If you want to understand the world, you have to go out in it.
I’m far from the most traveled person I know, and that’s partially because I have a travel impediment: Before I head off to a country, I like to study the language enough so that I can get hopelessly lost, desperately confused, and thoroughly muddled. This requires a pretty steady commitment of mediocre effort, usually over a period of years.
For over two years now I’ve been learning the Mandarin flavor of Chinese, and feel like I’m solid enough to ask for a Coke, to misunderstand most ordinary things, and to completely bungle anything remotely complex. In other words, time for a trip!
On this particular trip, in keeping with my decision to untether from the grid, I’m traveling without a computer or an iTrackingdevice, nothing but a notebook, a pen, a few changes of underwear, a couple of t-shirts, a hoodie, a ball cap, and a cheap Canon point-and-shoot. The reason I’m going to China is because I want to. This is the same puzzling reason I give to my online Chinese teachers when they ask, “Why are you studying Chinese?”
Aside from being flattered that they consider what issues forth from my mouth to be Chinese, I tell them the same thing: “Because I want to.”
“But surely there has to be a reason!” they insist.
“There is,” I say. “I just don’t know what it is.”
But no matter how much you want to go to China, before you do, you have to get a visa, which costs $140. This is a lot of money when you consider that I got my plane ticket for less than $600, and that my hotel in Kunming is $23 per night. In Los Angeles, the China consulate is located in Koreatown, go figure, and it’s easy to find because of all the Falun Gong protesters camped out in front. Visa turnaround time is four business days, and I got there on a very slow day.
I say it was a slow day because the room was less than half full, not because it wasn’t insane. If you have a country with more than a billion people, it is a fair bet that at least a thousand of them will be in Los Angeles on any given day wanting a visa or having some kind of immigration foul-up. There were more people and more racket, squalling babies, excited grannies, amped-up security guards, and frazzled consular officers than I have ever seen in one place before, and I’ve spent a whole lot of hours in immigration offices of one kind or another in a bunch of different countries. My ticket was No. 36 and they were only on No. 3, so I figured I was going to be there all day, but I figured wrong. Despite the pandemonium it was brutally and noisily efficient, like chainsaws.
I got called to my window after waiting less than fifteen minutes, sprinted actually, because there was a sign that said “If you do not come immediately when your number is called your number will be canceled and you will have to start over.” I was nervous when I got to the window and the clerk glanced at my paperwork, threw it all back at me under the bulletproof glass, and said “You need copy of passport. Down the hall!”
I grabbed my stuff and slunk down the hall to a room called “Visa Problems.”
“Great,” I thought. “I’m not even in China and I’ve already been labeled a problem.” Happily there was a copy machine in the middle of the teeming room so I made my copy and turned to walk out, but hadn’t taken three steps when a furious voice screamed “You! Twenty-five cents!”
The whole room, which was filled with stressed and angry visa applicants, and stressed and overworked consular employees, stopped and stared at the deadbeat who was too cheap to pay for a twenty-five cent copy. “I didn’t know it cost money,” I mumbled, noticing after I said it that there was a giant sign that said “TWENTY FIVE CENTS PER COPY.” The sign was literally three feet high. The clerk made a hateful face at my pathetic attempt to lie. I reached for my wallet and looked inside, shocked to see that the only bill I had was a $100.
The whole room stared in disgust as I handed the clerk the Ben Franklin. It’s the first time I’ve ever had to get change from a century note made for a quarter purchase. My face was the color of China’s national flag. Back in the main consular room the official took my paperwork, flung a receipt at me, and told me to come back in four days. “If you don’t come, no visa for you, ever,” he snapped.
I hurried to my car through the wall of raging Falun Gong protesters, sure that once I got to China it was going to be different. Quiet, peaceful, ordered, spiritual … yeah.
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