Thursday, May 10, 2012

Passport And Visa Misadventures

It was a comedy of errors by the Balla family (read: me!) the other day at the Visa Office of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC.

In what has become an annual trek, I made my way via the 31 bus from GW's campus through the heart of Georgetown and up the hill to the Visa Office, just a stone's throw below National Cathedral on Wisconsin Avenue. In the Visa Office, it was a typical Chinese scene...a pair of poorly organized lines for people waiting to pay for and pick up visas that I had to fight my way through to make it to the ticket dispenser where I was to pick up my visa application number. Not a good start...I grabbed number 115, only to look up at the display and discover that number 29 was currently being served.

No matter...The wait is always interesting, with a mishmash of English and Chinese being spoken, couriers fighting with visa office workers on behalf of "The Client," and the general dislocation and tension that comes with worldwide travel.

When it was finally my turn, nearly an hour later, all of these realities found their way into my exchanges. So, onto the comedy of three errors...

Are Julie and Z old enough to sign their own visa application forms? I insisted, at home the previous evening, that Julie and Z ought to sign their own visa applications. After all, they've spent a significant portion of their lives in China and totally know what's going on. They are, in Z's words, "conscious."

Well, as I watched the young visa officer work her way through Julie's application, I noticed she was doing some finger math. I assumed she was counting up Julie's age, but had no chance to verify that fact until she got to Z's application a minute or two later. After more finger math, she informed me that Z was too young to sign for himself, and that I had to fill in an additional section vouching for his application. I put up a brief little stink, arguing that Z understood everything, but a terse jiu shi guiding ("that's the rule") set me about scribbling my information in the guardian section of the form.

Can we use photos taken at home on our applications? I mildly despise going to CVS for passport photos. It seems to take way too long to make something so simple happen, and a ten dollar charge for pictures snapped with a simple digital camera just rubs me the wrong way. So this time around, we used our own equipment at home...with good results for everyone but me. I had bad feelings about my picture, as it was a tab bit grainy. But luckily it was mine, as when I was informed by the same visa officer that the photo wouldn't pass muster, I was directed to a back room where a replacement could be taken on the spot. If it were anyone else, a return trip on another day would have been in order. Phew!

Back there behind the scenes, I had one of those moments with the visa officer who was taking my picture, when she earnestly took an interest in my Mandarin. It wasn't one of those polite "Your Chinese is really good" comments, but rather a conversation about the specific ways and means through which I've developed my language skills. My mental reaction to all of this was dismay at the fact that here we are, in the middle of the China Visa Office, and staff members are still surprised to hear decent spoken Mandarin!? We have some work to do, fellow Americans! Get crackin' on your Mandarin!

The fee for the picture was...you guessed it...ten dollars. Now, mind you, you are not allowed to pay cash for your visa application. So imagine my surprise, after I pulled out my card to pay for the photos, when I was informed that you must pay cash for this particular service. Of course, I had not a penny on me...so what now? "Just go to the chaoshi (supermarket), buy something, and get some cash. I'll wait for you." And so, in a maddening twist, I ended up in a CVS across the street, buying a Mountain Dew so I could get a twenty back.

What do you do if you are running short on pages in your passport? I walked into the Visa Office slightly concerned about Desi's passport, as she had only a couple of pages left. Plenty of room for a visa sticker, I thought. Think again...The kinds of pages remaining empty in Desi's passport are not ones where a visa can apparently be affixed. This was the real bad news of the day. I argued the point, but another jiu shi guiding sank in the reality that Desi has to start from scratch, first apply to the State Department for a passport renewal, and then go back to the Visa Office with the new passport in hand. A few hours later, there the two of us were, in our neighborhood CVS, Desi getting passport photos taken. (Don't want to take any more chances!)

Going forward, it will be a return bus ride up to the Visa Office to pick up the visas for me, Julie, and Z. (Hey, we'll be eligible to go to China, just the three of us...see you later, Des!) Then, when Desi's new passport come in, it will be two more trips, to apply and then pick up.

Hey, at least we are done with CVS!

~Steve

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Return To Tianzuo Guoji

In a Balla family first, we actually know ahead of time where we are going to be living during the summer.

You may recall, that in the past, our Beijing housing arrangements have come down to the last minute before being finalized (see here, here, and here for the stress-inducing details).

Just the other day, in an unexpected development, the owner of an apartment in Tianzuo Guoji, a high-rise complex on Zhongguancun Lu where we lived two years ago, sent me an email announcing that his place is going to be empty this summer. I characterize this turn of events as unexpected because, a few months back, I reached out to the owners of all of the apartments where we have lived over the past few years, inquiring as to whether their respective units would be available this summer. In all three instances, the news I received was not good.

And so it was off to The Beijinger and Craigslist Beijing all over again, to start from scratch. Of course, in a predictable rags to riches kind of way, just when I was zeroing in on not just one, but two potential apartments, Tianzuo Guoji suddenly came back into the picture when the current tenants decided to move out earlier than scheduled.

What this means is that, for the first time ever, when we get off the plane in Beijing, we will actually know where our home is located. We will actually be returning to a place where we have lived before. The unknowns will be of a much more mundane variety. For me, the current burning mystery concerns sleeping arrangements, namely...

Will Z sleep in a cubby under the spiral staircase? Although Z is probably close to a foot taller than last time we lived in this apartment, he is promising to camp out down there in the corner. Stay tuned...

~Steve