The Grand Dragon
Sometimes you just have a bad China day. You almost get run over. The garlic breath guy coughs in your face. Your Chinese is just broken.
Any day you have to go to the PSB is pretty much guaranteed to be a bad China day. The PSB is where China visas are processed, and where kittens come to die. At the PSB there are about 20 different lines, and you are guaranteed to wait in at least seven of them. If you don’t know which line to stand in, there is a line you have to stand in to be told which line to go stand in. This line is run by the Grand Dragon Master of Punishment himself. His job, I’m pretty sure, is to make people cry.
This morning, I actually came into the PSB with optimism. I already have a Z visa, the Green Card of China visas. My company got it renewed for me as a parting favor, even though I had just quit, and I had all the paperwork and cash necessary in hand. All I have to do is get into the “Fee payment” line, pay my fee, get the receipt, get in the “Passport Pickup” line, trade the receipt for my passport, and I’m out of there, boom, enough time to clean my house and pack for my flight to Qinghai the next morning, where I plan to spend my last ten days of freedom before my new job starts.
Hahahaha, booms the Grand Dragon Master from the sky. Not so fast. The fee payment girl clacks my number into the computer and shakes her head. “Meiyou,” she says. Meiyou is one of my least favorite Chinese words. It can translate either as “don’t have,” or “denied, bitch!” depending on tone. She’s using the second, and already waving up the next in line. “But wait, why!” I sputter. She just stares at me like I’m some sort of strange deep sea animal and gives no reply, motioning me to get out of the way. “But what do I do?”
She still says nothing, and simply points at the line you have to stand in to be told which line to go stand in. My heart sinks. Anxiety pulses through my veins. I feel like I just got arrested. Last time I stood in that line, applying for a visa extension, I had to reenter it 3 times. First my passport photo background color was white instead of blue. Then the ink I used on the form was blue instead of black. Then the bank statement saying I had enough money to be valuable to China was missing my middle name. Each of these things, for reasons known only to the Grand Dragon Master of Punishment, could only be told to me one at a time.
As I approach the dreaded line, I can see the freak out zone just behind the line is already occupied. This is a always a small huddle of people who have just received bad news from the Grand Dragon who are crying, panicking, screaming, and comforting each other. Today inside the zone, an old Russian man is pacing back and forth and a young girl is crying on the phone in Italian. Several others are milling around, trying to bottle up their rage and frustration, but it’s just leaking all over the floor into a big nasty puddle of angst.
I sidestep them and get into the line, crank up my headphones, go to my happy place, and say a prayer. Please God, prove to me you exist. Amen. I’m nearing the front, and a constant stream of people keep nudging into the line to grab one of the forms in a stack on the far side of the Grand Dragon’s window, next to the wall. Nobody offers to pass them over. I see a person filling in his form in blue ink, and don’t bother to tell him he’s going to have to do it all over again after the Grand Dragon sees what he has done. There is something about this line that breeds contempt and hatefulness. A young man in front of me breaks free from the trance, shaking his head as if waking up, and reaches over to the forms, grabs half the stack, and with a slow, deliberate motion, places it on the other side of the window, where people can reach it without crawling through the line. He gives a firm nod to us all, as if he has just restored order to the universe. Everyone just watches with dead eyes. The Grand Dragon looks up and actually scowls at him.
I notice about half the people in line – about 30 of us- are holding the yellow passport claim slips, and soon the Grand Dragon yells out, “Who else is here to pick up a passport?” We rush forward like a surge of refugees at a bread truck, waving our slips of paper and throwing elbows at each other. He collects all of our slips and disappears to the back. You can smell the fear wafting from our group. Without that receipt, you can kiss your passport goodbye.
20 minutes later he reemerges. “No passports today! Come back in a week!” He throws the yellow papers down on the desk and the horde descends so fiercely he picks them all back up again, reading them out by country, not name, since the country is written in Chinese, the name in English. “Phillipines!” A young woman elbows her way to the front, snatches the paper, checks it and sighs with relief. “England!”A man grabs his slip and scuttles away. “America!” I grab for mine, and wait around as the crowd thins to talk to the Grand Dragon.
A Chinese girl is left over too, shuffling through a stack of receipts. She’s here for a company, picking up the passports of all its foreign employees. “But…I had 6 forms,” she says. “Now there are just 5. I had one more – a Malaysian man – where is it?” “There are no more,” says the Grand Dragon. “Denied, bitch.” “But but but how will I get the passport?” It’s first time I’ve heard the Grand Dragon make a native Chinese speaker stutter. He simply waves her away, and she retreats to the support group, where the Russian man has stopped pacing, and is now in a quiet discussion with an Australian man about booking fake return flights out of China to show to the PSB.
“Excuse me,” I say in my meekest voice, “I have a non-refundable flight tomorrow morning. Is there any way I can get my passport today?” “If you give me a copy of your flight ticket before noon,” he says, “we will have your passport ready by 4.30. You must pick it up before 5. Next!” The Italian girl from the support group is behind me to give it another shot, her watery red eyes looking up at the Grand Dragon, begging for mercy. “I swear to you,” she says passionately, with a fiery Italian accent. “I bring it yesterday and give it to a woman just here. I swear to you.” “You were supposed to keep it, and without that, you’re denied, bitch,” I hear the Grand Dragon say as I walk away. “Next!”
It’s 11.30, giving me half an hour to print out a copy of my flight itinerary and return to the PSB with it before they close to feed on villagers and princesses. I swing by the copy shop in the PSB first, a place run by the Grand Dragon’s protégés.“Excuse me, is there any chance I can use your computer just for a minute to print out one piece of paper –”
“NO,” The man working there says loudly and slowly, in English, waving his arms slowly in front of him as if he’s trying to communicate with a very old dog. Think, dammit ,I say to myself. Copy shop. I start walking down the street, scanning for a copy shop. At 11.40 I break into a run. My trip hinges on this piece of paper. I make it back to the PSB at 11.55, covered in sweat and out of breath, clutching the printed out e-ticket. I turn it in to the Grand Dragon, and somehow, miraculously, when I return at 4.30, he directs me to the fee girl line, who then directs me to the pickup line. The woman there filters through the wall of impounded passports and finds mine and throws it at me. I grab my US passport, actually hugging it to me, feeling all the freedom promised within it flowing from its blue pages into me, re-inflating my crushed ego. The freedom to travel.
Travel plans saved. Qinghai here I come.