My Life as an Illegal Alien (pt4) – Don’t Drop the Soap

Part 3

Day IV

Let’s cut to the chase… freedom – good; jail – bad. Day 4 marked a clear downhill to freedom. This was the last full day and I just wanted to be done with it all. By this point, certain things that were initially somewhat awkward (ie. using the bathroom in full view of my cellmates) no longer bothered me so much.

You gotta go, you gotta go!

No one cared, and there was nothing any of us could really do that would surprise the others.


or maybe you use the bathroom like a freak…


I also took the opportunity that day to have a ‘shower’ as I wanted to be somewhat presentable for my release.

You may have assumed (as I and everyone I spoke to beforehand did too) that shower facilities would be supplied by the prison. Well… no sir, not on your life. Instead we were given a bar of soap and some shampoo (enough for a couple of washes) and expected to do our business right there at the sink.

Maintaining standards of cleanliness was therefore a less-than-optimal pursuit and I had to make do with ‘well-enough’ given the circumstances. I got by though of course, and it’s not as if I had anyone in the immediate vicinity to impress.

There was this funny little rule too which seemed to make little sense (surprise surprise), one which we were reminded of every morning by the TV.

“Naked is not permitted in the cell for male, and female must not wear bra and underwear only.”

While of course poorly translated, the meaning was clear enough. I wondered how I was expected to clean myself or if showering was an exception. I was also curious as to why there existed a double-standard for men and women inmates. Evidently I could chill in my underwear while they could not.

My theory is that most of the guards (even in the women’s block) were male and therefore the powers-to-be had decided that half-naked female inmates might be a distraction…

Day 4 also brought with it 2 new additions to the team: The Hair and The Lump.

Now if I disliked Dopey, then I utterly DESPISED these clowns. Both of them were quite young and I thought perhaps they might have encountered a foreigner before (as is more common with China’s younger generation), but this was clearly not the case.

They were yet another couple of ignorant nongs!

The Hair didn’t seem to know the meaning of peace and quiet and had the particularly annoying habit of constantly talking about me behind my back. I know my Chinese is terrible, but I am aware of who you’re talking about whenever you say ‘laowai’. 

I have a name, dickhead and I told it to you shortly after you entered the cell!

There’s a frustrating tendency among many Chinese people to assume foreigners are incapable of understanding ANY Chinese EVEN after they’ve demonstrated that they understand at least a little (as I did).

Fortunately The Hair became a little more docile when TV time came about.

As for The Lump, I thought he might have been the sophisticated one of the group as he picked up a book (or large pamphlet) shortly after entering the cell and got stuck into it. This was a short-lived relief however as he also took it to the toilet with him on more than one occasion and I elected to stay as far away from him and anything he had touched as possible.

I was very glad that I’d only have to put up with them for one more day.

When it came to bedtime, we all learned to our horror that The Lump was also a snorer – the worst sort imaginable!

Sleep had been hard to come by on previous nights, but this one was truly unbearable. I lay awake for hours just willing it to stop as the nasal cacophony rose and fell like an overstuffed washing machine on quick-dry…

Even Sneezy got fed up with him and shouted to Dopey (who was next to The Lump) to wake him up! True his nature though, Dopey merely poked him a couple of times before giving up. *eye roll*

At one point Sneezy got out of bed to kick The Lump’s bed frame with a ringing clang which actually worked, if only briefly.

The next morning when the call came to wake us up, guess which one of us slept in?

None other than the fat sack of lard who had kept us up all night!


Day V

This was it; the day I’d been looking for – release day!

Every morning at around 9am, I’d watch as the inmates due for release were marched passed my cell with their borrowed prison belongings then marched passed again as free men. It was always a delight to know my turn was coming soon, and here it was.

The day before I had even had my very own exit-interview in which the guard (one of the few who spoke English) had asked me how I felt and what my plans were after I was released (getting drunk most likely, but I didn’t say that). I even confirmed with him at what time I’d be leaving and he assured me it would be 9am.

That morning I had decided I’d be skipping breakfast – no more rice for this merry fellow!

I counted down the minutes as they passed by even slower than usual until finally 9am arrived. I waited for the guard to collect me, and then… nothing.


Oh well, perhaps they’re just a little behind schedule this morning. No worries.

A short while later though, who should walk past my cell but the very group of inmates I was supposed to be part of.

I called out to the guard who had obviously forgotten about me, but whatever he said in response was completely lost on me. I was starting to panic now; what the hell!

Sneezy, to his credit tried to assure me that everything was okay and that my turn would be coming soon enough (at least that’s what I think he was saying), so I resigned to wait some more.

I waited… and waited… and then I waited some more. Still nothing.

Lunch time came around and I understood that we were to be leaving to eat in the common room (the first time since Day 2). My cellmates collected their bowls but not me, oh no. No more Mr Nice-Inmate; I’d had enough! My mind was wracked by thoughts of just how I could get their attention or stir up a stink…

I’d go on hunger-strike if I had to!

Fully prepared to throw a fit if someone didn’t bother to tell me just what the fuck was going on, I went out bowl-less with the rest of them and found a seat. To his credit again, Sneezy called over the one guard who spoke English and asked what was going on.

The guard came over and explained that as a foreigner, I could only be released once my police escort had come to collect me.

They’d forgotten about me!

Gee wiz, you don’t think you might have told me that before, yeah? The guard had no idea when they might show up, but at least I knew what the problem was now; typical…

Finally my police escort arrived and as I left, I wished Sneezy a fair well: “zàijiàn” I said and he shot me a confused look, but waved all the same. The police officer later told me that zàijiàn actually means ‘until I return’ rather than simply ‘goodbye’ as I thought, so here’s hoping this is the last I’ve seen of a Chinese detention centre…




Final thoughts

During my last night and the following morning, I contemplated just what I’d learned from this whole experience… not a whole lot, I reckoned. But I had most certainly gained a new appreciation for the depths of Chinese bureaucracy and incompetence.

On the other hand, perhaps I could lend some advice to others…

For anyone planning to end up in a Chinese detention centre as a result of their own carelessness and stupidity, I have prepared a few simple points of advice to prepare you.

These can be remembered by the handy acronym DDTS (Don’t Drop The Soap):


DON’T make any assumptions or rely on the advice of others beforehand; they’re probably talking shit. Be prepared for surprises.

DROP the macho attitude right now! It’s ok to feel nervous. Be open to making friends too as it will make the whole experience much easier.

THE TV and loudspeakers are your God now! Follow the rules and if in doubt, copy your cell mates.

SOAP and other hygiene products are your best friends. Use them efficiently and ration responsibly.

A few days after I was released I was contacted by the Australian consulate to follow up on my case. Other than a few routine questions, they informed me that I was in fact the first Australian to EVER go to a Chinese detention centre for overstaying a visa.

Perhaps I have learned something after all… no matter how helpless the situation may be, you too can follow your dreams and make history as the first to do something too.


Until next time, zàijiàn…

– J.S.Worth


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