The time from first being interviewed for the job to arriving at it spanned 14 months.
The process included tests for editing and writing in broadcast style, security background checks, getting permission from the Chinese authorities to work at a state organization, and acquiring a work visa. Right in the middle of these 14 months, in the holiday weeks of late December 2015 and early January 2016, I had to make two trips to the Chinese consulate in Chicago. This was to turn over and then retrieve my university degree. It had to be done in person, not by mail, according to the Chinese visa rules, after getting the degree authenticated by the state of Michigan and then notarized.
The first trip was through an ice storm. It moved east from Chicago to Detroit with such timing that my car was in it for the maximum amount of time possible. I entered the storm’s front edge as it hit western metro Detroit and was in it all the way to Chicago.
I’d just gotten my coffee and some food at a small place on Michigan Ave. in Detroit’s western suburbs. I was feeling happy-go-lucky about my adventure, both the immediate one at hand and the greater one it was part of. The feeling of possibility that fuels the spirit.
I had a trunk full of beer and a nice boutique hotel room waiting for me in downtown Chicago, already paid up, with a Jacuzzi. My friend Jenny from Schaumburg is to meet me there. An indulgence I’ll allow myself. The greater mission of getting to China has a lot of slogging to it. Why not enjoy it?
Trip No. 1 — Ice, electrical shocking, and trucks
As soon as I leave the little roadside joint, I spill the takeout coffee all over the seat of my car. There is so much spilled coffee it pools in the crevice between the seat and the back, even though it’s made of absorbent plush interior material, not a plastic material that most modern cars have.
I always keep disaster towels in here. I stuff some into the crevice. They sop up the pool but the seats remain loaded with coffee. The seat of my pants is wet and will remain so. The heat in the car barely works. Nothing will be drying out in this cold interior.
An inauspicious start. I’m supposed to be driving my green 1979 Buick I’ve poured so much blood, sweat, tears, money, and time into over the past five years. Everything mechanical in that car is new or rebuilt. But yesterday, Christmas, the engine started making a terrible metal rattling sound. I don’t dare drive it like that.
Once again, this blue 1985 Dodge Diplomat has come to the rescue. Despite all my efforts on the beloved Buick, it’s always the plucky Diplomat that ends up doing the heavy-lifting — a car that only gets out of me whatever bare work is necessary to keep it running, which is remarkably little, contrary to what its appearance would suggest. It’s the unappreciated workhorse sister, of reliable, quiet dignity. I bought it for $500 as a temporary ride while I got the Buick up and running, something I thought would take a few months. Six and a half years later, I’m still depending on it for the most serious work.
This isn’t the first time we’ve been in this situation. Five years ago, at this same time of year, I got up in the very early morning hours to make a trip to Chicago for a job interview. My plan was to “barrelhouse it”, as I like to put it. Get up early enough to drive to 300 miles from eastern Michigan to Chicago in time for the morning interview. Turn around and come back. Push the mission hard. Maximum efficiency. I had to conserve money back then as it was all going into the just-begun Buick revival. No money for motels.
I immediately hit a blizzard that blinded me and numbed any feel for the road, giving me an unsettling feeling of disconnection. I repeatedly got off the expressway to use regular roads, hoping to reach a break in the weather. One never came. I made it to the middle of Michigan before I called it off, something I rarely do. But the woman I was to meet had sounded like a pinched malcontent on the phone earlier, which roused my instincts. The more I fought this storm, the more I thought about that voice. Probably a miserable place to work, I thought.
I stopped in the parking lot of a warehouse or light industrial building on a country road, phoned in a message that I wouldn’t be making it, and went home.
Six months later I’d be making another job-interview trip to Chicago, now in stifling July heat. Before leaving Detroit my brakes would start making grinding sounds. This happened right at the end of an exit ramp. I had to get off the expressway when the merge lane I needed was blocked because of construction, the sign pointing to Chicago covered. I hit the brakes on the exit ramp. They made that sound. The pedal went to the floor and the brakes ground the car to a stop. I refused to turn around, remembering that trip in winter. I drove the whole way having to push the brakes alarmingly to the floor. I paced the car in a way that minimized braking. But on a trip of hundreds of miles, into heavy Chicago traffic, this only can do so much to reduce the risk.
On the road where this employer was located, the car started stalling every time I turned left, which I had to do repeatedly while trying to find the place. To this day I don’t know why.
I got there early enough to get out of the car and cool off so I wouldn’t have sweat marks in my shirt armpits.
I drove back, brakes grinding the whole way, car no longer stalling. Other cars were dying in the heat, stuck on the side of the road as the Fourth of July weekend began. I made it home. I didn’t get the job.
At a rest stop somewhere in western Michigan, my windshield wiper stops working. There’s only one. I long ago took the only good one and put it on the driver side, tossing the other one. It did nothing but smear water in a way that made it harder to see than if it had done no wiping at all.
It happens as I leave, in the lane to get on the expressway. I wheel sharply back into the parking area for big semitrucks, stop, and get under the hood. Sideways ice and snow is whipping my face. I touch the wiper motor and the wiper does one swish of the glass before stopping again. “Must be shorted-out,” I think. I grab the motor, jiggle it, and promptly get shocked.
I drive with no wipers, looking through a layer of ice. I reach out the window a few times to pour warm water on the windshield and try to get the ice to melt. But the motions it takes to do this risks accidentally jerking the wheel. The road is covered in smooth ice. Even a slight wrong jerk could send the car sideways.
I could try to get off the expressway to scrape off the ice but could easily just end up sliding off the road. The exits are choked with snow. The ice would only build up again in a few minutes anyway.
I continue at the slowest pace acceptable to other drivers. Fortunately, this may be the one time in my life I’ve seen drivers react sensibly to a blizzard. Everyone’s crawling, not insisting on trying to go at regular speed. This is the same weather system that just tore through Texas and killed people with tornadoes.
The ice and sleet turn to rain. The ice melts. I go to a gas station to try to get the wiper motor working but fail. I steal a squeegee from the window-cleaning station next to a pump and from time to time use it to manually wipe the window from inside the car while driving.
The rain could be just the break I need to get through this. I have some of that surface treatment on the window that makes water bead up and fly off, making wipers almost unnecessary.
But the break only lasts the few remaining minutes before it turns dark, well before Chicago. I enter a lit section of expressway on the short jaunt through Indiana between Michigan and Illinois. This turns the windshield situation from ill-advised to terrifying. The lights overhead glare off the water beads and bring visibility to nothing when I’m near or underneath them. I’m driving blind every five seconds out of ten.
This Diplomat has a compromised leaf spring I’ve got all rigged up in the back. It’s held in place with metal C-clamps attached to the left rear wheel suspension. An orange ratchet strap runs from the rear axle to the frame in the front of the car, to prevent the rear suspension from ripping out from underneath me in the event the C-clamps give way.
That very well could happen. I keep hitting huge potholes. I’m way too far out to be getting this car towed back. I’d have to abandon it if I can’t get it to roll anymore. I get into the right lane where I can go slowly and bail into the side of the road if I have to.
I’m also worried about hydroplaning. We’ve gone from riding in ice and slush to water everywhere, high winds blowing everybody the fuck around, and then here comes another semitruck blowing more air, pushing me toward puddles on the side of the road. For some reason, this Indiana section is always loaded with heavy semitruck traffic. It comes on suddenly. You’re driving through countryside one moment, in a crunch of ponderous lumbering beasts the next.
I start ranting, as people are wont to do in their cars.
“I love trucks. Praise America. Why use fucking trains, right? There’s something appropriate about all this. I’m having this miserable time, not for the first time, just trying to scrape by and get ahead in this world and all that shit — and it’s always on the way to Chicago, always gotta go to Chicago — and it’s fitting this is happening as I’m struggling to get to China and get the fuck out of this mess. That’s what all this is about. I’m out here risking my life. I’ve been on the road for six hours in this shit, against the storm. How long is this fucking storm? I’ve been driving for six hours against it. … These headlights are so fucking weak. They always have been. It’s like I don’t even have them on. If it weren’t for the other cars out here with their lights on, it’d be like I was flying in fucking outer space.”
The exit I need to get onto another expressway toward Chicago is coming up. Blinded by glare and surrounded by trucks, I can only read signs when I’m right underneath them or passing them.
When I see the sign for my exit, it’s through the passenger side window. I jerk the wheel and veer into the V-shaped area formed by the space between the exit lane and the expressway. It’s full of two-foot-high snow. I plow into it. A semitruck enters the exit lane behind me as my car begins to slide into that lane. I take my foot off the gas, pull the wheel back into the V, and nearly slide back into main traffic. I move the wheel back and forth in short movements so the tires have more interaction with the piled-up snow. The increased resistance brings the car to a stop. The truck passes. I blast out of the V through the snow and into the exit lane.
How I made it the rest of the way to Chicago I don’t know.
What is normally a four-or-five-hour trip turned into an eight-hour one. Even with the one-hour time zone difference on my side, I don’t arrive to my hotel until well after dark. Jenny Schaumburg and I load the fridge full of now ice-cold beer and get into the hot tub.
If my car had gotten hit by that truck from behind, it probably would have killed me. Everything’s so rusty back there, the car would have accordioned and the gas tank might have exploded.
Trip No. 2 – A Murderous Path
Two days later at home, back home, I took the rocker covers off the Buick’s engine and saw that a pushrod had gotten bent. That’s what had been making all the racket.
It was easily replaced, and I could have taken this car for the second trip to Chicago, but my friend Sean who came along with me this time insisted I rent a car to be on the safe side.
This trip came on somewhat spontaneously. I got word that my degree was ready for pickup. There was some pressure to keep the process moving and get it picked up sooner rather than later. I fortunately had a work situation where I could make weekday trips without needing extraordinary permission from a supervisor. I needed only to say I was going to Chicago and would be busy for a day or two.
So we hit the road that evening. The plan was to shoot over to west Michigan, stay at a motel, drink cheap beer and act stupid, wake up early, drive the last hour or so to Chicago, get to the consulate during morning business hours, do my paperwork business, and head back.
The Last Trip
“We cannot have four more years of apologizing to our enemies,” Mike Pence is saying on a TV screen hanging over our heads in the consulate’s waiting area.
July 21, my fourth and final trip to the consulate.
I had to visit the consulate twice this month, once to drop off my passport and another to pick it up, now with a visa pasted inside it.
On each of the four visits I’ve now made here, whenever I go to push my papers through the slot in the bottom of the bulletproof glass window at the counter, a strong current of air pushes back against my papers. It makes me fumble with the papers as I react to push the forward edges back down and slide them through to the clerk, who looks at me unmoved. No sign of emotion, apart from shades of disdain and anger. The very picture of stereotypical Asian authoritarianism.
I can’t help feel that this air thing is a device to keep people off balance. Winter or summer, it’s always like that. It’s definitely intentional. For what purpose, I cannot imagine. Maybe fears of biological agents — they pressurize their office container behind there to prevent the bad Americans from ever trying to float infectious diseases at them.
But that’d be ridiculous. They’d have to be on a far end of paranoid to go to such lengths.* I have an inkling that this is a sign of things to come, even though I know that’s illogical. It’s just air. But somehow it speaks to the nature of dealing with China. It’s a silent reminder to anyone who would approach it that the Chinese government is in charge here. We’ll blow air at you motherfuckers just because we can.
*After more than three years working for Chinese state media, I can say with easy confidence that this would be entirely within keeping of Chinese authorities’ way of thinking.
Our path took us to points of recent fatal tragedies.
We stayed at a Red Roof Inn in Kalamazoo. Next to the front desk was a pile of leaflets from Cottage Inn Pizza. I took one.
“We won’t deliver there for the next four weeks,” they guy on the phone told me.
“Yeah, some high school party was going on or something. Maybe a drug deal problem, I don’t know. Somebody opened the door, shoots the guy at the door, right in the face. I talked to someone at the Red Roof Inn there who said someone’s been arrested for it.”
Sean was looking at me as I hung up the phone, having heard half of this conversation.
“It might have been this very room,” I explained. “Didn’t the clerk say something about how this room had just ‘opened back up’? The way she said it, it sounded like it’d been closed-off for days. Maybe it was part of the crime scene.”
I looked it up later. According to news reports, the shooting happened in the parking lot below, not at the door to the room. A high schooler was shot in his car after a fight broke out. There had indeed been a party going on, and it was on the second floor, where Sean and I stayed.
In the morning at the front desk, I pointed to the stack of Cottage Inn papers and said to the clerk, “We tried to order from them but they wouldn’t deliver because somebody got shot in the face.” She was taken aback, then tried to act as if she didn’t know what I was talking about. Then after I went on more about it, she said in a low voice, “We’re not allowed to talk about that. It’s policy.”
Sean and I headed out, woefully hungover. We carried out the mission successfully.
A week later, someone got murdered at one of the tollbooth stops we went through. It was on the Chicago Skyway bridge. An SUV rolled up to a car just after it passed the toll, according to news reports. Someone inside the SUV rolled down the window and shot two people in the car, a man and a woman. The man died on the spot.
Bad bodings for my greater mission to China.
This post is part of the Moving to China series, documenting my transition to mainland China in 2015 and 2016, when government-operated broadcaster CCTV flew me over to work as a news editor at its Beijing headquarters. The channel is now known as China Global Television Network. It is a soft-power endeavor of the country’s Communist Party-ruled government.