where I lived quite frugally (no TV, internet, bed, etc).
I washed my clothes by hand and used a single naked light bulb for illumination. Anyone who thought that westerners in China have it made should have seen me sleeping on the bare floor.
Inevitably, the police once again came knocking at my door to do the registration thing. This time I didn’t answer, but, as I learned later, one of the officers waiting outside spotted me hiding on my balcony.
They tried both the landlord and real estate agent to contact me, and I replied with a text message that I had lost my passport at a friend’s party.
This bought me some extra time.
A western acquaintance I met in Shanghai advised me to get another foreigner to stay in my apartment and flash their passport when the police came calling again. I asked if he would be willing, but he was smart enough to avoid his own advice.
How the United States and Canada treated Chinese Immigrants
When the cops showed up again, I was in the shower and didn’t hear them at my door. I prepared to go to Krispy Kreme, my daily indulgence (I’m not the fittest foreigner in China), which also allowed me to use their free wifi, another penny saver I learned from being broke abroad (a donut is cheaper than the internet).
When I exited my apartment building, I noticed two fellows wearing police uniforms.
I thought I could evade them if they didn’t speak English, but that strategy failed when they began chatting with me in my own mother tongue.
“Let’s go for ride,” the officer said, with what I interpreted as an ominous smile.
“Um, to where?” I asked.
“Police station, of course.”
I swallowed and thought up the first excuse I could. “My passport is still at my friend’s house, so I can’t register yet.”
“That’s okay, you still come.”
A half hour later, I’m sitting in an interrogation room of the local PSB office with an English-speaking immigration officer telling me I am “illegal”, because it’s against Chinese law to not carry your passport at all times.
On top of that, according to their computer, my visa had expired.
It took most of the day to get all the paperwork done—the Chinese are not known for their expediency.
Since I didn’t have money to pay the exorbitant “fine”, I agreed to eight days in detention.
When I signed that fateful agreement, I also checked a box so that the American embassy would be notified and so they could begin processing my new passport—even though it was never really lost.
Off I went in a white Santana police car to begin my eight days of incarceration.
After being processed at the detention center, I was corralled into a cell with five bunk beds.
Violence Inside American Prisons
There was a TV set above the door, a small radio, and a closed circuit camera that watched everything, which were the only things modern about the cell.
A Chinese squat-style toilet offering no privacy sat in one corner along with a sink. Inmates are given a package of recycled paper to use as toilet paper, which is not very comfy on the rear.
Opposite the toilet are shelves where inmates put their washbasins, which also house our eating bowl, spoon, toothbrush and toothpaste, a bar of bath soap, laundry soap, and a hand towel.
Each inmate is issued a button-down t-shirt with the Chinese name of the jail written on the back, along with a pair of black-gym shorts with white stripes on the sides. Shoes are placed on a shelf outside the cell and inmates are given rubber sandals to wear in the cell.
I also received a laundered pillowcase and a bed sheet. The beds are cushioned and have bamboo-reed mats on top.
The inmates were all Chinese, and I was the only foreigner there. I noticed that most of the prisoners had tattoos or horrible scars from their lives outside jail. Some looked like beggars and others like gang members. The most any of them could say in English was “Hello.” Better a Hello, I thought, than the “Your sh*it on my d*ck or blood on my knife” greeting I would have received in an American prison.
Apparently, however, homosexual encounters do happen in a Chinese prison.
One night I crawled up into my top bunk preparing for bed. I tried to fall asleep but the other inmates were still shuffling around and talking; one young man lit up a rolled piece of newspaper and began smoking it in lieu of actual tobacco.
Eventually everyone turned in for the night in spite of the fact that the lights stay on all night—I have learned that the Chinese can sleep through anything.
I thought I was the only person still awake when I heard one guy whispering to another.
Five minutes later, my metal-frame bunk bed began rocking back and forth. At first, I thought my bunkmate below was just getting up to take a leak, but the rocking never stopped.
Moaning and slapping noises ensued.
Rape in American Prisons
Daring to peek over the edge of my bunk, I saw one guy atop another. When the top man had finished, he slid off and another inmate came over and climbed on top of the same bottom man.
I didn’t know if I was witnessing a rape or of this threesome was consensual, and I was glad I wasn’t going to be in Chinese prison much longer to find out.
Overall, life in a Chinese prison is very boring. We never left our cells, and going outside was not allowed.
There are no sports.
We did exercise but to a short training video on the cell’s TV where we start off marching, swing our arms around, then touch our toes, and then perform jumping jacks.
There was no library, so books were very hard to come by; I was lucky to find an English book, one of those woman’s romance novels with a longhaired beefcake on the cover, which isn’t the kind of reading you want in a men’s prison.
During the first three days in jail, all inmates are required to skip naptime after lunch.
This may not seem like much of a punishment until you realize that every day starts at 6 am and ends after 9 pm. Most of the time, I felt exhausted, not from any physical exertion but from extreme boredom.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s chain gangs, tent prison and no television for prisoners
In prison, sleeping or dreaming is an inmate’s only salvation, and I dreamed about many things that week
For example, I dreamed about a cute Chinese girl I’d once met in Nanjing. I even began having delusional fantasies that I was in the video game Final Fantasy having sword fights.
Each day begins with an officer on the intercom yelling something in Chinese (I’m guessing it means, “Get up!”).
The first thing we did was make our beds. Inmates need to fold their bed sheet every day, like in a military boot camp, and it must be folded correctly. The supervisor comes in each morning after roll call to inspect the rooms.
Then somebody empties the trash by throwing it through the bars of the door. Two inmates out in the halls do the task of collecting garbage. In fact, those same two guys did all the tasks for the jailhouse (garbage, deliver food, water, etc), which is kind of gross when you think about it.
Next, came the hot water (in a giant metal barrel with a tap). Soon after that, the helpers bring the breakfast cart.
U.S. Unemployment, poverty and then atrocities in the prison systems
Prison meals always consisted of rice and vegetable soup with the exception of breakfast, which was some kind of orange-colored root. No meat! But since I was a foreign guest, I was allowed to also request a Chinese steamed bun.
Although the food was tolerable, it produced torrents of gas. Imagine being trapped in a cell with ten Chinese men ripping farts all day. That is the true definition of torture.
During roll call, inmates are required to line up their stools in the hall and sit on them in orderly fashion. When your number is called, you stand and then sit back down.
One day, an inmate argued with a guard, and I have no idea what it was about.
However, the next day during roll call, the officer called that prisoner’s number, made him stand up, then sit down, then up again, and did this repeatedly for some time.
After roll call, we either had morning exercise or just stared into space. This time in the morning was also used by the warden to question new inmates about their cases.
The Truth behind Deaths in U.S. Immigration Jails and Prisons
Lunch arrives noon and sometimes we were escorted out into a big sitting room to eat while listening to jazz music or watching a movie.
Once, they put on a pirated DVD of “Apocalypto” just for me, but I was subsequently charged 5 RMB for that viewing pleasure.
After dinner is bath time and those that want to clean their clothes washed and hung their stuff to dry on their bunks.
The rest of the night was spent watching Chinese television or socializing until bedtime.
Air conditioning did not exist.
Instead, there were two ceiling fans, and during the day if it was too hot and stuffy, the two helpers brought giant blocks of ice, which we put in wash basins in the middle of the room to help cool the air.
On the 7th day of my incarceration, an assistant from the American consulate appeared with a translator. I signed some papers and he provided me with two English-language magazines to pass the remainder of my time.
He explained that after I was released, I was to hurry to the consulate before 5 pm to acquire my new passport and then get on a flight home that same night, because I was being deported.
The next morning came, and the police said they would take me to my apartment to pack my belongings.
Caution, do not overstay your Visa in the United States.
I wished the police had not been with me so I could have called some people I’d met in Shanghai and explain my situation.
Since I didn’t want to go home for fear of unemployment—and mom’s wrath, I wanted to negotiate with the consulate to go to Japan or Korea or somewhere, anywhere, in Asia instead of back to America.
As a child, I had fought and beat cancer (I’m in my early twenties now), which is why I decided to see the world instead of spend the rest of my precious life delivering Dominos or standing at a Wal-Mart register.
My mom had been so proud of me for venturing off to China to find my fortune in spite of my physical limitations, but I had failed to find steady employment abroad and had gotten myself arrested and deported instead.
God bless moms!
The consulate informed me that, while I was locked up, my mother had sent money to Western Union to cover the costs of my flight ticket home.
But when we went to pick up the money, the police wanted some for a “fine” and to pay for my exit visa.
The U.S. consular assistant explained to my police escort that the money was only for my trip home, because I had spent eight days in jail in lieu of a fine, and I was not legally required to pay.
Jobless in America unless you have the right skills.
It must have been a ploy by the escorting officers to earn a little on the side. Nice Try!
I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in the immigration office at Pudong Airport waiting for my exit visa to be processed.
The upside to my deportation was that the immigration official informed me that because of my good attitude, he would allow me to come back to China whenever I wanted instead of blacklisting me for five years as was the usual policy.
After acquiring my exit visa, I was booked on a flight. I had no idea where I was going to land in the United States, but the ticket cost 13,800 RMB (USD $2,160!!!), which seemed outrageously expensive.
I suspect the police and immigration officers had worked out a way to get extra money for themselves. The two police officers escorted me to the gate to make sure I actually left China.
As I type this true to life story, I’m back in my room at grandma’s house in Middle America. I still haven’t found a job. When I touched down in the U.S., I felt as if I were walking on the ashes of a once-great country that had been nuked by economic collapse.
The jobs are few and far between and the wages even lower than when I had left for China.
Even if I found work, I don’t believe I could handle an office job, because I don’t feel comfortable being caged in a cubicle, which, when you think about it is like a cage surrounding the mind and isn’t much different from the Chinese jail cell where I spent eight days.
Note from Blog host: The China Daily reported on another American leaving China for similar reasons that caused Lionel Carver to be sent home. However, Kevin (from California) didn’t spend any time in jail.
In fact, the China Daily reported, “An young American man who had run out of money in Wuhan, Hubei province, got a free air ticket to Beijing as well as a moon cake from the airport police on Sept 11, one day before the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival.”
To subscribe to “iLook China”, sign up for an E-mail Subscription at the top right-hand side of this page and then follow directions.