I’ve been sitting on this article for days: cycled through a range of emotions from frustrated to depressed to apathetic to suicidal. I’ve paced around my childhood home, screamed in the backyard when my parents left to run errands, laid on the floor while staring blankly at the ceiling for hours, washed the same set of dishes three times in one day, and binge-ate a variety of chip flavors that I’d missed out on during my past three years in Asia.
I didn’t talk to more than a few close friends about what actually happened in Florida back in early 2016 before I went to China the second time. I flew in from Washington, D.C. with the intention of spending no more than 10 days visiting my parents. It seemed like the right thing to do before leaving again for an undetermined amount of time.
As usual, I felt irritated from the moment I got off the plane to line up at baggage claim. It took airport staff almost a half hour to get the bags onto the conveyor belt and the drive from Tampa to St. Petersburg wasn’t exactly quick. Because I’d been eager to get out of Florida at the age of 16 and rarely visited since I’d left about 12 years ago, I didn’t have more than three friends in the area: one girl, *Mandy, I rarely talk to due to the nuclear power plant levels of toxicity in our relationship.
My mom not only suffers from stage 4 kidney failure but severe mental health problems as well. Dad failed to tell me that Mom was in the middle of a psychotic breakdown. She couldn’t comprehend the world around her. He’d also been drinking every day after work and cried into his beer cans. I started arguing with him because I needed him to man up for a change. This situation stressed the hell out of me which made me wanna smoke pot, drink, and do pills with Mandy almost every day.
Mandy and I decided to blow off some steam at the mall. As we walked into the bathroom, she realized that she’d lost her purse. We spent hours looking for security, which surprise-surprise was nowhere in hell to be found until we decided to check the food court. A bald dude in a pit-stained white shirt with a protruding beer gut led us to the security area where they’d preserved her purse, minus all the cash in her wallet. More stress meant going back to the car and smoking even more pot. Suddenly, Mandy’s phone vibrated.
“It’s my grandma,” she said after taking another riff. “If I’m not home by tomorrow, she’s gonna call the cops.”
“Pfft, you’re 23. Let her try it.”
I should have known better. After all, Sandy a.k.a. the Devil Herself™ never backed down on a threat.
I sat outside with my hair in a silk scarf, leaned back in a weathered lawn chair, and smoked a Newport. A skinny, bald, sunglasses-wearing cop jumped out of his cruiser and started barking at me like a pit bull in the hood.
“Whose house is this?”
“Mine,” I said after taking another drag.
“I’m gonna check the house and if she’s in there, you’re going to jail.”
He ignored my question as three pigs barged into my house. My mom walked outside and sat in the lawn chair next to mine.
“Ma’am, is there anyone else in the house?” the main pig asked.
“She’s mentally ill! She can’t consent to questioning,” I replied.
They tried again. I repeated the statement until it got through their thick skulls. My blood boiled. Sandy stood at the edge of our driveway with a wry smirk stretched across her face. The cops climbed back into the cruiser.
“You know my mom is sick and you brought these fucking pigs to my house instead of talking to us directly like human beings. I will never forgive you for this!”
“Your parents might be afraid of you but I’m not,” she said, then turned around to walk away.
“You’re gonna be afraid of me, you old bitch! You’ve gone too far this time! When the hell are you gonna die?” My voice cracked and tears welled up in my eyes. I ran back into the house and slammed the door. Mandy slinked inside through the back.
“It’s ok, mom,” I said as Mandy and I guided her to the bedroom. We figured she’d need to rest after the ordeal. After mom laid down and closed her eyes, we took the car out to Tampa.
The Inciting Incident
The highway stretched into the sunset. My speakers poured Al Rocco, a Chinese Hip Hop artist I’d become obsessed with in 2015. When I pulled up to the club, the parking lot was pretty much empty. I met with the manager for my third shift at the bar. He let me set up early since I really didn’t wanna be at home. A few hours later, an Asian-American guy in his early 30s walked in. We hit it off. I told him I’d be going to China in a few days. He suggested a celebration. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a lighter in the car so I had to drive about 500 meters to the nearest 7-11.
I pulled into a parking spot, turned off the ignition, took the key out, and looked into the rearview mirror. To my horror, an officer walked up to the driver’s side window. I tried to remain calm. They asked if I’d been drinking, asked me to get out of the car and do a bunch of field tests, then put me in handcuffs. They took my Lexapro bottle out of the glove compartment and put each pill on the hood of the police cruiser, one-by-one. The female officer pulled up my sweatshirt and began touching my bare skin and my breasts with the palm of her hands. I’m convinced it wasn’t a normal pat down. Either she wasn’t trained properly or she was sexually assaulting me on purpose. I couldn’t think straight.
“Fuck you, you coon ass bitch,” I yelled before hawking a loogie.
When I got to jail, they said there were possession and battery charges in addition to the DUI. They also didn’t take any information from the guy in the passenger’s seat. In Florida, a DUI is only a misdemeanor but it carries some heavy penalties like an automatic six-month suspension of your driver’s license. If it happened in New York, I’d be looking at 90 days and they wouldn’t have cared about a few Xanax and Percocet: which, by the way, every middle-aged, white, suburban soccer mom in this country pops on the daily to deal with the absolute mind-numbingly boring existence that is life in modern America. If it were China, I don’t think I’d be writing this article at all because the police over there aren’t as out to get people over minor shit like the ones in the American South.
My Dad got a 7k loan from the bank to bail me out of jail. I went home and faced an impossible choice. I had just over 1k in the bank. That money was for my first month’s living expenses in China. If I stayed, I wouldn’t have been able to afford a lawyer. I wasn’t foolish enough to rely on some overworked, underpaid public defender. If I left, eventually I’d have to come back and face the music, but it would give me time to save up enough money for my legal defense so I’d at least have a chance to fight for my life.
End of the Rope
On November 2, I went to the U.S. consulate in Shanghai to renew my passport because there were no pages left. One month later, they sent me an email asking me to come in. I knew exactly what would happen.
A representative from American Citizen Services and another from Law Enforcement sat behind a glass wall in front of me.
“Did you know there’s a warrant for your arrest in Florida?” they said.
“I’d rather not talk about it,” I replied.
“Well, that’s your right,” said L.E. He slipped a letter through the opening in the glass. “Look, I don’t know what you’ve seen in the movies or anything. We don’t arrest people here at the consulate or anything like that. What’s gonna happen is we’ll give you a temporary passport that’s only good for five days. You’re gonna need to go back and take care of this. We won’t tell the Chinese government why we’re holding your passport as long as you cooperate. And don’t think you can just stay here and wait as long as you can, because it’s only a matter of time before they discover you don’t have a passport and you can’t live here without a passport. In my opinion, your charges are not that serious. It’s only murderers and child molesters that we alert the local authorities about. We don’t feel like doing those scumbags any favors. As for your case, you’ll be working with ACS to get back home. Get a lawyer, pay the fines, and come back to China.”
DaJie had waited downstairs at the coffee shop for over an hour. “What’s wrong, Eli?”
I couldn’t talk. I just put my head down and cried inconsolably for over an hour. When I mustered a little strength to go outside, I sat down on the sidewalk and started crying again.
“My life is over.”
An old beggar woman started chatting with DaJie. DaJie’s brain is a bit fried from too much Ambien so I worried about this lady tricking her out of what pittance she had. We took a DiDi back to the apartment and she helped me begin packing.
I had to make the call. “Dad, I need a lawyer immediately. I’ll give you all the money I have. Please just help me.”
The following day, Quantum（量子）, Chloe’s old pimp, took the stuff I couldn’t carry as well as my cat, Sparky. Every other time I put Sparky in the carrier, she’d jump in like we were going on an adventure but that time she kept jumping back out. I think she sensed that I wasn’t coming back for a while.
“You’re gonna need money,” said my boyfriend, *Joey. He transferred 10k RMB to my WeChat. I reluctantly accepted.
The next day, I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking shadows in the corner belonged to Sparky. That Thursday morning I went to the consulate to pick up my temporary passport. Everything on the American side worked seamlessly. On the Chinese side, I hit snags at every step.
At the Shanghai immigration office, they told me to go to the local police station to register my new passport. Another hour on the subway. I dug through all the cabinets, drawers, and crevices of my apartment but the rental contract was nowhere to be found.
I called the guy who took me the first time since I couldn’t even register in my actual neighborhood due them asking for several documents that were impossible to obtain. The guy was out of town. His friend was late, the rain poured down without an end in sight, and rush hour traffic blocked every road. He went to the wrong police station at first which caused us to spend yet another hour bumper-to-bumper. By the time we arrived at the correct police station, all the people handling registration had gone home. Apparently, they got off work at 4:30.
The security guard told me to come back in the morning, but I’d need my rental contract and I knew they’d be stringent about documentation so I decided not to waste my time. I couldn’t even register at a hotel due to my passport not having a visa inside. I’d essentially been fucked three ways to Sunday.
I braved the morning rush hour, waited for no less than three trains, and held the rail for almost an hour. When I got there, the same bitchy little woman who gave me problems about documents for the student visa by not telling me anything and making me go to that office several times was working the lost passport desk. She had me make copies of my plane ticket and some other paperwork. After all that, she told me I needed to go to the police station to register my new passport. I tried to explain to her why I wasn’t able to do that but she wouldn’t listen and just rudely threw the papers back at me.
I decided to take my Dad’s advice and go over her head. I called my contact at the U.S. consulate. Within ten minutes, the head of immigration walked out from behind the glass. He pointed at me as a gesture to follow him.
“Your consulate called me. Why do you need to go back to your country in such a hurry?”
I calmly explained the issue with the documents but left the reasons for my departure purposefully vague. He went behind the glass for a few minutes and came back with the same stark facial expression.
“Will you live in the same place for the remainder of your time in Shanghai?”
“Yes,” I replied.
He handed me a new registration document and motioned for me to head back up to the same window. My phone vibrated. I picked it up.
“Hello, Ms. Cunningham, this is *Sam with ACS. I’m sorry, the immigration office insisted on knowing the reason why you need a humanitarian visa right away. I told them there was a traffic incident a few years ago. I asked them if it would affect your return to China and they said ‘no’.”
“You’re welcome. Wish you a safe return to the U.S.”
Last Monday, my boyfriend took a cab with me to the airport. For two hours, he didn’t utter a single word. He wouldn’t even hug me goodbye but I’m thankful that he stood by my side until the end.
11 hours later, I woke up in San Francisco. The sun peaked out from the horizon. That day there was no night.
There’s a 13-hour time difference between Shanghai and the Eastern United States. The jet lag usually lasts about a week. My lawyer got me a court date last Thursday. All of the felonies were dropped but I was still convicted of a DUI. I was sentenced to 18 months probation with the ability to cut the time in half if I follow all of my conditions. This means that the minimum amount of time I’ll be able to get out of here and get on with my life is 9 months.
My parents live in a small seaside city full of retirees and snowbirds. There are no jobs here or at least, none that I’d be able to justify doing for the measly pay they offer which wouldn’t even cover my legal fees. There’s also no way to get around without driving. The only saving grace is the fact that there’s Uber now so at least I can run some errands without bothering my family for rides. I’m still waiting for an unlocked phone to come in the mail because none of the SIM cards I bought work with my Huawei.
As a condition of my probation, I also can’t drive for six months and can’t work in a bar, the only job would pay somewhat decently in this area. My money can’t last more than a few months at the most.
I’ve decided to take out a loan in order to survive until the end of my probation. I wanna go back to New York. That’s where all my friends in the states live and it’s my official residence. The most messed up thing about all of this is that I was thinking about leaving China for several months but I wanted to do it on my terms. Now everything is ruined. I mean, the passport can be reobtained after my probation but I may no longer be able to afford my lifestyle since it’s hard as hell to make money in the U.S. and everything is so fucking expensive. I’m frustrated beyond words.
I just feel like my life is over.
*Some names were changed to protect the privacy of those mentioned in this piece.