I don’t spend enough time with my parents, I’ve recently decided. I’d like to think that I’m getting more mature, but more likely I’m simply acknowledging the fact that although they live 2 hours away by bus, I only visit my parents about 3 times a year. This recent wave of sentimentality led to my agreeing to take a 6 day tour of the nearby cities of Shanghai with my mom. If you aren’t familiar with these types of tours, perhaps you’ve seen them around in the states. Typically these are large groups of Chinese people that move around by bus, wearing the same hats or pins identifying the tour group, walking around with a local guide, and taking pictures of everything. That will be me.
Our tour group is comprised of all former Chinese nationals, people that are primarily of Chinese descent but live in the US. Mainly older folk, but there are a small number of kids and an even smaller number of 24 year-olds, begrudgingly coming along partially out of familial guilt. I’m keeping a positive attitude about this though. It’s an opportunity to visit 7-8 different cities — cities rich with culture and, more importantly, good food — in a short period of time. Also, I’ve been promised there are plenty of photo opportunities. Oh and I get to spend time with my mom, memories that I’m sure I will treasure later in life.
Wuzhen is a voyeuristic look into old China. The first thing you’ll notice walking through the very narrow streets is that there are many open doors and windows. The residents of these small homes eat, sit, and generally live in plain sight of the thousands of tourists that pass by each day. Sometimes they look out, but mainly they don’t seem to notice the cameras and stares, jaded from the everyday occurrence.
Known as the “Venice of the East” for its water canals and homes built right above the water, Wuzhen has a number of historical landmarks, including the former home and school of the famous Chinese author MaoDan. We follow our hired local tour guide through the narrow streets, seeing the exhibit of old beds (not the most existing museum), exhibit of silk, rice wine making (with a hearty stomach burning sample), and many other cultural displays.
During lunch, we meet Ben and Nanette, who have come from Louisiana on the request of their friend, an acupuncturist originally from Shanghai. Both seem slightly overwhelmed by the family style lunch, Nanette in particular struggling with chopsticks. They tell me that they have enjoyed China at times, but it has been a struggle to get used to the cultural norms. Fish is brought to the table and they confide their discomfort at seeing fish presented with its head, a rather common style in China. I tell them that growing up my favorite part of the fish was the eyeball, which elicits a few squeamish looks. I can tell that although they appreciate the perspective into a new culture, they’ll be glad to return home.
During my soul-draining 10 hours spent at the immigration desk in Shanghai PuDong airport, I got the chance to befriend TaiRan, a 24 year old immigration officer just 10 days my junior. In between the periods of activity around getting my replacement Visa, we talked about life in China: of parental pressures, the inability to leave, the rigidness of the education system, and freedom.
TaiRan lamented that the public education system is incredibly competitive, with a strong emphasis on science and mathematics. He personally found those subjects very boring, but was forced to study it lest he didn’t get into a good university — where he had to continue to study the very topics he disliked. His true passion is in art, but his father told him very strictly that “Art does not make money. Study law and become a police officer.”
He hates the job. He yearns for freedom. His higher education led him to the immigration officer job, but it sadly makes it impossible for him to leave the country. His dream is to make it to the US and then explore the world. The truth, he remarks, is that it will be very difficult for his dream to ever come true unless China makes some radical changes in its immigration policy.
10 hours. 10 agonizing bureaucratic hours in the immigration desk at the Shanghai PuDong airport during which my fate of whether or not I would be able to get into Shanghai was decided.
The problem with Chinese government can be summed up in two words: no autonomy. Like the Chinese demonstrated during the Beijing Olympics, they are good at following instructions. Everything is to the letter, which provides great efficiency in process…95% of the time. The other 5% of the time – when something happens that isn’t in the guidebook, shit hits the fan and no one has the autonomy to make an obvious decision.
We landed in Shanghai around 1:45 PM. At what was a routine check at the immigration desk, I was asked what I was visiting for, whether I was here for tourism. Then: “Are you a pilot or working as crew for the airlines?” Wait, what?
When I laughed, shook my head and said emphatically “No”, the officer looked concerned and said there’s a problem. Officers higher up were called over, deliberations happened, and my parents and I were quickly informed that I had been given the wrong visa – a Pilot/Crew visa that would make it impossible for me to enter Shanghai. There were really only two options at this point, to head back to the US or fly to HK to apply for a new visa, which (it being Saturday) would have to wait until Monday morning. We objected, saying that this was clearly a mistake made by the issuing consulate office. Why the hell would I have applied for a Pilot/Crew visa on purpose?
Apparently this had happened the day before. Same story – Parents traveling with their kid, parents had the right visa, and someone (*coughNYConsulate*) had screwed up the kid’s visa. Unbelievable, we said. Clearly this wasn’t our fault and there was no way for us to tell. Everyone agreed but said that there was no other way. I started readying myself for the trip to HK.
We called around and got ahold of the NY Consulate’s night attendant, at 4:00 AM NY time. All he could do was call his immediate supervisor, who wasn’t picking up his mobile or house phone. We asked him to call his supervisor’s supervisor, but he was afraid to. So every 20 minutes, we called back to ask him to call again. After 2 hours, we finally reasoned with him (read: threatened him) to contact the Consul Director (his boss’s boss’s boss). On the side, Chinese immigration officers were reaching up to their superiors for us as well
Around 7:00 PM in Shanghai, when the NY Consulate director called, we started raising our hopes. She promised to send the authorization for the Chinese airport visa desk to authorize an emergency visa. I was saved!
Then more waiting. 6 hours at this point, but we thought – hey almost done right?
Wrong. There was a little bit of commotion on the officer’s side, and they again asked us some questions: Where was I born, when did I go to the states, etc. And then the ball dropped – the airport visa office couldn’t process my visa due to my former residency registration still being in the Shanghai government system. The reasoning, according to the China visa process, was that since Citizens of China did not need a visa and only Citizens of China are supposed to have the residency registration, anyone with a residency registration will not be able to get a Chinese visa, a process that only gets checked in China.
Did you get that? Even though the visa officers knew that I was an US Citizen, even though they knew that the visa error was due to their own branch in NY’s ineptitude, they were refusing my emergency visa (granted by their own organization) due to a small technicality. My parents reasoned with them, but they stood firm. There was nothing they could do – in that situation, they had never granted anyone a pass when this issue came up. This was a rule that could not be budged.
I again started readying myself for the trip to HK, contacting friends and explaining to them my sad story. My parents pushed and pushed, but to little effect. The immigration officers said that their boss was contacting his boss, but it may 1) be futile and 2) be too late. The best course of action at that time (it was 8:30 PM) was to book the first ticket to HK and reapply over there. They would contact us if something happened last minute.
My parents and I made the long depressing trek to the booking desk. I was trying to comfort my mother, who was stressed by both the day’s events and the fact that I would have to leave. The officer walking with us did his best to comfort us. And as we spoke to the ticketing desk, all hope seemed to be lost.
Then, over the radio at the very last minute: “Tell them to come back. We got it.”
I was saved. Everyone was shocked. In what was an extraordinary set of events pretty much invisible to us, the immigration head officer’s boss called his boss, who then called the Director of immigration in Beijing. He heard our entire story, called up the Consul General of China and together pushed the authorization of a temporary emergency visa. It took 8 hours, a slew of paperwork, and two of the highest ranking officials in the immigration / consulate offices to grant me my pass into Shanghai and fix a ridiculous clerical error. The visa officers were in disbelief. The manager told my father that we “must have some powerful friends (we didn’t), because this was unprecedented. Never have they made this exception”. It still took another 2 hours to get the visa, as the visa officers were not happy to have their earlier decision overruled.
In the end, we are very grateful to the Chinese immigration officers (the visa officers can suck it). Working within the constraints of an extremely process/procedure driven organization with a ton of red tape, they saved my trip to China. And they agree: having too little individual authority is hurting their organization. When they can’t make seemingly straightforward decision because of technicalities and procedure, everyone loses.
Oh and if this ever happens to you (e.g. if you’re Shanghainese and had this exact situation unfold), don’t worry. They made us write down what happened and are making a full report of this as future precedent should anything similar happen. I got you.
I think a wise man (or conventional wisdom) said that the hardest part of doing anything is starting. Most times when I sit down at the computer to blog, I spend about 15-30 minutes trying to come up with something to write about. Then I spend an excruciating amount of time coming up with the first sentence. For some reason, the beginning to any post (and this doesn’t apply to any other part of my life) needs to be perfect.
Today, I decided to take another approach. I just started writing. Sure, I still changed the first sentence
once twice many times, but once I got going, it was easy to make those adjustments. The crazy thing is, I really didn’t have a purpose at the outset…I just wanted to write. But now that I’m two paragraphs in, I seemed to have stumbled onto it. Start doing what you want to do. You’ll find the purpose behind it eventually and you’ll be much happier for it.
Ok. Done. I’m happy.
I am a soda man. My father is, my grandfather is, and I can only guess my offspring will inherit the same genetic predisposition to consume buckets of carbonated cold beverage. When I was only 8, my parents had to enforce a cap on the number of sodas I consumed in a day. It wasn’t until one summer during college, looking at my less-than-adonis body in disgust, did I manage to kick the habit, motivated by the high sugar / caloric content.
As an alternative, I switched to drinking OJ. Let’s check the motivators here:
So when I was introduced a few months ago to Coke Zeros, with its promise of 0 calories, 0 carb heaven, I was hooked. My main internal motivator for switching away from Coke was taken away. Coke Zero took away my guilt for drinking soda.
Deep down, I know that there are probably long term negative effects to drinking a ton of Coke Zero. I know that it would still be healthier to drink OJ, especially for the “vitamins” and “minerals”. I know that it would be less expensive and better for my system to drink water and tea. Still, Coke Zero managed take the main source of guilt away, so at least for now, I’m stuck.
After spending some time contemplating a deeper meaning for writing this post, I give up. This is simply a post explaining my current addiction.
Beautiful is better than ugly
Explicit is better than implicit
Simple is better than complex
Complex is better than complicated
If it’s hard to explain, it’s a bad idea
There should be one - and preferably only one - obvious way to do it
David Tate writes an excellent piece about the negative effects of over-consumption. I realize the irony of sharing a blog article that warns against the following:
I need to use other peoples work to make myself look cool through sharing them with my friends
I need some time to get back to creating things. The past two years of my life have been spent distilling large amounts of information into PPT slides and XLS files. My writing is still borderline acceptable/shitty, but I’m working on it. Until then, I’m going to use other peoples’ work to make myself look cool through sharing them with my friends.
Any revisions/corrections are gratefully welcomed.