When you are raiding the mini-bar in the wee hours of dawn for the mixed nut bag and you arrange for a wake up call at 10:30 am, you know it’s been a good night in Hong Kong.
Why, may you ask, am I in Hong Kong? Well, the intended purpose was to process my visa, which didn’t exactly go as intended. Allow me to begin.
It all began in LA, as most trashy stories do. Just when I was about to wonder what beheld me — what strange vision of Chinese firecracking bliss had procured my sensibilities enough to leave the sunny California coastline in search of my next step in life, love, and novelist madness in freezing Shanghai — something stopped me dead in my tracks:
The inescapable maze of securing a Chinese visa.
Securing a Chinese visa is about as straight forward as the assembly directions for a 500 piece Ikea bed. You don’t know where to begin and someone has just dumped the box on the floor in front of you, except they forgot to color code the bolts.
Filling out the form in the Chinese Consulate in LA should have been my first warning that the Middle Kingdom would be more foreign than any other foreign country I had entered. And I have been to a lot of countries — nearly 27 to be exact. Granted, each of those trips were purchased with every extra spare penny I made while teaching impoverished children in New York City, but I am not sure this tidbit makes me sound any less of a traveling brat. Granted, I’ve always gone to whatever locale was the weekly feature on expedia.com, which is why I’ve ended up in places like Costa Rica in the driest of dry seasons, where the jungle trek could not be found under the half inch glaze of construction dust that layered the forest, as well as the nearby signs that read “save the trees.”
Part of the impetus to go to China was to change all this. To move out from the life of a vagabond traveler and actually take a job that could earn me money, so I could travel abroad to countries of my choice rather than to dust frosted jungles. China could change this, even though it is not my country of choice either. It’s more like 99th on my choice of 101 countries, including Canada. It wasn’t personal, it’s just China is cold and I don’t do ice cubes. But, if I went to China to teach, I could earn enough to become debt free again and keep writing my books from savvy tropical islands.
Rather than freezing tundras.
The Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles is one of the few modern buildings left in America that has a non-perpherated smoking room and air-conditioning to circulate the carcinogenic fumes. Two months ago, I sat there with credentialed black pen in hand, filling out the visa form, which consistently reminded me of all my inadequacies. To fill out the visa, there is a slot for your name, your name in Chinese characters, your name if you had any other name, your name before you were married, your name after you were married, and your name you go by in public. In short, you need names for all of your multiple personalities. Worse than the face that I don’t know all the options for my name, was the visa’s incessant repetition of my love life. For marital status, there were only 4 viable options:
Not yet married
Leave it to the Chinese consulate to remind me that I am not a viable human being because I refuse to be a mail order bride. There is no “single.” It’s not even a political option. There is only “not yet married,” as though my value as a woman depended on my husband, which I still don’t have. I skipped the question entirely until the front desk visa woman read my form and handed it back to me, unloving glance in her eye, pointing to number 7 from beneath her blue plastic gloves. I did not want to mess with her, her slick black hair pulled high into a pony tail, and her face sternly decorated with a SARS mask. She glared. I checked the box.
Today, I was presented with this very form again in Hong Kong. After flying over the island for a visa run as my residency on the mainland expires soon, I spent my morning sitting on the pavement in the long line wrapping around the Consulate. Once I re-filled out this same form, I could become an official “worker” in the Mainland and then, 60 days later, I could become a “resident.” That was the goal — hence the two hour car ride, 2 hour flight to HK, 1 hour customs wait, 40 minute tram ride, and all-morning line to enter the Consolate:
Where I met the twin of the LA woman, her slick black hair pulled high into a pony tail, her face sternly decorated with a SARS mask. She glared. I had all my boxes checked.
Except one inadequacy.
“You don’t have school license. Cannot process,” she said.
“This is all the school gave me.”
“No license, no process.”
“But today is the only day you are open! The rest of the week you are closed for Tomb Sweeping Festivals.”
“Yes, please bring back later today.”
I plunged myself into Starbucks to email my school, but the internet here was no kinder to my legitimacy or my love life. In order to log on, I had to fill out a 3 question friendly survey:
1. My current marital status
2. How many children I have
3. The age range of my children
I have no children, Starbucks, I just have my waning eggs and my expiring visa. I am “not yet” married, and very much don’t need to be reminded of this.
Hence, love by mini-bar. So yes, it was a good night in Hong Kong, followed by a very long and tragic day of being reminded by Capitalist coffeeshops and Chinese Consolates that all roads lead to the Middle Kingdom, filled with princes on white horses and knights in shining, unattainable…