Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Visa

For those who don't know, the word visa has been on my mind for the last 14 months. In order for Ming to come home with me, he needs one of these little things. 14 months of waiting for a 3x4inch sticker. But what exactly is a visa? Since many people don't know, I will explain. First, however, I must admit that I don't fully understand what it is, but I do know it is a huge pain in the ass to get one to the United States.

A visa is usually a sticket that goes inside one's passport and allows that person to enter the country from which the visa is issued from. Usually people get them at that country's embassy, but some are granted it on arrival at customs. There are different kinds of visas (working, student, tourist, etc.) for different periods of time (30 days, 90 days, indefinite). What kind of visa a person can get depends on many factors, but the most important probably being one's nationality.

Americans, for example, can go to most European countries for 3 months, no visa needed. For a Chinese person it usually takes a lot of hoop-jumping and months of waiting to get such a visa, and many people don't even get it. In fact, the only country Chinese people can go to without a visa is Burma. Burma, that's it. It is not easy for the Chinese to travel abroad and it's even more difficult for them to live abroad.

Even for Americans it's tough get the appropriate visa that allows them to live in foreign countires. If it's your dream to live in Paris, than I suggest you find yourself a French husband (or wife), because otherwise, forget it. I'm lucky because (until recently) staying in China has been pretty easy. Previously, either I or my work would pay a few hundred bucks and I could get a new 6 month visa without even leaving the country. But with the Olympics just around the corner (Beijing 2008), the Chinese government has decided to make things a bit more difficult.

The past few months I've been a bit of an emotional wreck, having little control over Ming and my future. If he didn't get a visa to America I would have to find a way to stay in China legally. I would most likely have to return to teaching English, not my profession of choice. Not to mention I'm China'd-out. I think I've nearly reached my breaking point with the the air pollution, squatty potties, spitting, and over-crowding.

When we went to Ming's first interview in August, I was nervous. I was butterflies in my stomach, want to throw up, nervous. We couldn't even go through the ordeal in Beijing. Ming applied for a K-1 immigrant visa and the interviews for those are strictly held in Guangzhou (pronounced "Goo-wong Joe"). The trip from Beijing to Guangzhou takes almost a full day on a train. In terms of distance it's probably comparable to Chicago-New Orleans. Normally I find it exciting to travel to new cities, but on the eve of a life altering decision I would prefer to sleep in my own bed.

The result of the first interview was not as we hoped, but pretty much what I had expected it to be. He didn't get the visa. We were instructed to come back to Guangzhou in a month to submit additional documents to 'prove our relationship.' Prove our relationship. That's the whole point of the interview, yet they wouldn't even let me go into the interview with him. Next to an explicit video, isn't that some of the best proof out there? Here we were, together, in Guangzhou, hundreds and hundreds of miles from Ming's hometown and several thousand from mine. But they would only talk with him.

This past weekend we went back to Guangzhou and on Monday Ming went to his second interview. He submitted his passport and the requested documents and he was told to come back on Wednesday. But come back for what? That wasn't made clear and there's no one to ask. This is the ever-so-mysterious American government we are talking about. Was he getting the visa? We came back at the designated time, 2:30 on Wednesday. We actually arrived 40 minutes early, but there was already a sizable line forming outside the door. A little panic set in. Our train for Beijing was departing at 5:25. How long was this going to take? Of course, there was no way of knowing.

I left Ming and grabbed a coffee and I waited. . .and waited. . .and waited. 4:10 came around and I couldn't wait any longer or I'd miss the train. It would take me at least 30 minutes to take the subway to the train station, plus I'd have to try and return his ticket for a refund. This barely left me with enough time to board the train.

It was time to hussle, which is never fun in 95 degree weather. I must give credit to Guangzhou metro for being air-conditioned and surprisingly uncrowded for a large Chinese city. About every other second I looked at my cell. This was truly one of those why-isn't-he-calling-me moments. There was no point in calling him though. His phone was surely left with Operation Homeland Security outside of the American Embassy. 4:40 and finally, finally, finally my phone rang. At that moment, I hardly cared if he got the visa. I just wanted to know where he was.

"I GOT IT!" He exclaimed. Well, I guess I did care, because relief swept over me.

"Great. Where are you? Can you get a taxi to the station? Meet me in the ticket hall." I barked.

"Ok. But I have to pick up my passport on Friday. I can't leave Guangzhou now." He explained.

Nearly 5:00 and I arrived at the station, completely saturated in my own perspiration. The place was, in typical Chinese train station fashion, swarming with people. Imagine, if you will, a funnel with an extremely narrow neck. That was the situation I was looking at to get through security. Two doors, one person at a time, over a thousand people pushing, trying to get through those doors. But first thing was first, I'd have to get a refund for his ticket.

The ticket hall in most Chinese train stations is huge and also packed full of people. There are often over 30 ticketing windows and the Guangzhou station is no exception. I was going to have to figure out which window was designated for ticket return. I made an educated guess, which turned out to be wrong. But no worries, as Ming had arrived and could sort it all out.

There was no time for us to share in our joy. Only time for me to wipe the sweat off my face, give him his ticket, and dash out of there. I did make it on the train with several minutes to spare.

So tomorrow Ming will get his passport back and inside will be that sacred little sticker that will allow him to come to America to live. The only catch, we must get married within 90 days of his arrival. Come mid-Novermber we will go, together, to a great and wonderful place called the United States of America. Soon after, we will get married.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

My Celebrity Status

After living in Beijing for a year and a half, I've nearly forgotten what it feels like to be a celebrity. Since residing in a district of Beijing that includes some of China's best and most popular univerisites, the area near my home is densely packed with foreigners. Most native Beijingers don't give us "laowei" (slightly deragatory Chinese word often used to describe foreigners like myself) a second glance. Besides the occasional migrant worker, me and my fellow laowei don't get much attention. But this in not the case in most parts of China where it is not uncommon to be gawked at, photographed, and even followed. Call it a curse or call it a huge burst to the self-esteem (I'm still trying to decide), it happens constantly. It helps having a big (we're talking in relative terms here) and stong Chinese man at my side. This usually prevents any annoying or rude remarks, but when I'm on my own I'm left to my own defenses.

Currently I am not alone, but with my big, strong Chinese man. We are away from Beijing and in southern China, awaiting the approval of his visa which will allow him to travel to America. Being here is almost like being in another country. The language is different (Cantonese rather than standard Mandarin), the food is different (sweet and light vs. Beijing's salty and greasy eats), and the people even look and are shaped different. In fact, this is a great area of the world for those who are vertical challenged. Standing at a mere 5'4" I am taller than nearly everyone, men included. The only downfall is I have a good 50 pounds on the majority of people down here. My big butt alone is probably getting loads of attention. Luckily I can't understand a word of Cantonese, so I can't hear what anyone is saying about me and my behind. But they are definitely looking, that I know for sure.

A classic case of my celebrity status occured tonight. We went rollerskating (haven't done that since 6th grade Special Event) at the local rink. This was one happening place-9pm on a Tuesday night and it was packed with teens. . .and then there was us. As I sat down to put on my skates I couldn't help but notice a young girl staring at me and waving vigurously as she walked by. It was one of those awkward let-me-look-around-to-see-if-she-is-actually-waving-at-me moments. With no other potential targets within close range it was clear that she was waving at me. She was so intensely focused in her wave that she ran into a guy and nearly fell down. A minute later she walked past again and continued to wave. I couldn't help but think: Wow, I am really special.

It was then time to try out my rollerskating skills. It's been 12 years, but it's definitely like riding a bike. A skill that you never quite lose, but then again it was never a skill that I mastered in the first place. As I wobbled to the rink I could feel the teenage boys eyes baring into me. I got the usual chorus of snide "hello's." This is a time when I would prefer people weren't staring at me. It really puts the pressure on and I said a little prayer that I wouldn't fall flat on my ass. I also noticed, that on top of being the only foreigner in the place, I was also wearing the most scandelous attire. My built-in-bra tank top was alone in a place filled with young girls conservatively dressed in short sleeved tops and school uniforms. Hmm.

I showed no fear, however, and got out there and skated. The sad truth is, it's just not that exciting anymore. It's pretty lame. It turns out things have changed since sixth grade. Although I was rather bored, I did manage to put some excitement into the life of one high school girl. While taking a break at the side of the rink, I felt her looking at me. I knew it was coming. . .I always do. She was trying to work up the nerve to talk to me. A real, live foreigner in her presence. She knew she had to seize this rare opportunity to practice her English. And she did. I admire her for this. In a country where saving face means everything, it takes a lot of guts to talk to a stranger in a language that one only has ever heard in movies and in the classroom.

But her English was bad. Really bad. We tried to speak in standard Chinese, but her pronounciation was incomprehensible to me. That left only one option-rollerskating. She grabbed my hand (hand holding was everywhere at the rink, even guys were holding hands) and off we went. When we finished skating she asked for my number and asked me to promise to never forget her. A priceless moment, but one I've strangely experienced many times. I will surely miss this place when I return to America. I will also miss my celebrity status.

Monday, September 17, 2007

a change in season

The rain as finally descended on Beijing. After several hot, dry months, it is here. I haven't experienced a daytime temperature below 85 degrees since mid-April, but today I've found myself outside shivering in my long-sleeved shirt. I love it. Although the rain itself can be a bit of a burden. . .

Imagine, if you will, a city of 17 million people. 17 million. Yes, that's how many people are now living in Beijing. It's no easy task walking around on an average day. I'm constantly getting bumped into, pushed off the sidewalk, and nearly sideswiped by bicyclists and cars. China is a crowded place and Beijing is one of its most populated cities. There isn't always a lot of room for movement. Now try to add umbrellas to the equation. It adds a whole new dimension of insanity.

At first, I usually try to to be the kind and considerate American that I am. I try not to run into other people with my umbrella, nor do I run my umbrella into other umbrellas. In fact, I will lift it high over my head or move it from side to side in order to avoid other umbrellas. But this gets tiring after awhile. Plus, nobody else seems to care. They just allow their umbrella to run into me at full force. And sometimes their little pointy umbrellas poke me in the face and of course I receive no apology. But I've lived here long enough, I no longer expect an apology for anything. Burn me with your cigarette, ride over my toes with your bike, sneeze on me without batting an eyelash, and then just walk away with out recognizing your bad. Thanks.

So after awhile I just run into everyone and get bounced around like a pinball. Eventually, as I get further away from the subway station and nearer to my apartment, the crowd thins out. But now I must deal more directly with the cars. It always lovely when a car comes whizzing through a huge puddle at 40 miles and hour and you're standing in close proximity. When there's a large group of people around, if you're smart, you can use others as a type of shield to avoid the nasty spray. Not so easy in less crowded areas. And it must also be noted that the puddles in Beijing are a special breed of puddle. They are not the clean, fresh, fun to jump in puddles that you find in rural Wisconsin. No. These puddles are filled with weeks and weeks of dirt, grim, and whatever else has been hanging around in the air and on the roadside. These are toxic puddles.

But eventually I make it home, thoroughly wet despite having an umbrella. Useless thing. I find that the rain has come in through the screen window and soaked my entire patio and all the clothes I had hanging out to dry in it. Lovely. But I'll take this over a Beijing summer any day.