Christmas Coincidences, or the Blessings of Bureaucracy

If we were more skilled in listening to inspiration from the Lord and more diligent in seeking it, the Lord might not need to use so many blunt techniques to get our attention, including techniques like unusual coincidences to move us along. Perhaps. But some of these little blessings of chance and timing are so artful that I think they would continue just for the shear joy and wonder they can cause. In my life, Christmas seems to be a time with a relatively higher concentration of such blessings, like the story of the pink coat I once shared here.

To recap briefly, we once had a big group of Hmong people over at our house for a Christmas party. The Hmong people, many of whom settled in our part of Wisconsin, came to the US as refugees from genocide in Laos (see my “Tragedy of the Hmong People“) after we got them involved in our deliberately no-win war in Vietnam (where the scope of that betrayal only became clear with the release of the Pentagon papers). That Christmas season was a time of bitter cold in Wisconsin. As our guests were wrapping up to return home in the cold, we noticed a sweet young girl getting ready to go out just wearing a sweater. What? Where’s your coat? She didn’t have one. Actually, other Latter-day Saints had given her a coat a few weeks earlier, but she was a girl who cared about style and wasn’t going to wear an ugly coat. She’d rather freeze.

At that moment, I recalled that our Relief Society President had just given me a couple bags of clothes that might be useful for those in need. As we opened the closet and looked at the clothes, the first thing we saw was a pink coat at the top of a bag. We pulled it out and it looked like just her size. She lit up as she saw it. She put it on and it was a perfect fit. With a joyous smile, she was now able to step out — in style. I think that moment warmed our hearts more than the coat warmed her. The perfect coat, in the right place and suddenly available at the perfect time to help. That’s Christmas.

This season has also had its coincidences, including one that I think of as “the blessings of bureaucracy.” China, a land rich in history, culture, and tradition, has also inherited thousands of years of tradition involving bureaucracy. Sometimes it can be very effective in maintaining order and keeping things flowing smoothly, but for foreigners coming to China, it can sometimes be maddening. The four scariest words in the Chinese language are “相关部门” or xiangguan bumen meaning “the relevant department.” It’s used in practical dialogs like this, which really need to be given more attention in Chinese textbooks:

Foreigner:  “Hi, could you help me? I need to fix a problem in my account.”

Agent: “Sure. Do you have your official receipt [fapiao]?”

Foreigner: “Here you go.”

Agent: “No, that’s not official. You need the official document with the red stamp.”

Foreigner: “Where do I get that?”

Agent: “From the relevant department.

Foreigner: “Relevant department? Where’s that?”

Agent: “That’s not my job. You should ask at the proper place.”

Foreigner: “OK, what place?”

Agent: “The relevant department.

Foreigner: “But where?”

Agent: “Hmmm, maybe the 47th floor. Or the 45th.”

Foreigner: “But this building only has 32 floors. Something is wrong here.”

Agent: “If you want to make a complaint about the building, you’ll need to go the complaints office.”

Foreigner: “Let me guess, that would be located at …”

Agent: “The relevant department. Next!”

We had a related experience recently when a newlywed couple stayed with us for a view days on China’s visa-free 144-hour transit program, as I described on my blog at  We were on our way to the most beautiful downtown in the world (IMHO), the scenic Bund area of Shanghai to show them the combination of classical European architecture one one side of the river and bizarre gargantuan skyscrapers lit up in crazy beautiful lights on the other side. But first, we might need a few minutes (5? 10?) to stop at our local police station to get them officially registered.

Executive summary for what follows: Newlyweds + transit visa registration needs + surprise requirements (the bureaucracy part, but I mean this only in the most positive sense, of course) + accidental preparation = disaster averted and eventual success but a change in plans = accidental discovery of a fabulous new restaurant = a return visit a week later with a miracle in timing that leads to a joyous encounter with a recent convert = a Christmas dinner with her the next week and many blessings along the way. Call it the blessings of bureaucracy, the blessings of helping newlyweds, or the fun of being in China. 

With the transit visa (actually a visa-free pass for tourists), tourists can come into Shanghai and stay there for up to six days without having to get an official visa. Great system for a few locations in China. There are some restrictions, but the young couple had carefully researched that and were good to go. People using this program normally stay at a hotel who handles the important step of registering your location with the local police, but you can also stay with friends as long as you go to “a local police station” within 24 hours of arriving to register. That’s what the official instructions said (in English) and what the immigration officer at the airport told them as they were allowed into China. So simple! What could go wrong? (Those are also four very scary words in China or anywhere else. If you hear them in your head, be nervous.)

Our friends had arrived at 4:45 AM on a Friday, so our time with them Friday night (we both had to work that day, after we got them settled) would be the only time to get them registered within 24 hours while police stations were still open. Our plan was to get a bite to eat at a local Taiwanese restaurant, then while it was still before 8 PM we would walk over to the nearest police station near our local subway line and from there move directly to the heart of downtown Shanghai for an evening of walking and marveling at the city. We would marvel indeed, but never made it downtown that evening.

Strangely, as were planning to leave, I had this thought that I might need my own police registration materials to update my residence permit. I had just overcome a grueling five-day battle (see “Five Days of Struggle to Renew a Visa: Some Discoveries in Dealing with Work Permit and Visa Issues“) with various offices and relevant departments with numerous trips across town to renew my visa and work permit in time to be able to attend the World Intellectual Property Summit in Amsterdam, perhaps my most important and useful IP-related conference in recent memory, where I had the privilege of chairing day one and being a speaker, panelist, and panel chair — so much fun in one of the world’s friendliest and most charming cities. Yes, it worked out, thanks to a couple of kind officers who helped me overcome a big problem due to my timing, a slip up in an office at work, and recent changes in the rules. But were it not for some good officers being extra kind, it would have been disaster.

In the process of renewing my visa/residence license in September, I had needed to get a new local residence permit, but that was done with a temporary visa, and as we prepared to go out, I wondered if I might need to renew my own residence permit, and thus packed a few additional documents just in case. Probably not necessary, I thought, but maybe, just in case. Who knows? “Who knows?” and “just in case” are some of the best words to hear in your head, I’ve found.

As we walked to the restaurant for dinner, I thought about the time we had left and began to get nervous. Really nervous. Our logical plan to eat first suddenly seemed dangerous. “The instructions say ‘a local police station,’ but if something goes wrong, they might tell us to go back to the same police station we had to use when we registered our new address after our recent move [fifth move in six years — aargh!] and that’s further away. Since the registration service windows usually close at 8 PM, we might run out of time if we eat first and run into trouble. Let’s go straight to the police and see.” We were all hungry, but we agreed and went to the local Hongqiao police station.

We were first in line, nice, and were greeted by a friendly police woman. We explained what the young couple needed. She said, “OK, do you have your contract with your landlord?” Amazingly, I did! But first I protested. “Huh? The instructions don’t mention a contract, and the authorities at the airport didn’t tell them about a contract. Do you really need our contract?” She smiled, a very nice woman, and then laughed, “But of course you need a contract. Naturally we can’t process this without a contract!” Naturally. But hurray, I happened to have it as part of the “just in case” documents I brought along. As she scrutinized the contract, she said, “Oh, you live down the street, that’s in Minhang District. This is Changning District. You’re across the border. You need to go to the local police in Minhang District.” That was a long ways away. Again I pushed back, politely, explaining that the instructions didn’t say there was only one relevant police station that we had to go, but merely say “a local police station.” She laughed that off. “No, this is a different district. Of course we can’t process it here.” I smiled knowingly — I should have been more knowing about this from the beginning — and we thanked her and left.

On that busy street with dozens of taxis, it took over 20 minutes to get one for us. Then it took over 20 minutes to get to the world’s one and only relevant police station where we could process the simple registration for our young couple. Time was ticking, but we still got there before closing, about 7:20 PM. And with passports and our contract in hand (such a blessing to have that!), we were ready.

We were greeted by another kind and helpful police woman. She looked at our documents, nodded her head (yay!), and then just had one question, one little question about one little relevant piece of paper. “Do you have the license from your housing management company?” This came as both a shocker and reminder of the Lord’s tender mercies, for actually, YES, I HAD IT! In scooping up some “just in case” documents in case I might need to update my own residence permit (and no, I did not — my current permit was fine), I had brought along a very obscure little scrap of paper from the company that manages our apartment complex that had our names and a nice big red stamp on it, many times one of the most beautiful things to see in China. But first, the protest: “What? Why is that needed? Nobody told them they needed that. None of the printed or published information seems to mention it. Are you sure it’s needed?” Yes, absolutely sure. “Well, fortunately, we are very lucky because I actually have it. Here you go!” Ta da!

As we marveled at how blessed we were to have this with us, she scrutinized it and then observed, “But this is for you and your wife. We need a relevant registration for this couple.” Now I was stymied. “How could we even hope to get that? This requires having a contract. They are just visitors. They don’t need a contract to visit us. The management office isn’t open now and won’t be before their 24 hours expires, and even if they were open, they wouldn’t give them a license since they are just visitors. Could you please help us and give us a break on this? Could you please just accept this license from us?” This woman was very kind to us. She thought for a moment and then, “This time I will let you use this. But next time, please bring the correct document.” She could have sent us back to the relevant department, but showed us some tender mercy of her own. Whew!

When we finished, it was about 8 PM. We hadn’t eaten and were far from a subway line. We started to walk to a busy street to find something to eat, but then saw an available cab drive by. We waved it down, and considered where to go. We felt like maybe we should just go back close to home and eat there and then maybe call it a night. So we told the cabbie to drop us off at the 1699 Gubei Mall, a new mall in our area with some good restaurants inside. But because we were coming from an unusual direction, we got dropped off on a side of the building that we haven’t seen for a couple of months, the remote back side.

As we got out of the cab, we noticed that there was a new restaurant right there in front of that we hadn’t seen before, even though we go to that mall every week. In fact, you can’t see it from inside the mall. It’s an external restaurant on the side most remote from us. But right away we were lured by it. It seemed so bright and very busy inside. I used to flee from busy places and still do if there’s a big line to wait in, but now I generally like busy places because they are usually good and not too expensive. This place, the Xibei Restaurant, just looked great, so we went in and were able to be seated right away. The menu looked good — lots of Western Chinese food, including specialties from Xi’An and other provinces. We had the best Chinese meal I’ve had in weeks and were delighted with every dish. A real winner and quite affordable. Each dish was worth talking about and revealed different aspects of China. We had so much fun talking and tasting. We got home feeling, strangely, “blessed by bureaucracy” and, of course, by the Lord and the many wonders the Lord has created in this world, including Chinese food. Seemed like a nice ending to a great adventure, but it was just an important preparatory step for our Christmas coincidence.

Newlyweds Leon and Nikita at Xibei Restaurant. (Photo and names used with permission.)
Clean open kitchen. Very nice, efficient operation with great service. 
An amazing wild mushrooms dish. Many varieties, so delicious.
From Xinjiang Province in the far western reaches of China, a flavorful noodle and chicken dish. 

One week later, after our friends had returned to the US and we were wrapping up a busy Saturday, my wife and I felt like it would be a good time to take a break and go get a bite to eat. Why not try that Xibei place again? Seemed like a good idea. It’s within walking distance but we rode our bikes and were there in about 5 minutes. This time it was even busier, and there would be quite a lengthy wait to get a table. That’s when I normally flee, but this time I felt relaxed, stayed calm and just thought waiting would be OK for such good food. But after six or seven minutes, I was wondering if maybe this would be a waste of too much time, and should we go someplace faster? There were dozens of choices nearby. That’s when I saw Ling (name used with her kind permission), a friend of ours, a Chinese girl with a Singaporean passport and a recent convert to the Church. She’s been facing some extremely trying challenges recently and has been in our prayers regularly. She was there with her son and parents. We were so excited to see them. They had been waiting for a long time, and invited us to join them as their table became available.

I was thoroughly puzzled about running into her. What is she doing way over here? She lives about 40 minutes away (an hour or so when traffic is especially bad). Meeting her in one of the hundreds of restaurants in our little corner of Shanghai is not quite like running into one of our friends at the mall in Appleton, Wisconsin, with a population of 70,000 people and fewer restaurants in the whole town that we have within walking distance of our home now. Shanghai has about 24 million people officially, maybe 35 or million if illegal or unregistered migrant workers from other provinces are properly counted. It’s not just that there are 40 minutes of driving between Ling’s home and our apartment — there are probably at least 5 million people along the way, maybe more. In fact, most of the population of Shanghai is within a 40 minutes drive of where we live. We’ve never run into her or into most of our remote friends in China by chance like this before. To be there at the same time and to meet in a way that allowed us to dine together is just bizarre in this town (wonderfully, the restaurant had a big table for them that could fit two extra people, and a long wait for us got pared down to about 15 minutes — whew!).

Strange events had brought her to this place so far from her home. In an truly unusual incident the day before, another person in their home, seeking to secure and protect the passport of her son who would soon fly back to Singapore with Ling and her parents for a few days, made the mistake of putting that passport in a bag that would be given to someone else living in our part of town. Could have been a disaster, but the other party noticed the passport and called her in time. She came out with her family to get it. While in the area, they chose to eat at a popular chain restaurant they knew of, Xi Bei.

Ling has been going through some real trials recently and has been in our prayers frequently. My wife, Kendra, feels especially tied to this family since it was her friendship with the husband that helped him start coming to church again and this helped Ling want to learn more. She’s been such a precious and golden new member and we are so proud of her. This meeting was actually very important for us. We were so grateful to meet and to learn some critical information.

That wonderful, pleasant time at the newly discovered Xi Bei restaurant with her and her family would then lead to a Christmas meal with them again last night, this time at her home. There we would learn more about some of the challenges she is facing, including a business issue where an alleged friend of hers in another city has simply been copying everything Ling does with her business to create a completely fake copycat business online allegedly offering the famous Jamu post-natal massage products and techniques Ling has imported from Singapore in a rapidly growing business that is bringing amazing results to women who have just given childbirth, helping them to rapidly get back to their former skinny shape and fit into their old clothes. Ling’s is an amazing business woman and a vibrant entrepreneur, but she needs some help in better protecting her business from thieves that some of my contacts might be able to provide (I am hoping to help encourage WeChat to take down a copycat site using her photos, a form of her business name, and photoshopped licenses). We’ll see how this works out, but it certainly looks interesting.

Perhaps our meeting with her was just random chance, but we felt it was significant. We were so glad to meet and perhaps to be able to help and certainly to build better ties with her family and, yesterday at the dinner at her home that resulted from our visit, to also build tied with two of her friends, one of whom as a foreign passport holder was able to come to church with Ling today and also attended our Mexican-style “Posada” luncheon and singing activity in a suburb of Shanghai (more on that later — such a fun Christmas tradition that I hope our branch can keep doing every year). It was all part of a joyous Christmas coincidence for us, once again.

For Ling, the Christmas coincidences continued after our chance encounter. Two days later in Singapore, Ling was on a hectic schedule and probably had no time to think about social visits. But as she was going down an escalator in that large city with millions of people and many dozens of malls, she saw one of her dearest friends from the Shanghai branch where she was baptized earlier this year (she now lives in and attends a different branch). That woman, as I understand, had played an important role in Ling’s conversion and growth in the Gospel, but recently moved to Singapore. Among the millions there, to run into her dear friend by chance and have a sweet, joyous reunion that day was another strange and delightful Christmas miracle and coincidence for our sweet friend.  This was such a beautiful way for the Lord to remind her that she is noticed and loved. A spiritual pink coat for a great woman facing chilling trials. She, like all of us, may need more many miracles and coincidences along the way.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

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