I have marked one year in Shanghai. I had a hard time sussing out when I felt I had truly hit the one year mark. Sure, there is the one year anniversary of when we arrived here on January 28, 2015. That is a good place to start. Or maybe my first day in the office, February 2? Or the first time I picked up a case in Shanghai – on February 5? Or the first time I interviewed on the line, which due to a fluke of training and the arrival of Chinese New Year was not until February 26?
Now I can safely call the one year mark, but I have been struggling to find the right words to characterize my year. The easiest way it seems is to boil it down to the visas since they occupy such a huge part of my existence.
In one year I fingerprinted 5,760 people and adjudicated 24,075 visa cases. It’s mind-boggling. I do not know how many people I fingerprint verified in Ciudad Juarez (verification just requires one hand print to verify prints collected at an off-site location; fingerprinting requires taking ten prints, i.e. the four fingers on both hands and then both thumbs), but in my two years I adjudicated a total of 15,112 visas. And I managed over 24,000 in Shanghai in a year even with a month-long Medevac.
I wanted to hit 25,000. I had seen another colleague reached 50,000 after two years in Shanghai and I decided, before even arriving, that I too wanted that number. Just because. I know it is a crazy, maybe even a completely pointless and meaningless goal, but we set some goal like this here to help us get through the hours, days, and weeks of interviewing.
Still to put my number into perspective a colleague of mine hit over 27,500 in a year of adjudication and another colleague 31,000 in a year. So as amazing as my number might sound, though it is a lot, I am by no means one of the fastest. And the fingerprinting number…it is a pittance! We had a temporary duty (TDY) colleague here for three weeks over the winter to help us during the busier season and in that time she alone fingerprinted 6,001 people!
One day after fingerprinting over 430 people over the course of 3 3/4 hours I came to a number of conclusions. One is that a surprising number of people appear to be missing digits or parts of digits. And it makes me wonder how it is that person came to lose them. Or when the prints seem to be particularly bad, how it is those prints came to be worn? So many stories exist just in people’s hands. Another is that you can never judge a person’s fingerprints by their appearance. Some young people have terrible prints, some old people have wonderful prints. And finally, really clear, excellent prints are a beautiful thing to behold. I never thought the image of the lovely whirls of a truly great print would be the thing to blow my hair back, but life is a funny, funny thing.
It can be hard to see the amazing activities colleagues around the world are doing while you are busy doing hundreds and then thousands and then tens of thousands of visas. In the past few months colleagues have posted about meeting Colin Firth and Meryl Streep, having a conversation with a Thai princess, meeting Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, or flying on the Air Force jet with Secretary John Kerry. Meanwhile today I interviewed over a hundred completely ordinary Chinese people. And it was a slow day.
But everyday people can be pretty cool too. I will admit that I do suffer from interviewing fatigue. Everyone does. It is not easy to do this day in and day out for two years or four. But there are days when it is, dare I admit it, fun. Each morning or afternoon, depending on the shift, I sit or stand, depending on the adjudication window, and take a deep breath before I pull up the blinds and face the first of so many applicants. There are times there is a sense of, not dread, but well an acute sense of opportunity cost – that by being there doing the interviews there are so many other great things I am not doing. But other times there is a quick sense of anticipation, and even excitement. I cannot speak for everyone of course, but there are many things to like about interviewing. And even in the short time I have to talk to each applicant you can see a glimpse of a story. The retired sisters giddy with excitement to take an 18 day group tour to America. The students nervous and hopeful for a chance to study in America. The completely unqualified applicant stammering out answers, knowing it is a long-shot, but still dreaming you might give them a visa anyway.
However, just because I think it is fun and interesting work sometimes does not mean I do not struggle with it. I do. A lot. And it has been harder these past few weeks to write and post this because although I have crossed the one year threshold I cannot say that I have only one year to go because I extended until April 2017, which moved me from a winter bidding cycle to the summer. Because I have no idea how the bidding for the next tour will go – bidding that will not begin until late this summer – it is possible that I leave earlier than April 2017 and it is possible I leave later. Yet right now I just do not know how much longer I have, when I will even reach the one year to go mark. So right now I feel I am in a sort of limbo.
And in this limbo I find it harder to do the visas. Harder to face the rising numbers of applicants that characterizes our summer season. Harder to shrug off the cars and buses and motorbikes that run red lights. Harder to deal with the pushing and the shoving that comes with being in any public place in the largest city in the world’s most populous country. If you look back at my one my early posts from Shanghai, there was a bulldozer parked unattended, unused in the middle of a sidewalk on my way to work. It sat on the footpath blocking any pedestrian use, just after a particularly greasy, grimy stretch of sidewalk. It is still there. And I did not think it would be possible, but that sidewalk is even more caked, mucky, and encrusted with slime than before.
Yet there has been so much more over this past year than the work. In Shanghai we have been to so many museums and sightseeing spots from the Oriental Pearl Tower, the Propaganda Poster Museum, and the Science and Technology Museum, to Dishui Lake, the Shanghai Zoo, and the Jing’An Sculpture Park. Within China we have traveled to Hangzhou, Nanjing, Sanya, and Hong Kong. We have also been back to the US three times, including my unexpected Medevac, which certainly livened up the year, and to Singapore (another Medevac) and the Dominican Republic.
Shanghai has been an extraordinary place to live. My daughter and I not only have a nice life here, but we have fun here. C has especially thrived here. It is amazing to watch my three-now-four-year old speaking Chinese. To hear that she refers to China as where we live and America as where we are from. To have her making friends with children with diverse backgrounds who all find themselves here. She loves Shanghai, so I love Shanghai.
I am not sure how to end this but I suppose it isn’t necessary because I am not done with Shanghai. I have a year and then some left. More visas and more fun still to come.