Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

Visa Logistics
Previous Entry :: Next Entry

Read/Post Comments (0)
Share on Facebook
Maybe it's because I've been there several times now, but packing up and going off to China actually seems to me like Not A Big Deal anymore. There are pitfalls to this attitude. (Like, maybe I don't keep as close track of my passport as I should, but we don't have to go there right now . . . ) On the one hand, it's nice to feel familiar with the place, but on the other, it means that I'm apt to forget the significant differences in our culture and assume that I can proceed in my usual Western way.

This sabbatical is no exception. I've been fantasizing about a sabbatical for a quarter of a century, now, and, I always imagined trotting off to live in some other country and to pretty much do my own thing while I was there. You know, just parachute in to some small town (probably in southern France), walk down to the local patisserie, take my morning coffee and baguette, then go back to my (undoubtedly incredibly picturesque little) cottage and spend the day writing, or something.

Since I've lived with it so long, it shouldn't surprise me that this vision of sabbatical-in-France somehow overlaid my actual sabbatical in my mind, despite the fact that I intellectually know better. China is not France. To begin with, you can't visit China without a visa, and I should have known, based on experience, that the visa would be a sticking-point. I currently have a multiple-entry visa into China, but it expires in June, and the maximum length of stay that I'm allowed is 90 days, not the seven months that I am after. I'm completely confident that I could go to China with this visa, stay as long as I want, and as long as nothing happened that would put me on the wrong side of the law, I'd be ok. And if there were a brush with the law, well . . . I have a lot of friends and my friends have a lot of guan xi (gw-Ann-shee), which is the name for the very complex and fascinating system of social capital in China. I've been told there are workarounds to my visa issues. I've been told not to worry. I routinely trust my friends with my life while I'm there, and I know they mean what they say and they would never endanger me.

But of course, I do worry, because eventually I'll be coming back to the U.S. of A. and frankly, the TSA scares me to bits. (I'll give you a minute to soak up the fact that it's the US government, not the Chinese government, that scares me in this scenario.) I don't want to do anything that would cause me to tangle with them, and I sure don't want to do anything that might prevent me from returning to China in the future.

So. I scoped out the Chinese Embassy's web site, and didn't find any category of visa that described what I want to do – hang out in China for a 7-month stretch. If you want to be there that long, you have to be either a student or an employee, and you have to have a letter from your school or employer attesting to that fact. I emailed the nearest consulate, asking them what I should do in my situation (neither employee nor student), and they responded by sending back the text on the unhelpful web page that I had already found (and that had prompted my email in the first place).

I was telling my Chinese friend Y. about this, and she told me the kind of visa I needed – it's an extended-stay visa that's used for visiting scholars at her university. So, I passed this information along to my friends at the university where I want to go, and there ensued a run-around of epic proportions, attributable to the simple fact that I didn't really know who to contact about this. (It's not like I can read the website to get that information. Yet.) Well, and to the un-simple fact that what I was asking for was completely out of the box, coming out of some dim grey ether, an idea they could see only around the edges: "I just want to come stay here. I do not want to work."

They responded with job offers.

In my naievete, I had assumed that I was making a pretty simple request. I just wanted a visa. I just wanted people at the university to extend me an invitation letter, which I thought was trivial because they've worked with me for three years and I'll be leading the summer program again this year. It's not like I'm an unknown quantity. It's not like I'm going to do anything that would get them into trouble, somehow. I'd give myself a 60-40 chance that if the tables were turned, I could get an invitation letter from a university here for a Chinese colleague. At least I would know how to go about doing it.

But somehow, this request just doesn't translate. I can't be given this kind of visa if I don't sign an employment contract with the university. I might be able to get a student visa if I take a Chinese class (which I intend to do anyway), but I may be prohibited from that kind of visa if I don’t go to school full-time. And if I'm a student and I want to live on campus, I have to live in student housing, as opposed to visiting scholar housing. I've gotten three versions of what it would cost and where it would be, from three different people, all of whom called around to try to get these answers for me. (If I had more than two weeks, I could try to find off-campus housing. I can only imagine what might be involved there . . . )

And we haven't really settled on what they mean by "employment." There's a lot of latitude on this point, which somehow doesn’t surprise me; if the system is so strict, there has to be wiggle room somewhere. If I knew more or had had more experience, I would probably have been able to detect the parameters in this situation much earlier. As it is, I'm stumbling along. We've settled on what "employment" doesn't mean, at least in my view (and in the view of my college's sabbatical restrictions). I'm sure it's going to work out, but probably not before I get there because it's going to take face-to-face conversation to establish trust and to explain the inexplicable.

Which means that in the next few days I'm probably going to sign a contract that's sketchy at best so I can get the invitation letter. And then I'll make a flying trip to Chicago to get the visa before I leave (because that's preferable to trying to sort the whole thing out in Beijing). Or, if there's no time, I'll just have to dot the I's and cross the t's when I get there.

I'm sure that everything will work out. But it's a nice reminder that whatever happens the next several months, I'm going to feel like a blind person in a room where the furniture has been rearranged - often knocking into things I didn't know were there. And of course, that's why I'm going there in the first place. I'd have a lot less hassle if I were going to France, but China has spoiled me. After China, traveling to France seems too easy . . .

Read/Post Comments (0)

Previous Entry :: Next Entry

Back to Top

Powered by JournalScape © 2001-2010 JournalScape.com. All rights reserved.
All content rights reserved by the author.