What Did I Do Today? I Made a Copy. Woohoo!

An imagined but quite possible day in a life overseas . . .

This morning I woke up with my to-do list waiting for me on the nightstand. Item number one was Get out of bed (I’d written that one down so I could start the day by crossing it off). Number two said Copy document. That’s because yesterday at the county government office, when I went to get my resident permit renewed, the lady behind the desk told me I needed to bring a copy of my registration letter to leave with them.

I was more than ready to get that taken care of and move on to the other, bigger, better, more important things on my list. It was an impressive list. I had quite the day planned.

After a quick shower and a slice of toast for breakfast, I grabbed my permit documents and walked to the bus stop and took the bus to the copy shop, about 15 minutes away. But when I stepped off the bus I saw that the copy shop wasn’t a copy shop anymore. Instead,  sometime over the weekend, it had been turned into a KFG Chicken restaurant. (Yes, a KFG not a KFC. This one had a green smiling rooster on its sign.) I called my teammate to get her advice, and she said I might be able to get a copy at a bank. There was a bank down the street, and after going there and standing in line, I asked the teller if she could help me make a copy. She said that was impossible.

On the way back to the bus stop, I called another teammate, and he told me to try the photo shop next to the new high school. I decided to take a taxi there to save time, but the only cash I had was a large bill and I figured the driver wouldn’t have change for it, so I walked back to the bank to withdraw some money from the ATM. But then the ATM ate my card and wouldn’t spit it out no matter how many buttons I pushed. I went back into the bank to retrieve it, but they said that was impossible—at least until after two business days.

I saw a cab outside and flagged it, and when I showed the driver my money and asked if it was OK, he said No problem. When I told him where I wanted to go he said No problem. But when he stopped next to a man on the sidewalk selling watches and spatulas and asked him how to get to the new high school, I realized that he didn’t know where it was—not the new high school I was talking about.

I said that we should head in the direction of the main bus station and he did that. On the way, we chatted about presidents, his and mine, about religion, his and mine, and about families, his and mine. Our conversation ended when we got stuck at an intersection while a parade passed by. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t find a way out. He wasn’t happy at all and shared his international vocabulary by yelling the two English words he knew, each having four letters. When we finally ended up in front of the new high school, I gave him my money and he set his emergency brake and got out of the car, motioning for me to follow him into a convenience store. It turned out that his version of No problem was for me to get change there. The clerk said I had to make a purchase, so I got a pack of gum, even though I don’t usually chew gum. In return he gave me some smaller bills, and I paid the cab driver. I told him I was sorry, and he said No problem.

I made my way to the photo shop, and when the owner finished with a customer, I said I needed a copy. He said he couldn’t do it, but I should go to the bank nearby. I said another bank had told me that it was impossible. He smiled and complimented me on my language skills. Then he led me to the bank and asked the security guard if I could get a copy there. The guard took my letter and gave it to another bank worker, who left and came back with a copy. I asked how much it cost, and he said No charge. I thanked him and the photo-shop owner said, Amazing, you speak just like one of us.

With my copy in hand, I flagged another taxi and was headed back to the county office. When I got there I took a number and joined the crowd in the seats against the wall. There were three officers behind their desks, and I hoped it would work out for me to be helped by the kind-looking young man in the middle.

When my number was next, the person in front of the kind-looking young man got up, but then so did the kind-looking young man, and a not-kind-looking not-young man took his place. I sat down at his desk, presented my documents, and explained my situation. When I told him that yesterday the officer had told me to bring back a copy of my letter, he took it from me and went back to show it to some other workers sitting behind him. They looked it over somberly, pointing out some words and shaking their heads. Then the not-kind-looking not-young man came back and told me I needed an “official” copy.

I told him I’d never needed that before, but that didn’t do any good, so I asked where I could get the kind of copy he wanted. He said it would have to come from a bank. I told him that my copy was from a bank. He told me it needed to be from a government bank.

I left and realized it was past lunch time. I’d seen a lady selling some kind of meat on a stick at the corner so I walked over to her cart and placed my order. But before she could serve me, her phone and the phones of the other vendors near her started buzzing. They looked down at them and then raced frantically with their carts into the alley. A few seconds later, a policeman strolled by, content to have the food sellers—who obviously had no permits—out of sight.

That meant I needed to walk farther to get something to eat. On my way, I passed by a foreign-goods store that I’d not heard about before and saw two cans of Dr. Pepper in the window, right next to a box of Cap’n Crunch with Crunch Berries. Dr. Pepper is a rare sight here, and I figured it would make a good gift for my teammate’s upcoming birthday. I went inside and picked up the cans, but when I flipped them over, I saw that they were well past their expiration date. I asked the shop keeper if she had any newer ones. She exited to a back room and returned with a case of Coke Zero. I told her it wasn’t the same, but she told me that was all she had. Then she smiled and added that my language wasn’t very good. She said she had a foreign friend who had been here for only two months and he sounded way, way better than me.

I left empty handed (figuring expired Dr. Pepper isn’t worth US$3 a can) and walked around until I found another convenience store, where I spent too much time looking for things it didn’t have and ended up buying a hard-boiled egg, a half-sized can of curry-flavored Pringles, and a bottle of water.

I knew where there was a government bank on the subway line, so I asked the store clerk how to get to the closest subway station. He said it was in that direction, over there, past that but before that, then to the left and then to the right and then to the left again, or something like that. I took off and got there after asking for directions only three more times.

On the subway, I had to transfer twice. On one line a high-school-aged girl wanted to practice her English and asked me where I was from and how old I was. On another line a little boy came and stood beside me, comparing his height to mine. His mother took our picture.

I got distracted trying to decipher the advertisements in my subway car and missed the stop I was aiming for. I didn’t realize I’d gone a station too far until I’d already passed through the turnstiles, so I decided just to walk back to where the bank was. When I got there, I waited in line and then asked for an official copy. This called for another mini conference, and then they sent me to a room upstairs. The lady there took my letter, left for a few minutes, and returned with a copy stamped with the bank logo in red. This time it wasn’t free, so I paid her for it. She left again for a few more minutes and came back with a receipt.

I took the copy, along with all my other papers, and got back on the subway, heading to the county office again. When I got there, it was closed. That’s because, as the sign on the door said, it always closes early on Tuesdays, which, I guess, everyone knew about, except me. That meant another trip on the subway and then another bus ride back to my house. Before going home, though, I stopped at a cafe to sit for a while and drink some coffee.

I fished the list out of my pocket along with an ink pen and crossed off item number two. Then I glanced down at the other, bigger, better, more important things on it. They’d have to wait until tomorrow.

But today, today I made a copy. And it wasn’t just any old copy. It was an official copy.

When my coffee cup was empty, I got up to leave. I unwrapped a piece of gum and put it in my mouth.

Yes, today I made a copy. Woohoo!

[photo: “Braden’s Woohoo!,” by Laura Molnar, used under a Creative Commons license]

(Hey, Anisha—after I started writing this I saw you publish your Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day two weeks ago. I know that this isn’t exactly the same, but I seem to follow in others’ footsteps a lot when it comes to blogging. Bummer! I think I’ll move to Florida.)

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Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.

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