I left Beijing a little over a year ago. You never really leave though. This place stays with you. Over time, it’s easy to be nostalgic and forget about the daily struggle that goes along with living in a place that is so modern, and yet so incredibly bureaucratic.

I have a Chinese bank account that was set up by my company, and it came with a company credit card. When I left the company, the card stayed open. This was great for me because I could pay for things in foreign currency, and pay for them with RMB. Given that most of my money was in RMB, this was incredibly useful. I paid the bill every month and didn’t think very much about it after that.

One day, my card was declined. I called ICBC, the issuing bank, to find out what the problem was. Eventually, having left my company raised a red flag with the bank and they froze my account. I asked them to reconsider; after all, I had an excellent payment history, and if I was planning to scam them I would have done so immediately after leaving the company, not a year later after paying my bills on time. No dice. My card would remain frozen and I would continue to be charged the annual fee until I returned to Beijing to close the account.

Wait, what?

Yes, this is a very typical Chinese problem tied to the hukou system. The Chinese population isn’t nearly as mobile as populations outside of China, and there is an automatic assumption that you stay in your city of residence–particularly if you’re living in the Paradise of Eden also known as Beijing. Why would you ever leave? I tabled the matter until returning to Beijing and finally set about to deal with it.

Many things have to be taken care of at the branch where you opened the account, so I went to the neighborhood near my old office and waited. Banking in China involves a lot of waiting. After waiting about an hour, I was finally able to see my banker, dressed severely as usual and proudly wearing her Communist Party member pin. She was unhelpful as always, finally making a few reluctant phone calls (after asking me whether I could just come back next week because it was by then the end of the day). She eventually said that I needed to visit a different branch to close the credit card account, saying the name quickly in Chinese and saying I should “just find it on Baidu.” Explaining that I had an American mobile phone with no Chinese-language capability, she eventually, and reluctantly, wrote down some reasonable semblance of instructions on how to get there.

Fast forward to today. After riding 3 subways and going all the way across town, I arrived at the single ICBC branch in Beijing that can close a credit card account. Except they couldn’t. My passport had also changed, so they’d have to update my passport before I could close the account. This, however, can only be done on weekdays, not during the weekend. So, they agreed to submit the paperwork on Monday, and I’d have to come back in person on Tuesday to close the account. I left frustrated after spending 2 days and several hours doing something that would be done in a 5 minute phone call anywhere else in the world (if even this much work was involved).

So, the next order of business was to register my presence with the police. I am staying with a friend in Beijing, and this requires going to the police station to fill out a form. We dutifully went to the police station to register. No problem. We’d just need to bring the landlord’s hukou with us. Of course, most apartments in Beijing are rented through real estate agencies, and the tenant never comes in contact with the landlord. Of course, this is the case with my friend’s apartment, so we left the police station defeated. I made an executive decision to not do any further efforts at registration. This really matters if you’re living in Beijing, but not so much if you’re visiting (assuming you don’t get caught). After all, I went to the police station and they had my passport, so I’m just going to assume they registered me.

China can be incredibly modern. The subway I took to both of these frustrating exercises in futility is an absolute marvel of modern technology and it’s amazing how it manages to keep a city of 30 million people safely on the move while continuing its expansion at a breakneck pace. And yet, there remain impenetrable thickets of bureaucracy and the Internet service is a disaster on the best of days, and virtually unusable without a VPN in any event. China is always a study in contrasts and contradictions. Frustrating days like today are like life in a parallel universe; one that mattered a great deal to my daily life a year ago, but matters increasingly less to me now. Visits to the Chinese Bureaucratic Twilight Zone are, I’m convinced, best kept as visits.