Visaland

[scene opens with the camera panning through a lush green bamboo forest]

[Voice over begins]

“In a land far, far away…” [camera rushes across a lake with a Chinese pagoda on its shore]

“There teems hundreds of thousands of souls…” [camera zooms across the Great Wall of China]

“eager for the opportunity to travel across the seas…” [camera zooms over the city of Shanghai]

“in search of opportunity, package tours, and luxury handbags.”

“This is China. This is VISALAND!” [camera pans over the crowd of visa applicants outside Westgate Mall]

“And facing this onslaught are the incredible visa officers of the Shanghai Consulate” [camera zooms toward an awesome group of smartly dressed Foreign Service Officers standing hands on hips, heads held high, in 1, 3, 5 formation]

“I am one of these officers.” [zooms in on me grinning]

Yes, Mission China is a study in visa superlatives. And working here, at least in my mind, is sometimes like a movie, perhaps a cross between Mission Impossible and Office Space.

China by the numbers.

The visa numbers for China are astounding.

H1-B visas, for temporary workers in specialty occupations, are limited each year to 65,000 worldwide (with a few categories that have exceptions to the quota). According to a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) 2013 study, Chinese represented 8 percent of H1-B visa beneficiaries, the second largest group after India.

F-1 visas are for full-time students. Institute of International Education (IIE) data indicates Chinese students now make up nearly a third of all international students at US universities. The Chinese also appear to very much like US private secondary schools; they make up 46% of international students pursuing high school diplomas.

And Chinese tourists? Approximately a quarter of all US B1/B2 (tourist) visas issued worldwide go to Chinese! This year alone Mission China (all our Consular units in Beijing, Shenyang, Shanghai, Chengdu, and Guangzhou) is expected to issue some 2.3 million visas.

The average Chinese tourist spends US$6000 while visiting the States. That translates to tens of billions of dollars a year. And right now these Chinese tourists to the US represent only about two percent of Chinese travelers. Mind. Blown. Right?

Shanghai is the second largest non-immigrant visa (NIV) post in the world (blowing my previous post of Ciudad Juarez, ranked about number 15 for NIVs, out of the water) . We are in the top 10 of H1-B posts and a major post for student visas.

Since last November when the US and China announced an agreement to extend tourist visa validity from one to ten years, Chinese applications for US visas has been on the rise. Basically since my arrival in Shanghai, we have seen record breaking numbers every month.

In March we hit an all-time high, adjudicating more than 5,600 visas in a single day.

In April we printed a record-breaking one day total of 7,000+ visas. Yet in June, after the worldwide consular systems issue resulted in our being unable to print tens of thousands of visas, our incredible print team remained late one night immediately after systems were restored to print over 13,000 visas in a single day.

June is our busiest month. It is when our normal 50 student applicants a day (the average in March 2015) reach over 800 a day. In total, Consulate Shanghai adjudicated almost 87,000 visas in June 2015.

Visa applicants begin to line up outside Westgate Mall.

Early morning Shanghai, visa applicants begin to line up outside Westgate Mall.

What in the world is it like to work here?

Most days we aim for approximately 4300 interview appointments. That is more applicants than some posts see in an entire year! Each visa officer is expected to interview a minimum of 120 applicants a day, though most of us, once “on the line” for more than a few months exceed this amount.

I arrived in Shanghai in late January 2015 and due to my training schedule and the Chinese lunar New Year, which occurred just three weeks after my arrival, my first interview day was not until February 26. Yet from that time through June 30, I adjudicated over 9,000 visas. In June my month tally was 2,667. And to think I am one of the slower adjudicators.

I will be honest here, it isn’t easy. Interviewing that number of people every day is mentally and physically draining. It is not tiring in the same way as I found the Immigrant Visas in Ciudad Juarez. The complexity of the cases, the amount of paperwork, and the stakes for the applicant (to become a new US citizen or not) are generally higher in IV work. There were cases that kept me up at night and many that made me weep from joy or sorrow. There are cases from Juarez I doubt I shall ever forget.

It is the repetitiveness of NIV and the sheer number of cases per day in a post like Shanghai that wear on the visa officer. Still, I will not say I do not like the job. There are days that are fun and interesting; there are applicants that bring a smile to my face and even a few that cause me to choke back tears (generally happy ones).

I am astounded by the number of Chinese students who want to pursue their educational dreams half way around the world. At 18, I was pleased as punch to be going to an out-of-state school in Georgia, some 650 miles away from my Virginia home. And although I did do a study abroad in Beijing my fourth year, I am not sure I would have ever been ready at that age to spend four years studying so very far from home. I have had the pleasure (and sometimes pain) of interviewing easily over 1,000 Chinese preparing to go to the US for their BA, MA or PhDs. It can be mind-numbing to hear yet again that the reason for his/her interest in studying in the US is “because the US educational system is the best in the world” or “this school is ranked X in the US in my degree program” or “the teaching level of this school is optimal for my career goals,” which, as genuinely as the applicant may believe these statements, simply sound like well-practiced platitudes. It is far more interesting to hear an authentic declaration such as the student’s hope that they will find either llamas (California) or alligators (Florida) on their university grounds or their fervent fascination with the number of hectares the campus of their college occupies. Although these do not sound like particularly relevant reasons to choose to study at one school over another, they are a welcome change. Of course the best answers are the sincere and honest ones, in which the student’s eyes shine in anticipation and hope that you will grant them the visa and make the first part of their dream come true.

I am even more astonished at the number of students prepared to attend our private secondary schools. There is of course many a US family (many Foreign Service Officers among them) who choose to send their children to private boarding schools far from home. Yet, I am not of that world and my daughter is so young, I have a hard time imagining sending my 14 year old child 10,000 miles away for high school.

These children often arrive at their visa interview alone, on their own to present their case for study in America. Many are shy and stumble over their words. Others appear incredibly mature and confident. Faced with one such young female student I was impressed when she answered my question about being concerned to study in the US alone with “No, I welcome the adventure and the challenge.” Her tone told me she no doubt did.

I see relationships on display every day in the interview line. In a culture where public displays of affection are still infrequent, it is nice to see a father familiarly hang his arms across the shoulder of his wife and teenage son and grin or long-time friends give other a joyful slap on the back when they know they get to take their 18 day USA group tour together. While I may not be too sure of the idea of a two week group tour with my parents, here I have interviewed many adult children traveling with their parents, grandparents with their grandchildren, married siblings with their spouses, married couples with both sets of in-laws, even the occasional ex-husband and ex-wife traveling with their child. I am amused and intrigued by the number of newlyweds who wish to honeymoon with a group of friends-maybe it is actually a nicer way to celebrate?

Sure, as a visa officer at a busy post I only get a few minutes at most with each applicant and I cannot lie that there are days when I see this as monotony stretching for the next 22 months. But other days, I see, and feel, the amazing opportunity to both serve my country and interact with a heck of a lot of Chinese, who just want a chance to visit the US.

Some days it is pretty incredible in Visaland.

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