(Originally written in April, 2012)
“I no help you. You stand in that line,” says the stern small Asian woman with a dismissive wave of her hand.
I glance over at the line she is referring to. The intense tightening in my chest momentarily steals my ability to respond. The lone blond in the chroma-key blue dress that was in that line when I arrived is still miles away from the front.
I’ve already waited an hour in this starkly clinical Los Angeles Chinese Consulate waiting room, not counting the four-hour drive it took to get here from San Diego. My i-Phone tells me this place closes in 30-minutes and my passport is being held hostage here.
My heart is in my throat. I’m reminded why I hate Los Angeles and I’m beginning to hate China, too. All I can think about is what is going to happen if I can’t get my visa. Thousands of extra dollars will need to be spent, more hoops will have be jumped through, set schedules will have to be changed, flights, hotels… I’m a producer. My job is to make the impossible possible and I’m on a flight out tomorrow. Washington, DC first, then Paris, then Shanghai. My once in a lifetime chance to say I flew the entire circumference of the globe. I must get that visa.
In the background, a computerized female voice calls out, “Now serving, A-2-8-7.”
“You move. You holding up line. People behind you,” she snorts.
As if the eerily scratched plexi-glass barrier isn’t enough, her annoyed tone through the movie-theatre microphone is bellowing across the waiting room.
During my nerve wracking pile of wasted time here, I have observed that the consulate employee tactic when faced with people that have transactions beyond the norm is to turn up the microphone to the point of feedback, alerting everyone in the DMV-style waiting room, including security, that you are an idiot American.
I pull my pants up absent-mindedly. I didn’t have time to put a belt on this morning as I ran out the door to rescue my passport.
I smile. Stay calm, deep breath. I’m not leaving here without my visa.
I ask again, “I understand you are busy, but could please just HELP me? I know I need my passport for this transaction, but I already mailed it to your office with a business visa application. Now I need to cancel that and submit a tourist visa application. I can’t give you my passport because you have it already.” Surely my time-sensitive needs for immediate attention warrant some validity. I’m flying out tomorrow, I remind her. “And it’s production,” my silent thoughts scream out.
“Who gives a shit,” retorts hers through her eyes.
I glance behind me at the security guard manning his post near the x-ray machine and metal detector at the entrance. He’s busy talking to a smiling brunette wearing sunglasses inside (so LA). The detector beeps accompanied by blinking red lights as people walk in unstopped.
This is a perfect symbol of China. They have rules with a threatening demeanor, but the Chinese officials decide when to enforce them pending their mood or the amount of political dissidents gaining global media attention. Today in the media, it’s a blind self-taught Chinese lawyer – Chen, I think is his name. He protested against the Chinese government for forcing women to have abortions when their unborn children weren’t male.
According to NPR, he was imprisoned for four years and after release, he and his family were intimidated and threatened by plain clothed government officers standing watch outside their home for another two years. The same week I need my visa, Chen sought refuge at a U.S. embassy and the whole terrifying story is now in headlines across the world.
I’m jolted back to my uncomfortable reality when a Chinese man behind me literally pushes me out of the way to take my turn in line. Mean-Asia-Woman happily ignores me and begins serving A-2-8-7.
The female monotone voice chimes on cue, “Now serving, A-2-8-8.”
I have been to China before. This behavior in that culture is status quo there. With so many billions of people stacked on top of each other, it is perfectly commonplace to be pushed, yelled at and stepped on if you don’t assimilate quickly. They don’t hold doors for each other and they don’t let you out of your aisle seat in front of them first. I was nearly trampled once trying to exit a ferry boat there. It’s a flying-elbows mentality and this Chinaman just elbowed me.
I stand my ground and insist this disgruntled woman help me. She finally takes my papers, disappears behind a mysterious door, and returns with a small, old, angry Asian woman holding the papers from my original business visa application.
With an irrational quickness in her tone, she yells at me. “Why you apply business visa and now tourist visa! You paper says you filming in China!”
How is it that these small-in-stature people come off so god-damned intimidating?
“Yes, I know,” I blurt out trying to find the words. “We canceled our video shoot there and now I need a tourist visa because we have already booked flights and will go sightseeing instead,” I say knowing what an obvious non-truth this is.
The truth is, they leave you no choice. You submit all the specific paperwork they request and provide full disclosure that you are shooting a corporate video for internal communications purposes, which will never be broadcast anywhere, ever. You assure them you have health insurance and that you will not be dependent on the Chinese government for anything. None of it matters. Include the word “media” in any of your application material and the answer is no.
I stay on point. We are not doing any filming there. I recall the fact that I am attempting to get a tourist visa while also planning to enter the country with $100,000 worth of camera equipment. My Shanghai Production Manager assures me this happens all the time and the worst thing that can happen is that customs will take our gear when we get there. Uh, yeah, that is about the worst thing I can think of – besides being dismembered or imprisoned by Chinese customs officials.
“You lie!” shouts Old-Angry-Asia-Woman with a scowl that would frighten small children and animals.
“You liar. You breaking law! You illegal. You be taken away,” she shouts amongst the screeching feedback.
She begins to pick apart both my applications, calling attention to any discrepancies between them, firing ancient wooden arrows into my eyeballs. I throw up my armored shield ducking my head behind it, fending off the attack with good manners – “Please,” “Thank you,” “But, but, but…”
Old-Angry-Asia-Woman and Small-Mean-Asia-Woman begin to speak aggressively to each other in Mandarin, flailing their blue rubber-gloved hands – no doubt worn to fend off some impending flu pandemic that the rest of us aren’t aware of.
Finally, Old-Angry-Asia-Woman storms off, surely calling in back up archers beyond that inaccessible back office door where I know my passport is suffering. Small-Mean-Asia-Woman stares at me blankly, still seated on her perch behind the scratched plexi-glass. I stand, wounded, holding onto my last inch of dignity. In my puddle of blood and tears, she hands me a blank form written in Chinese characters with my passport.
“You write letter you do no filming, no media of any kind in China,” she states irritated to offer any helping hand.
“Does this mean I will get my visa,” I ask with a futile glimmer of hope.
“Maybe. You come back tomorrow.”
Come back tomorrow? Did you not hear me when I clearly stated 15 times that I am on a plane tomorrow embarking on 12 days of international travel? I need my passport.
As she hands me the paper, she routinely adds “If you lying, you be killed.”
What? Did she just say killed?
“Now serving, A-2-8-9.”
I’m not sure if it was my inner Tibetan refugee translating, or if those words actually left her mouth. The phrase, “But I’m an American” crossed my mind. Where is Jason Bourne when you need him? “Get some rest, Shannon. You look tired,” says my fantasy international assassin.
I realize finally that I have lost this battle. I accept defeat with the clear conscious that I would rather jump out of a plane without a parachute than risk dealing with criminal Chinese immigration officials on their soil questioning me about my intent to shoot corporate video in their country.
And to think there was a time when I thought corporate video was boring. You just never know what lies behind that all-smiles motivational video you are watching at your company’s annual sales conference. Chances are it wasn’t made in China, even though nearly everything else in the room probably was.