The China Syndrome

She tells me her name is Min. I wonder if it is short for miniature.

She is tiny. Her black hair touches her shoulders and glistens with health even under the fluorescent lights. She wears a tailored black jacket beautifully embroidered with bright red roses, over slim black pants, and ballet slippers. It is an elegant look, designed to take the focus away from her face. It is not an attractive face even at the best of times. But today is not the best of times. For the last 90 minutes she has stood in front of us in the slowly moving line getting angrier and angrier at the seemingly endless stream of people attempting to jump the queue. Her face is now lined, wrinkled and puckered in anger, as she shouts obscenities at the offending people.

The Chinese are good at many things.

Emigrating , world domination, and spitting come to mind.

What they are not good at is queuing.

We are at the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, waiting to hand in our requests for tourist visas.

Our progress has been hampered by the many Chinese who pay no attention to the orderly queue and push and fight their way to the front. They hover at the service windows pushing the person who is being served out of the way saying that they were in the middle of a transaction. Or they claim they can’t stand in line because they are old and infirm, ignoring the fact that they are strong enough to have forcibly pushed a dozen people out of their way to claim the pole position in the race to get served.

Min screams at them

“We are not in China now. This is America. You should stand in line.”

Then, when they ignore her she yells in Chinese

But it does no good.

Somehow, despite everything, we slowly inch nearer the service window.

Another thing the Chinese are not good at, is spending money.

Not to put too fine a point on it, they are cheap.

Most consulates represent their home country with pride by having an elegant building tastefully furnished, their walls decorated with paintings of important nationals.

The Chinese Consulate represents their home country with pride by spending as little as possible on their building.

San Francisco boasts the largest Chinatown anywhere in the world outside of China. Many of the residents of Chinatown are now American Citizens and require visas to go home to visit their families. It would seem natural to have their Consulate in China Town. But that is not the case. Their consulate is on the edge of Japan Town, about as far across town from Chinatown as it is possible to be. Most Caucasians already have trouble telling the Chinese apart from the Japanese and this only adds to the confusion. However properties are cheaper in Japan town.

The building itself is a nondescript sprawling building taking up half a block. The Visa room is more of a warehouse designed simply to accommodate the maximum number of people at the minimum cost. There is not one painting on the walls, there is not even a poster of a panda.

Some 30 years ago the walls were painted eggshell blue. Before that they were white, which can clearly be seen where the blue is peeling off.

Lines of inexpensive metal mesh chairs are welded together in groups of six, presumably to prevent them from being stolen. Only the Chinese would want to steal these chairs. No effort has been made to make them level, so when I sit on a chair at one end of the row of six, the other end bounces off the floor causing an elderly woman to levitate briefly above her seat before falling back into it. She directs a rather unflattering comment towards me. Fortunately the comment is in Chinese, but the gestures that go with it are universal leaving me in no doubt as to what she is saying. There is little point in telling her I have been on a diet. She wouldn’t understand or believe me.

As we enter the building we pass through a metal detector and our bags are checked by a security guard. He is also the information officer and the receptionist. All three jobs carry a certain amount of responsibility, and yet the one man who does these three jobs doesn’t even warrant a chair. Instead he is perched rather uncomfortably on two milk crates, one balanced on top of the other. When he stands up the checkered pattern of the milk crate is clearly stamped on the seat of his shiny black trousers.

The desire of the Chinese not to spend money goes hand in hand with the desire to make money. We are told that a passport photo is required along with our visa application. We ask if there is anywhere nearby where we can get a passport photo taken. It just so happens, the security guard tells us, that he has the required camera and will happily take the photograph.

We ask how much.

“Very cheap” he replies. “You get 10 photos for $15”

“But we only need one photo” we say.

He looks at us and shrugs.

We have been in line exactly two hours when Min reaches the front. As she heads off to the service window, she turns to us and says.

“Welcome to China. This will give you just a little taste of what your vacation will be like”

It will be more than two months before we get to China. We are going the long way round, via Australia, Bali and Thailand.

Tomorrow we board a cruise ship in San Francisco that will take us to Sydney.

Those of you who have been following this blog for years will know exactly how I feel about Australians. But after today’s experience I may be warming to them.

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16 Responses to The China Syndrome

  1. Pat Campbell says:

    Oh goodie , more adventures. Wonderful travels and interesting fellow travelers…or at least memorable ones. Lighten up, you may well find the Aussies to be not so bad. Safe and happy days and nights to come.

  2. Duncan Kime says:

    Indian visa offices are worse, especially in Mumbai. I agree about Australians. At least USA doesn’t play cricket – then you’d really understand. Bouncers are not big guys at nightclubs – they are really hard and heavy balls (!) thrown at uneven turf which are destined to hit your temple (remember Goliath) and kill you. BASTARDS ONE AND ALL!

  3. Greg Wittig says:

    OMG, I am so glad you are on your way, I am so looking forward to your blogs!!!!!

    Sent from my iPhone

  4. Nancy Whitley says:

    Bon voyage. We are looking forward to your reportage.

  5. awc49 says:

    just wait till you get to Australia !!

  6. Colette says:

    So happy to be traveling again – thanks for taking me with!!! How grand to be sailing out of SF Harbor (?) and heading for Australia!!! Just like the good old days of traveling – how many days will it take and which cruise line? xoxox

  7. jennyembj says:

    Whoohoo, how exciting! This definitely cheers up a gloomy January day. Have fun and love to you both xx

  8. Bonnie says:

    Can’t wait to hear all about this trip as it is one that I have been contimplating for a while now.

  9. John Hampton says:

    If you think this experience has opened your eyes to Chinese ways, just wait until you get there and wish you had brought a face mask or clothes pin. I assume you remember what clothes pins are?

    Cheers and a safe journey.

  10. Michael Haritos says:

    Great post and hilarious; currently rethinking my Kyrgystan -China trip in the fall. Hi Gordon!

  11. una says:

    be safe and enjoy xx una

  12. Judith Dahlman says:

    Dear Andrew,
    Bonnie Gellas recommended your blog to me and I have enjoyed it so much. As for this installment, my exposure to Chinese in their native environs has been limited to Hong Kong, but in my limited experience, I can certainly confirm the Chinese unwillingness to queue!

    My question: What cruiseline sails from San Francisco to Sydney? I have been looking for transPacific lines and been unsuccessful. Thanks so much.

    Judith Dahlman

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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