I’ve known all along that we were going to be taking Chinese language classes at a local University. Somehow in my mind, however, I kept picturing Language “lessons” at an Institute, you know, small, personal – that sort of thing.
When we went last week to do the final payment and registration for classes, I was hit head-on with my misperception. It had been a long time since I had stood in line to register for classes at a university, and this was the full thing, Chinese style. This meant that after getting our confirmation slip picked up, (no line there,) we went upstairs and were handed a number. Number 447 to be exact. And after a few minutes the young “handler” held up a pad with 332 on it. Ack, we thought, we should have come in the morning. It was two thirty pm, Henry and Jack get off the bus at 4:00 and we had not thought to give one of them a key. There were two steps to the process, four operating sites for each, two people moved through in ten minutes. We had planned to go in the morning but also knew we needed enough cash to pay the tuition, and found the ATM rejected our request in the morning. After freaking out a little, we reasoned (hoped?) that since we had taken out our daily limit the prior day in the afternoon, we were still technically in the day before (US time) and that once midnight (US time) passed we would be able to get the rest of our money out. With our pockets bulging with cash, we were now sitting amongst our new peer group, but we probably were not going to get served, or would need to split up or something. Heard Spanish spoken behind me, chatted with the Spaniard and two Ecuadorian women. The Spaniard graciously offered to give me her number when she heard our dilemma. Once again, the kindness of strangers. I decided to get a little information, before adding several hours to her wait, so approached one of the other sweet young things (all China seems to be managed by young women who look to be about 16 and in fact are about 22.) She offered to check with the processors and see if they thought I would get served today and also ask if I needed to be present or if Steve could do the dirty work for me. At the last moment I thought to ask her if they would be willing to look over our papers and verify that we had everything, so that if we did have to return tomorrow, we would know we had all the things in order. That was a VERY wise final request. Amazingly they were willing to take a look, so with about 4 minutes from the time I had calculated I needed to be streaming out the door, we were allowed to approach the table.
The immediate reaction of the registration woman, (yes, this person was actually over 30) was not good. “Your visa has expired,” she said, fortunately in pretty decent English. Thus began the Visa adventure which was to consume the next week. All the stages of grief flashed before us, starting with denial, (“No, it’s not, let me show you,” said Steve, assuming she was looking at his expired visa from last summer’s visit.) Yes, there was some anger too, and not just a little fear too – messing with the Chinese Visa authorities is not something you do lightly. The silver lining was that since we were pretty screwed up, they at least let us in the line there and then and took care of the other stuff and I ran home and Steve stayed to do the rest and then headed back when their line closed to hear what the next steps would be. So, we had the pleasure of seeing first hand what we had read from various authors about the “back door” system of getting things done in China. In Venezuela government bureaucratic procedures are so crazy and convoluted that anyone with a little money hires a “gestor” to do the line waiting and “greasing the system” for them. Here, you hope you have a friend who works at the agency and will “let you in the back door.” So when we went the next day to the Department of Public Security, we had a little map drawn by the 30 something woman of exactly where “our” door was located. This meant we avoided the two main doors which had about 30 people each waiting at them at 8:45am. Of course, there is a guard at the back door and you have to be able to convince him that you should be let in. While our first visit required only a little wait for Mr. Chou to come down and look our stuff over and say, “wait here,” during our second visit, the guard was convinced that Mr. Chou wasn’t around and that we should vacate the premises immediately. All this was communicated by attitude and sign language, as our Chinese was certainly not up to the task. The juice on my cell phone was nearing empty and Steve’s cell phone was forgotten at home as we dialed our contact at the school, (no answer) and Mr. Chou’s office, (his deskmate said he was at the University and his opinion was also that we should not be bothering him.) For a few minutes we feared we had crossed wires about where we were supposed to meet Mr. Chou and we worried we would never be let in the back door again and might have to pay some outrageous fine or be deported or something. It seemed time to call on the potential kindness of strangers again. There was a young dude with a ponytail also waiting on the back step of the back door smoking a Dunhill. Everything about him said, “I’ve studied some English.” Sure enough, when asked he was willing to at least confirm our understanding with the surly guard and come up with a plan. And before we had done anything rash, there was Mr. Chou inside motioning us to come in. He and another “guy from upstairs” waited with us on one of the processing lines, and explained to the sweet young thing at counter 17 why it was okay for her to go around the usual regs and give us an extra 30 days to get our act together. We had to leave our passports with her, (someone behind us explained that the Chinese characters on the receipt required us to be back Tuesday next to reclaim them,) and we were told to schedule a medical check up and then things would be back on track. So that’s the introduction to school. It’s not all over yet but I have reminded myself that seeing how the bureaucracy works is an important part of really understanding a place. I clearly remember the craziness of doing the similar Visa application process in Spain, (waiting one rainy morning outside with hundreds of people only to get inside with my many questions and see the sign over the worker’s desk saying, AQUI NO SE DA INFORMACION, and wondering if information could not be given there then where could it be given?) And further back in college, remembering when I went to pick up my DAS identity card in Bogota, Colombia how the ID they presented to me had a man’s photo on it, and how when I complained the worker didn’t seem to want to do anything about it and another citizen in line who was Colombian went to bat for me demanding that this was not right and explaining to me in manageable Spanish what the next step would be. And I feel the same concern when I see immigrants on line at the Hennepin County Government “service” center and wonder how they will make sense out of the multitude of forms we require for life in America. Help out somebody who seems to be having some trouble with bureaucracy. It really brightens their day. The other upshot of the experience is that the Spanish woman lives a few blocks from us and is becoming a friend….
FrancesPosted by sprut003 at September 17, 2005 4:58 AM