Sunday, March 20, 2005

A Change is Gonna Come
Somewhere in the airport lobby sized Hong Kong office of the People's Republic of China visa/immigration department - floor 7, booth 4 to be exact - is a real working class hero. I don't know her name, but if she weren't already married and I weren't already involved, I'd do my best to make her mine.
She turned my chicken shit of a visa search experience into glorious chicken salad. I had no idea that the office of final resort to which I'd been directed was the official PRC visa center until arriving. I almost turned around and walked away, especially after learning I had to be searched and go through a metal detector in order to gain access.
Not exactly the kind of atmosphere that inspires confidence in someone touting fake business cards and spurious reasons for why he should be allowed to gallavant regularly in the Middle Kingdom.
"No photographs!" "Mobile phones must be deactivated!" read the signs. Why anyone would want to photograph a large waiting room is beyond me, but I took a number, turned off the cell phone and filled out a form identifying me as an American import/export guy. Then I sat down to a couple of Jordanians who were hoping to get into China with an repeatedly photocopied "invitation letter" dated August 2003 typed on stationary with a Shanghai elementary school letterhead asking them to share their expertise regarding "satchel crafting technology."
Suffice to say, their scam didn't fly. They were one number in front of me at booth 4 and after their wheedling, foot stomping, hints that they could offer "more cash, now" and long sighs failed, I sucked it up and smiled at the clerk.
"I am sorry, but if you go on business you must have a business invitation letter," she said.
I pointed at my makeshift business card and at C's business address, phone number and name as a "reference."
"These aren't enough?"
"No, I am sorry. Is she your business contact?" she asked, pointing to C's name.
"Um. Yeah. It's more informal business, actually," I 'fessed up.
She flipped through my expanding passport. "Many, many Shenzhen stamps. You must have 'informal business' with her quite a lot," the clerk observed, smiling a little.
"Well...we get by."
"Perhaps you can go as a tourist instead?"
It was that easy and it got better. After I'd rewritten the application form as a "tourist" she asked me if I would like a 12-month visa, instead of the 3-month that I was banking on.
"Yeah! Yeah! Sure, but 6 or 3 is fine."
"I will see what I can do." She disappeared to consult with a superior and returned shortly.
"I am sorry. Six months is the best I can do. You may pick it up Tuesday."
"Sorry? No, that's great! Don't be sorry. Great! Thank you!" I gushed. I wanted to reach through the 4-inch thick Plexiglass barrier and hug her in gratitude. "Tell your boss to give you a raise and a promotion!" I then spotted her wedding ring, a silver band with a modest diamond.
"And tell your husband he's the luckiest man in the world!"
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