C’est la Visa

When I first went to China, it was on a tourism visa which lasted for 3 months.  This was in the weeks following the Olympics, when visa regulations were just beginning to ease slightly.  I arrived unsure of what I would do at the end of those three months, or even of what the rules would be when the time came.

Friends all told me to simply wait and cross that bridge when the time came.  I was understandably less Zen, having never been through this process, and understandably nervous seeing as how that “bridge” had not yet been built at the time.  Thankfully, when the time came, I was able to obtain a 6 month visa with no trouble at all.

Almost a year later, my employers at the time began the process of obtaining a new work visa for me.  This proved problematic to say the least.  As any foreigner in China can tell you, visa troubles are a rite of passage.

In the lead up to the 60th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2009, visas had begun to be increasingly difficult to obtain and renew.  Work visas had become almost impossible to come by for normal humans.  As heightened security measures were put in place during that time period, the procedure for obtaining visas of any kind had become considerably more complex and more expensive.  There is no recourse for visa-seeking residents but to comply.

In the days after the process began: I made over 4 trips to the local Kodak kiosk for visa pictures of varying size and background color as the regulations shifted by the moment; I scrambled to transfer money from my bank in the US to my local bank in China, a Sisyphean task I somehow managed to accomplish, only to be told it was unnecessary several days later; I cried uncontrollably for several hours every day; and, finally, I took a trip to the outer limits of Beijing to take a mandatory medical examination, presumably to ensure that I was indeed a human person and not a cyborg infiltrator.

The medical exam needed for gaining a work visa was once available at a more or less easily accessible location within the city.  Due to the 60th anniversary, however, that was no longer the case.  The only facility administering such tests was now out in the Northwest corner of Beijing near the mountains which, up until the time I went there, I had not known even existed.

The drive to the facility where the medical exams were given was an adventure in itself.  To begin with it was decided, by someone who has yet to receive the full extent of my wrath, that it would be a good idea to head out at 7AM: the exact beginning of Beijing rush hour.  The drive, which off-peak might have taken an hour or so, was thus stretched out to 2 and a half hours.  The five occupants of the compact car managed to go through all of the 5 stages of grief during the course of the drive, reaching acceptance only a few minutes before we actually found the place.  It did not help that our driver had never been before, and so we spent much of our time driving through back alleys, ditches, and hutongs.  To his credit, he finally got us there which, had I been driving, would never have happened.

Upon our arrival at the facility we were glad to find that the parking lot was nowhere close to full, perhaps we would get back before nightfall after all.

We walked in the door tired and afraid, still suffering from post traumatic stress disorder induced by our lengthy, hellish drive.  A small woman dressed in nurses white and a thin face mask sitting behind a counter beckons me forward.  Her eyes are smiling and I begin to relax, maybe the worst is over.  When I reach the desk, without explanation or preamble, the small woman pulls out a gun and puts it to the center of my forehead.

Due to the recent H1N1 scares, many schools, hotels, and office buildings have begun screening everyone who entered with fever detectors.  I had heard of this policy and, having never experienced it personally, had only some vague idea about disposable mouth thermometers.  It turns out that they actually use a temperature sensor in the shape of a small gun which they hold to your forehead for a few seconds after which it shows your temperature in a digital readout.  Pretty cool technology, actually.  Unfortunately, my indoctrination into its use was unfortunately abrupt and more closely resembled a mugging.  I only narrowly avoided the need for a wardrobe change.

When my heart began beating again, I filled out some paperwork and dove right into the exam.

We spend a few hours at the medical facility being bounced around to different rooms where we are poked and prodded by turns.  In one room I wore a lead vest and stood in front of a gigantic humming machine for a few minutes.  I cringed in mock fear as if the radiation burns me… The doctors were not amused.  In another room I was laid down on a table and had wet suction cups attached to my upper torso. I still have no Idea why.  The nurse seemed to find this process as amusing as I found it disturbing.  In yet another room I had my blood pressure taken by a man who looked to be about a thousand years old.

All in all, after the drive, things went pretty smoothly.  The trip back was uneventful and we were all able to laugh at the morning’s antics, though there was a certain harried tenor to our forced joviality.  And when, several days later, I found out that I hadn’t really needed the exam after all, even I couldn’t tell if I was laughing or crying.