Shanghai Escape, Derailed

It is winter in Shanghai, which apparently translates to short, cold, gloomy, and overcast days. When it has not been raining the air quality has been poor. It is not Beijing Red Alert poor, but it has already warranted twice receiving this message:

Consulate Pollution message

The second time we received it was the day before our flight. It was time to get out of dodge.

The Plan: Leave the drab, choking skies of Shanghai behind for a beach resort in Sanya Bay, on the southern Chinese island of Hainan, known as China’s Hawaii. The island is located at the same latitude as the Hawaiian Islands and is China’s only tropical beach destination. Blue skies, palm trees, warm weather, and a place in China where no one has to check the Air Quality Index. The perfect balmy Christmas getaway.

The Airport: We arrived at Pudong airport at 9:25 am for check in for our 10:45 am flight. Except it turns out that our flight time was moved up, to 10:05 am…and the flight closed 40 minutes before departure…so even before I stepped into the check-in line it was already too late. In all the years and places I have flown I have never missed a flight.

The airline was able to rebook us on a later flight departing at 3:50 pm. I felt rather thrilled we were still arriving the same day and I made sure to take advantage of the time at the airport. We had lunch and then C took a nap while I cracked open the 700+ page book for my January Book Club meeting. Then the flight was delayed two hours. No problem! There was a massage chair place located across from our gate – I had a massage and my daughter sat in the next chair playing nicely with her iPad.

Shanghai to Sanya flight

Just three hours by plane from wintry Shanghai to the balmy beaches of China’s southern most point

The Plane: Once on the plane I realize this is the first domestic Chinese flight I have taken since 1994.

I particularly remembered a flight from Chengdu to Urumuqi. There was no English to be found on the plane. Instead the information was in Chinese and Russian, the airplane seemed to be an old Aeroflot. The color scheme of the cabin was something like hospital white. Plane cabin temperature was set to somewhere around “sauna” and a leak of some sort dripped on me from the overhead compartment for the length of the flight. And smoking was allowed on the plane.

Fast forward to 2015 and the China Eastern flight is world-class. Comfortable seats, designer cabin colors in a palette of warm sand, professional flight attendants, English information. I sat back and relaxed, reading my book club book to page 345. We were on our way to vacation!

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The Holiday Inn Resort Sanya Bay. It is beautiful.

Arrival and Derailment: We land in Sanya at 8:30 pm, 5 ½ hours later than originally planned, but it is 77 degrees so I don’t care. Suitcases in hand we headed to the domestic airport legal taxi stand and wait.

Twenty-five minutes later we are in a taxi. Whew! We are soon to be on our way to the hotel to officially start this vacation. I feel so happy. I tell the driver the name of our hotel and she doesn’t understand. She confers with a taxi line attendant then she grunts in what I assume to mean “ok, yeah, I know where that is” and off we go–all of 20 feet before the driver pulls over, gets out of the taxi, and barks at the occupants of the back of the taxi line. Soon three additional passengers, two additional fares, are squeezed into the cab. I am forced to hold my daughter on my lap.

We stop and the driver tells the man in the front this is his stop. Then the driver gets out and opens my door, takes my daughter off my lap and places her in the street and tells me this is where I get out. “But where is my hotel?” I ask. The driver makes some noises that sound like “I don’t know” and “You can look around here.” She points to the suitcases in the back and I tell her the blue one. And then suddenly headlights are on us, a truck is heading our way, my daughter is in the middle of the street. I am distracted. The taxi driver takes off. I get my daughter to safety. I realize my other bag is in the taxi…with my new computer, my daughter’s iPad, and our jackets…

I walk two blocks with my daughter to the closest hotel. An English speaking manager helps to locate our hotel and takes us there by taxi. We had been nowhere nearby.

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Despite the rocky beginning, my daughter jumps for joy on the beach.

At our hotel the police are called. The officer who arrives is far more interested in my marital status than in my missing bag. He is fascinated that I am single, never married and have a child. He says he will return the next day, but I never see that cop again.

In the hotel room my daughter says, “Mom, I am sad about our bag, but this is a beautiful hotel.”

Fuel to the Fire: After breakfast and some beach time I head onto my first order of business to recover my vacation – obtaining chargers for my two phones (the chargers were unfortunately also in the bag).

The hotel furnished me with the location in Chinese where they promised up and down I could obtain chargers for both of my phones. I admit, I was skeptical, but I was thrilled when 30 minutes later we arrived at a phone supercenter, selling just about every phone and accessory you could imagine. Not only did they have a charger for my iPhone 4S but even for the Nokia dumb brick phone provided by the Consulate. I not only felt relief, I felt I had personally thwarted fate in a superhero kind of way.

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The Hui woman who sold us the Little Mermaid accessories, um, I mean, the shell necklaces.

We had lunch nearby and I bought C an ice cream cone that she nursed our two block walk to the beach and then as we walked along the waterfront. It actually sort of, kind of did remind me of the walkway in Waikiki. If I had been in Waikiki maybe in 1930? I bought C a shell necklace and conk shell whistle from an ethnic Hui woman on bicycle. Although the Muslim Hui are generally a northwestern minority, there is a large group on Hainan. I mused that perhaps there were more similarities between Hainan and Hawaii beyond their latitude and the letter “H.” There is also the military presence (with a base right in the middle of Sanya Bay fronting the beach, much like Waikiki’s Fort DeRussy) and an ethnic group subsumed and co-opted by tourism.

I had difficulty finding a taxi to take us back to our hotel – all the traffic on the beachfront road was heading in the wrong direction, all the cabs already with passengers. Even after turning up a side street to a crossroads, the taxis were few and already full. So I made the decision to take one of the two motorcycle taxis that had been vying for my business for ten minutes.

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What do you mean that airport is not a tourist spot? Doesn’t everyone hang out here on holiday?

I know, the parents amongst you may cringe and the Foreign Service Officers may tut-tut my decision. But the current and former backpackers might just give me a thumbs up. C, sandwiched between myself and the driver, yelling “wheee, wheee” as her hair blew in the wind. All was fine until we arrived back at the hotel. I got off the bike and burned my leg, badly as it turned out. Second degree. In all the times I was on motorcycles throughout Southeast Asia I was never burned before…

The Quest: My friends M&S from Shanghai also in Hainan for the weekend joined us for Christmas dinner for company and to get my mind off everything that had happened.  And as luck would have it, they hailed a blue colored cab on the way over and secured a telephone number for me. It turns out that there is only one dark blue taxi company in Sanya. How many female drivers could they have?

Bright and early on the second day I prepared for Operation: Get My Bag Back! I started up my iPhone – it was not connected to a phone network and had no VPN, but it could still connect to WiFi and I activated “Find My iPad.” Unfortunately it was offline, but I typed up a message in English and Chinese that would let someone know it was lost and how to reach me. Then I called the tourist complaint line number M&S had provided me and explained the situation in Chinese and then, almost unbelievably, the woman told me an English-speaking colleague would come in at 8 am and call me. Even more unbelievable is at 8 am an English-speaking person DID call me!

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Betel nut is popular in Hainan. I ironically found a bag of fresh betel nut left behind in taxi. I handed the bag over the driver and kept one for a photo.

At 9:30, after some checking she phoned me back and told me that I should phone the Airport Customer Service number. I did. Incredibly, they also had someone there who spoke English. That woman told me it would be best if I went down to the airport to talk with the Airport Police to locate the surveillance tape of the taxi line for the night in question. Of course! This is China and there are surveillance cameras everywhere!

Off we went to the airport. I located the police station on the second floor and again told my story in Chinese. The officer there did not seem too sympathetic as he stood in front of a four word police slogan that stated something like “integrity, honesty, service, hard work” – similar to one of those annoying motivational posters found in employee break rooms across the US. He informed me that in fact it was another police station that would be in charge of the taxi line and he gave me their number. I asked him, since I had just explained my whole story, if he could call for me. He shrugged and said he could not as it was my problem and not his.

I did call the number and explain again, in Chinese, my story of woe shouting in my phone above the airport and police station din. However, the policeman on the other end did seem nicer and told me he would see what he could do. A few minutes later my phone rang – an English-speaking woman who identified herself as Lisa and a friend of the second policeman. Lisa would prove to be not only sympathetic but incredibly resourceful.

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Despite the off-putting description of this area as a “Buddhist Theme Park” the landscaped grounds are quite nice and the statue is pretty cool. Not an amusement park ride to be seen.

While Lisa did whatever it was she was doing, I went in search of the surveillance tapes. Unfortunately, it turned out that due to airport construction the taxi line bay in the domestic terminal presently has no cameras. Of course it doesn’t! Despite this setback, I took advantage of our time at the airport to have lunch, visit the first aid center to have a nurse take care of my burn, and purchase the only thing resembling a diary from an airport book shop. (Yes, it turned out my diary too was in the bag. I have kept a diary since I was 12 years old and traveled with one all over the world and have never before lost one. Are you sensing a theme here?)

Back to the hotel. Lisa had sent the hotel duty officer the photos of the NINE female drivers employed by the dark blue taxi company for me to identify in a virtual line-up. I selected a few but emphasized that my driver had long black hair worn in a ponytail. We arranged to go to the taxi company the following morning to meet with the drivers and enjoyed the rest of the evening with pool time (well C was in the pool, I was sidelined with my second degree burn) and pizza in our hotel room watching either CNN or the Discovery Channel, our only two English options.

On Sunday we headed to the taxi company. I was quite disappointed to arrive to find only a single female drive in attendance – a woman with short, brown hair. When I explained my disappointment the two women at the taxi company appeared unphased. They said I had identified this woman as one of the possible drivers. I conceded I may have found the face similar from an employment photograph but in other aspects she did not resemble my driver at all. They suggested that perhaps I had confused dark blue with light blue as there was also a light blue taxi company in Sanya. They also incredulously suggested that perhaps I had mistaken a male driver for a woman? I stared at them.

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This taxi driver was worth his weight in gold – when C fell asleep on the way to the Goddess of Mercy, he offered to carry her.

I was told that this one female driver was the only one who had been to the airport on the day in question. Ms. Chen showed me the elaborate tracking system they use on all of their taxis – they could input a taxi driver number and a date and time and show exactly where the taxi had been. It seemed impressive but I could not help but feel they were trying to appear helpful without actually being so. In one final show of assistance they typed up a BOLO (Be On the LookOut) describing my lost bag and sent it out to all of their entire fleet of 200+ drivers. They suggested I also visit the Public Security Bureau, but I was done.

Instead back on the street I hailed a taxi to take us to the 108 meter high Goddess of Mercy statue located at the Nanshan Cultural District Buddhist Cultural Park. I may have lost a bag full of valuable items, received a second degree burn on my leg after an ill-advised motorcycle ride, and spent countless hours in fruitless pursuit of the aforementioned bag, but I was going to see one tourist site in Hainan! The funny part is that on the way I started to think about what I might see the next time we came.  If I was thinking about a next time, this time could not really be that bad, right?

I could have seen this as just a crappy vacation where everything went wrong or I could see it as a trip with some challenges and an epic quest, which though was ultimately unsuccessful in obtaining the sought after item, resulted instead in learning valuable lessons on what is truly valuable.  I did lose a lot of stuff (about $1300 worth) but I can replace them and am lucky to be in a position to say that.

In the taxi over to the taxi company, my almost-four-year-old daughter turned to me and said, “Mommy, I am sorry about our bag, but don’t worry, it is just games.” She was thinking about her lost iPad, but regardless, she had a point. And if my kid is telling me at this age, I have to be doing something right.

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The view of the South China Sea from our hotel balcony.

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Christmastime in Shanghai

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The Christmas Tree Light display in front of Plaza 66 mall

Full disclosure: I do not have a history of celebrating Christmas. In fact, I have generally escaped from partaking in Christmas revelry. In the twenty-one Christmases from 1995 to 2015 I have spent only four in the United States, three of those four are since I joined the State Department in July of 2011 (two because I was in training at the Foreign Service Institute where there is a general no-leave policy and once when we flew back from Mexico). There were only five of those Christmases I did not travel somewhere. I have spent Christmases in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Australia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Curacao, Antigua, Sri Lanka, Batam Island, and Mexico. You may notice the warm weather locale theme.

I have not changed the plan this year either! The morning of Christmas Eve has us heading south to escape the cold and dreary Shanghai winter – at least for a few days.

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The Christmas decor section at the supermarket – not too shabby

But Christmas in Shanghai, just like in the US, is not really just one day. There have been decorations up for quite some time. Case in point: C and I headed over to the Kerry Centre mall across the street on Thanksgiving Day to purchase some wine to bring to my colleague’s home. There was tinsel and ornaments and wreaths and piped in Christmas tunes. The basement supermarket had a section of holiday items at the base of the escalator – front and center. It was so authentic – for C at least – that when she woke up the following day and learned Thanksgiving was over, she cried because she thought she had missed Santa. It took some convincing to get across that Christmas and Thanksgiving were in fact two different holidays.

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The lights in the trees lining Nanjing West road for blocks on end

C and I have not been out and about very much lately. The weather has been less than lovely (cold, wet, grey) and work has been busy. Yet we live at one of Shanghai’s premier addresses on the major thoroughfare of Old Shanghai. Here the Christmas decorations have been out in force. And I do mean Christmas – there is not much of the Happy Holidays sentiment that has some Americans upset about the ‘War on Christmas’ (except the Starbucks in my complex did have the red cups). Though it is very much a commercial holiday here, and one that caters to expats. It is largely the fancy malls that have the displays – walk just a block or two off the main street and there is almost zero sign of the season other than it being cold.

The Shanghai Centre, the complex where I live, hosted a holiday party for the residents and this included a buffet, live band, and of course a visit from Santa for the kids. The Portman Ritz Carlton hotel, which is a part of the same complex, set up a Christmas market selling gifts, sweets, warm beverages (Gluhwein!), and live trees. They also had a Swedish choir perform holiday songs, a tree lighting ceremony, and a very large gingerbread house on display in the lobby.

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After seeing this gingerbread house I realize it is of no use to ever try to build one of my own.  Portman Ritz-Carlton lobby

This is the first Christmas though that my daughter is old enough to sort of understand what is going on. I say sort of because we celebrated Christmas on Saturday, December 19 since we would be out of town on the 25th and C has no idea it was not the actual Christmas Day. Still, through various DVDs including My Little Pony and Paw Patrol she knows some Christmas traditions that I was unable to recreate.

For one, she expected snow. Despite her very limited exposure to the cold, white stuff (one time in Juarez and a few days last winter in Virginia) she talked about it. That on Christmas there would most certainly be some snow. I tried to explain that the climate in Shanghai is generally too warm for snow but that doesn’t make much sense to her as it is not warm outside at all. We have our coats and covered shoes on each day after all.

She also seemed particularly upset about the lack of a star on the top of our Christmas tree. I did buy a tree, a small plastic tree about two and a half feet high. It was not a purchase I had planned to make but C made a comment about wanting one. The giddy delight with which she greeted that miniature fake tree (“Oh mommy, mommy it is the most beautiful tree in the whole world! It is Awesome!), however made it so worth it. At the supermarket I also found the string of lights for our window and the small red and gold ornamental balls, tinsel, and candy for the tree. However, there were no tree-topping stars and no time to find one.

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Our first Christmas tree.  Small, and hopefully one that travels well for this lifestyle.

It made me realize that there were all these traditions from the US that I wanted to share with my daughter – candy canes, driving through neighborhoods full of beautifully (or crazily) lit homes, singing along to Christmas songs on the radio or listening to carolers, watching the Night Before Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer on television. Even just running out to a store to pick up those last minute Christmas needs – like a Christmas tree star or egg nog.

Just after I returned from my Medevac in mid-November we received email notification from the DPO (Diplomatic Post Office) that in order to guarantee delivery before Christmas orders would need to be at the DPO facility in California by November 22. I placed an order for all of my daughter’s presents before that date so they did all arrive. But the two rolls of wrapping paper I purchased were barely enough to cover three presents so the rest were wrapped up in a Frankenstein-style hobbled together from random paper bags I found under my sink.

Luckily my daughter is so young that traditions are ours to be made. There are times we will be back in the US at Christmas and be able to take advantage of those special traditions, but more likely we will be overseas and there is no telling what may or may not be available on the local market or how the holidays may or may not be celebrated. This turned out to be the most excited I have been about Christmas since I was a child and though I realized a bit too late in the game I still put on a pretty wonderful Christmas morning. Though I still don’t want to be cold on Christmas.

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The not yet finished (at the time of the photo) Christmas decor in front of Westgate Mall, where the Shanghai US Consulate Visa Section is located

What China is This?

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I stand above the Yangtze River for the Three Gorges cruise – the river and the gorges are not now what they once were.

I first came to China in 1994 as a student at Beijing Normal University as a part of the College of William & Mary’s study abroad program.

It was an eye-opening experience for me. On our second day in country we were served fried scorpions at lunch. Even more surprising to me is that 14 out of 16 of the students in our group ate them. I refused. (I then ordered a bowl of chicken soup only to find as I stirred it an eye ball popped to the surface – and this is how I kept my girlish figure while in China, by surviving on white rice with soy sauce and peanuts and garlic stir fried broccoli.) I had my first experience with a squatting toilet – something again I refused to use. I even held “it” one day during a 12 hour bus trip from Changsha to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, steadfast in my determination as each rest stop only presented “traditional” facilities. A delayed flight and Mother Nature eventually forced my hand and it turned out not to be so bad.

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In my Beijing Normal U dorm room. I cannot believe how great my hair looks.

We stayed in the international dorm – each of us assigned a Japanese roommate to encourage our Chinese language acquisition even first thing in the morning and just before bed. I had a room on the fifth floor of the dorm – no elevator of course. We had only one telephone per floor located at one end. Hot water in our showers was available from 5 PM. It was supposed to last until eight, but if you waited too long you were generally in for major disappointment – and a very brisk bathe.  We also had two hot plates per floor for cooking. I used it perhaps twice in six months – not a surprise at all as my good friends know that is only a little less than I use my kitchen now.

I rented a shelf in a mini fridge of an enterprising Korean student. There I kept my few prized refrigerated items like cheese and Tang. Each of us was issued a large thermos. Most evenings I would make my way down the five flights and to a small brick building across from the dorm where there stood a very large coal furnace constantly heating water. I would pop off the corked top of the thermos and fill it with scalding water and then carry it back up to my room. I would leave the top off overnight to cool the water and then in the morning fill my smaller bottles with the water, mix in the Tang, and then switch the new bottles for the cool ones in the rented fridge.

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The old hot water furnace and my super chic thermos. I thought it would look even older in Sepia; I was right.

I had an old bicycle that two thoughtful classmates acquired for me. As I understand it they staked out an area in the massive student bicycle parking area and monitored activity. They identified a weather-beaten green one that, according to them, had been left neglected for weeks. So they liberated it and gave it to me. I did not ask too many more questions. I took it to an on-campus bicycle repair shop to get it into riding shape and I joined the (hundreds) of thousands of Beijing cyclists that took to the roads daily.

I rode to class each morning, with my glass bottle of drinkable yogurt in my basket (the bottles were returned to the dorm café to get a few jiao back), and across town to the little Uygur village behind the Minority University where I would go to the last shed where I bought the most fabulous tudou qiu (potato balls) with a soy sauce and cilantro dipping sauce. Once while riding to my English teaching job of two Korean boys who lived in the Asian Games Village, all the spokes on my wheel dropped off one by one in a spectacular fashion. I simply coasted a few hundred feet to a roadside bicycle repair guy, who for a handful of kuai had me on the road again in no time.

Twenty years later I find myself once again living in China. Although I am in a different city I feel as though my life has circled back around. Amongst the modernity there are glimmers of the past and I experience the occasional sense of déjà vu that transports me back to the China I first knew.

Shanghai is so incredibly modern and glitzy now (as is Beijing and other major Chinese cities) that I imagine few students here would know what to do with the giant furnace I once had to use. And only one phone per hall would be cause for most students these days to walk out in protest.

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A glimpse into our hard seat train compartment.

There are so many things that have changed. No longer are bicycles the chief transportation method. Gone are the bicycle lanes that rivaled those for cars and parking areas where they sat by the thousands awaiting their riders. There are still some intrepid cyclists, but they have been mostly replaced with fancy cars, mopeds, and even electric bicycles.

Train travel too is not what it used to be. The trains now, at least those I have had the pleasure of taking lately, are ultramodern and sleek. Comfortable reclining chairs with tray tables in clean and efficiently serviced non-smoking compartments. This is so far removed from the two day train ride in hard class chairs that my friends and I took between Beijing and Qingdao. On the return trip I remember an old man in front of us smoking beneath the no-smoking sign. When my friend and I asked him to put out the cigarette and pointed out the sign he took a deep draw and turned and blew all the smoke in our faces. The hard seats were just that – hard benches with unforgiving straight backs. Bleary-eyed and desperate for sleep I asked for and received the newspaper another man had finished. I took it and spread it down in the aisle and it was there where I went to sleep for a few hours. I was awoken in the morning at 6 am by the snack cart coming through – I was surrounded by apple cores and banana peels and other debris. And the time we took the two day hard sleeper from Beijing to Chongqing. We were the top of three bunks, maybe a foot and a half from our sleeper, i.e. hard fake leather slab, and the ceiling. A small electric fan by my head kept shorting out and when I tapped it sparks flew and it made a few more revolutions. THAT is train travel my friends, the kind that you never forget.

Advertising is also a bit different. Gone are the unimaginative roadside billboards extolling government policies like this one:

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Hooray for the one child policy!

And instead they have been replaced by sleek advertisements for just about everything including luxury goods, international brands, and world-class performances on stage at first-class theaters. Even commercials that remind the Chinese to be good citizens of the world, such as this one, which might surprise many people outside of China:

IMG_6699 (2)And probably one of the most surprising things of all is the number of signs everywhere directing Chinese to behave in public. No smoking. No spitting. No littering. No this. No that. People get into lines. I can hardly believe it myself. Gone are the days at a fast food restaurant where those who were served first were those who fought their way to the counter best. Or like when I stood in line at the Forbidden City in Beijing and many people behind me chose to pay those in the front of the line to buy their tickets too. There are still those would-be line jumpers but these days the Chinese around them will usually give them a good scolding and maybe even rough them up.

090But there are still glimpses of the past. Off the main glitzy streets, I mean just one block off, you can find clothes still hanging out to dry from apartment windows – even twenty or thirty stories up. Also many women still wear pantyhose in inappropriate lengths – knee highs with thigh high skirts or even thigh highs with short shorts. This really takes me back. People still squat down on their haunches on the street – today I passed a young woman doing this on West Nanjing Road, old Shanghai’s premier street. She was reading text on her smart phone.

The parks on mornings and weekends are still full of groups of old and young doing tai chi or ballroom dance. Nowadays you can also find the occasional belly dancing or hip hop group, sometimes right next to one another, their music and routines in side-by-side competition.

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Taken in 1994 but except for the fashions (or even including the fashions) you could see this in most parks in China today.

I am especially tickled to see that correct English spelling and translation remains elusive. Despite the rise in the number of Chinese who speak English fluently, you can still find some fun signs about town.

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The country is modernizing so quickly and leaving traditions behind; there are times when I do not feel I am living in China, but rather somewhere else. Somewhere with some Chinese characteristics but not quite China. Sort of like Singapore, but not exactly. It can be a challenge to live here – as an international student or a foreign diplomat – but it offers every visitor and expat, at the very least, some interesting experiences and never ceases to surprise. More than twenty years on and I am still trying to find my place in China.

Ode to Nanjing

Nanjing (南京), it means “south capital” but to me in the traditional Chinese fashion of associating long-winded English translations to a few characters it means “long weekend getaway from the sinking morass of endless visa adjudications.”

It had been 14 weeks since returning from my two-week May getaway. Fourteen weeks through a historically-busy, record-breaking crazy visa application summer. I needed a break.

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View of Nanjing from the 45th floor of the Zifeng Tower

I know this falls into the realm of a “first world problem” and that even at home there might be quite a few people who would roll their eyes at my whines regarding lack of vacation time, but to me I really and truly had reached a breaking point.

“Capture of Nanking Rain and a windstorm rage blue and yellow over Chung the bell mountain as a million peerless troops cross the Great River. The peak is a coiled dragon, the city a crouching tiger more dazzling than before. The sky is spinning and the earth upside down. We are elated yet we must use our courage to chase the hopeless enemy. We must not stoop to fame like the overlord Hsiang Yu. If heaven has feeling it will grow old and watch our seas turn into mulberry fields.” ~Mao Ze Dong, April 1949

I could not find a pretty quote about Nanjing. Despite its significant role in Chinese history it is its more recent history, the brutal subjugation of the city in 1937, that it is perhaps most famous for. The weekend might also have been an odd choice of destination considering it immediately followed China’s newest national holiday – “Victory Day” – marking the 70th anniversary of victory in WWII. Although it was announced by the Chinese government in May it did not occur to me as I was buying the train tickets in early August that perhaps the location of one of the greatest atrocities inflicted on the Chinese as part of the larger WWII conflict happened in Nanjing. I wondered why some of the trains were already booked full (though it could have as much to do with a multi-day holiday as anything else, most people were given both Thursday September 3 and Friday September 4 off).

Regardless, our mini holiday in Nanjing became my reward, my focus, my mantra.

Nanjing! Nanjing! Nanjing!

And the trip finally arrived – and I remembered how I love to travel and learn about new places, the history, the culture, and especially to see another place in the country where I serve. I also was reminded how it can be a wee bit challenging to travel with a toddler especially when I insist on trying to do things certain ways.

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The Zifeng Tower. Our room was waaaaaaaaaaay near the top

Like taking public transport. But I packed light and we were able to use not only the Shanghai metro line to reach the Hongqiao Railway station, get ourselves onto the bullet train to Nanjing (less than 2 hours – 300 kilometers or about 186 1/2 miles), then we easily maneuvered our way through the Nanjing metro system. Well, as easy as one can with a duffel bag, stroller with one malfunctioning wheel, and a preschooler. But then they made it easy for us – touch screens, choice of English, plenty of easy to read maps, and a direct 10 stop trip from Nanjing South Station to Gulou, our stop.

I booked us a room at the Intercontinental Nanjing, which occupies the lobby and floors 45-81 of Zifeng Tower, the tallest building in the city (at 1,480 feet tall). Regular guest rooms are on floors 49 to 71 and through a series of events we found ourselves with a room on the 71st floor! As we rode up the elevator, beginning on the 45th floor I thought that we were already well above the 19th floor I live on in Shanghai, which already seemed rather high up.

It was a bit of a cloudy day and our view was sometimes very nearly obscured during our visit – because sometimes we were inside a cloud.

After settling in we headed to the very old Jiming (Rooster Crowing) temple, one of the oldest in Nanjing. It was within walking distance of the hotel and I figured a worthy first stop. Because 3 ½ kids love old, historic Buddhist temples, right? She might have liked it more if we had not had to pass the Paleontology Museum on the way. Posters of cool-looking cartoon dinosaurs and a nearly full glass wall revealing some equally cool dinosaur skeletons just had to be on display. Any interest C might have had in Chinese/Nanjing/Buddhist history was quickly gone (I give my kid the benefit of the doubt). Then I had to keep hearing about the dinosaurs, the dinosaurs, the dinosaurs for the rest of the block.

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Entrance gate to Jiming Temple, with a view of the Zifeng Tower in the background.

Thank goodness the temple included three large incense sticks in their ticket entrance price. C took these to be drum sticks, specifically her drum sticks and the temple as her castle and was placated for a little while. She was even okay with climbing up all the stairs. Particularly as once on the third or so level she could look down and yell at her subjects. “Hey, all you all down there! This is C! This is my castle. I am the police! Please listen to me! Stop what you are doing!” When I asked her why she kept yelling she said it was because no one was listening. I pointed out she was yelling in English and that most, if not all, of the people coming in to the temple were Chinese. So she switched to yelling random Chinese words of her choosing. Good thing the Chinese generally like little kids.

At the top level, just below the pagoda, we enjoyed some time joining the crowd throwing coins into the large Chinese urn for good luck. C likes this kind of activity. Then I showed her where everyone was placing their incense sticks and demonstrated how we would do the same. She seemed completely on board until we actually lit them and placed them standing with the other incense. Then she lost it. As luck would have it (perhaps the temple gods were smiling down on us?) we turned a corner as she sobbed and found three perfectly nice incense sticks lying on a temple step. The day was saved!

We headed back down and then on to Ming Dynasty City Walls, apparently one of the largest city walls ever constructed in China and still with large portions intact. C was not impressed. She made it clear that she did not want to see any walls but instead wanted to see dinosaurs! It started to rain. It was around 4 pm and we were just up the street from the Paleontology Museum and so made the correct mom decision to return to the dinosaurs.

C skipped up the steps happily right into the arms of a museum curator who informed us the museum closed at 4. What? Who closes a museum at 4? Smart little C immediately broke into huge sobs accompanied by the word dinosaur in both English and Chinese. As the door was wide open and other kids and their parents were still in the museum, he relented and said we could just visit the dinos in the foyer. C perked up immediately – though this was short lived when she learned after ten minutes it was time to go and she walked out, lip pouted, shoulders hunched, dragging her feet. The curator told us to come back that weekend – open 9 am to 4 pm Saturday and Sunday!

An hour at the hotel pool and another 30 minutes in our awesome tub and C forgot all about dinosaurs.

The following morning we took the metro to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. Yeah, I sure do know how to pick the family friendly locations. But C is a good traveler and she was very good here as well.

35

Outside the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall.

It was a Saturday and the one after the new Victory Day holiday, so there was a long line, but with the exception of a few line jumpers it was managed very orderly and well. I have long wanted to visit Nanjing and I knew that when I did I would visit this memorial hall. This is a sobering place and is on par to visiting the Holocaust Museum in DC or a concentration camp like Auschwitz or the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park or the Killing Fields of Cambodia – all of which I have visited. It is a hard place to visit yet also a “must-see” to understand a time in history and serve as witness to the horrors humans are capable of committing, appreciate the resiliency of survivors, and resolve in your heart to never allow this again.

We spent most of our time in the park area and not in the museum, though we did have some thirty or forty-five minutes inside. In theory I could have spent longer there – the displays are well-done and informative – but given the subject matter our total hour and a half at the memorial hall was all we could take. C demanded lunch and then either dinosaurs or elephants.

49

Elephants, even stone ones at a Ming Dynasty mausoleum, are cool.

After consulting C elephants it was. And those elephants would be the large stone ones, along with several other stone animals, flanking the Sacred Way to the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located at the foot of Purple Mountain. Thank goodness for those animals and the lovely shaded walk – C approved! She also did not mind the other walk with large stone soldiers flanking the way and climbing through some large gateways. She did show some rebellion at the Golden Water Bridge. The carved dragons, though I pointed out they looked like a bit like dinosaurs, did not impress her in the least. Arms folded, she delivered me a few pointed raspberries in my direction, but agreed to soldier on.
The Mausoleum is huge. We passed through archways and walked through or around memorial halls finally to the large palace-like building at the end and we climbed up all those steps too. Little C bounded up them like a champ.

Although there might have still been time to make it over to the Sun Yatsen Mausoleum, had I still been a single woman, I called it day. C agreed this was an excellent decision. We still had to make our way all the way back from the tomb and find a way back to the hotel. This proved to be much more difficult than I expected as every single taxi driver I saw refused to stop. Finally we found a bus stop that took us to the metro and we were back to the hotel for the evening.

On Sunday morning I did try to reward C with a trip to the Paleontology Museum, after all she deserved it for being such a good sport the day before. But wouldn’t you know it we arrive at the museum around 9:30 am and they tell me it is closed all day. Poor little C. She was disappointed. I owe her some dinosaurs for sure.

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View towards Xuanwu Lake and Purple Mountain from the Nanjing City Wall.

We continued on to the Nanjing City Walls. C made it quite clear she did not want to see the “stupid walls.” She’s 3 and did not really use the word “stupid” but it was so implied in her huffy attitude. I insisted and she plodded alongside me, heavily sighing, shoulders hunched. It became warm – our hottest day so far and we were exposed up on the wall. And I began to think that maybe seeing the walls was okay but walking along them just might have been “stupid.” Sometimes mommy is wrong.

We did eventually make our way to the next gate, Xuanwu gate, from where we could descend from the walls and found ourselves in the middle of Nanjing’s Sunday matchmaking market. There are few things that matchmaking grannies and grandpas like to see more than a 3 year old, curly-blonde haired girl. C handled it pretty well.

Back at the hotel enjoying our welcome (farewell?) drink at the café while a hostess played peek-a-boo with C seemed a good way to end the trip. We successfully navigated ourselves back to the train station with the metro and onto the bullet train to Shanghai. Nanjing has a lot to offer and I think we will back. Maybe next time we will finally see the dinosaurs.

The Foreign Service and the Single Parent – Further Thoughts

After I had put up my previous post, an essay written for the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (AAFSW) upcoming book on “Raising Children in the Foreign Service,” I thought more about what it means to be a single parent in the US Foreign Service. I realized I had more I wanted to share and reflect on regarding this topic.

I recently celebrated my four year Foreign Service anniversary. When I joined the State Department I was eleven weeks pregnant, so my daughter has been part of my Foreign Service experience from the beginning. She and this job are forever intertwined, like fraternal twins. It was because I was pregnant that I bid on Ciudad Juarez, Mexico—where I could easily bring a car and drive over the border for baby formula and diapers at Target—rather than bidding on the places like Kathmandu, Nepal or Rangoon, Burma, that quickly caught my fancy until I remembered that I was no longer bidding for one.

In the past I had not really thought of myself as a Single Parent in the Foreign Service. I was a single parent AND I was in the Foreign Service. When people, usually colleagues, asked how I managed I often shrugged and gave some answer like “I have always been a single parent, so I do not know how to be otherwise.” That is true, but now I feel the response is too flippant – it plays down the challenges that myself and other single parents face in this career.

Writing the AAFSW article made me realize I have had far more “Single Parent in the FS related episodes” than I had previous thought and more are to come.

It was me who sat in the Basic Consular Course and heard the instructor use the word that starts with “b” and rhymes with “mastered.” Though it was meant to be a light hearted comment on a law that appeared to favor single American mothers over single American fathers, it could have been quite hurtful. I did not know then how much it might still resonate with me now and I am glad I made the effort to speak with the instructor.

Yet before I even made it to the Consular course, early in my Spanish studies, I had an experience that still makes me go “hmmm.” Given the Ciudad Juarez is a danger-pay post and one in which a lot of new officers bid low but are assigned anyway, Mission Mexico made an effort to reach out those newly assigned officers early. As I knew I would be a single parent once arriving at post my number one concern was child care. Unless they were going to let me papoose my infant to my back and conduct visa interviews that way, I was going to need a full time nanny, and quickly. I reached out to the Community Liaison Officer (CLO), a person a post that fulfills a lot of roles but one is helping officers with issues such as this. My email was short, but detailed, indicating I was a soon-to-be single mother and I could use some assistance with sorting out child care at post. The CLO responded with a spreadsheet of housekeepers that could do part time babysitting.

Several months before arriving at my second post I again reached out to the CLO to ask for information on the child care situation in Shanghai. I emailed multiple times with no response. Finally, about two weeks before my arrival I heard back – and the response was not to worry, that I would have plenty of time to find someone after I arrived. Granted at the time my mother had planned to come for the first five weeks to provide me a buffer time to search for full time help, but still I found it off-putting. Also, in the end my mother was unable to come with me and I made a mad scramble for child care immediately after arrival. (see Not the Beginning I Expected)

In both cases things worked out, as they generally do. And in neither case did the CLO intend to do anything other than help, even if it was not actually helpful.

Here in Shanghai recently our American Employee Association sent out the following email: “AEA is looking for a few good men and women to support our fellow married Americans! We will be throwing a “Parents Night Out” movie night and am looking for volunteers willing to help chaperone a few cute children with us during a Pixar/Disney movie night.”

I do not recall noticing the “s” attached to “parent” right away, but it was not long before this incredibly awesome response was sent out (not by me): “I’m willing to help out on any of those dates. Let me know when I’m needed. Also, it should be noted that not all parents are married (I was raised by a single mother in need of a night off) and may feel as though they are not included in this.”

Again, the originator of the message meant no ill-will and in fact several people pointed out that the initial message implored people to help out their married colleagues and yet not all married couples have children. The writer owned up right away, apologized for any offense and sent out an updated and all-inclusive email. In speaking with the person later, s/he told me that actually the email had been cleared by four other AEA members before being sent out and none had caught the mistake.

It was these experiences that prompted me to include in my essay’s practical thoughts/advice list a gentle reminder that in many cases people are well-meaning but just unfamiliar with what it is like to be a single parent. I certainly need to remind myself of that and give people the benefit of the doubt.

Then there was this recent experience: A few weeks ago I was serving as a representative of the US Consulate at the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) 4th of July event. I brought my daughter with me so after my two hour shift we could check out some of the activities. At the AmCham booth a smiling Chinese woman greeted me and told me in English I could scan their “We Chat” code and chose a free gift. Though I had been in country already five months, I had yet to buy myself a local smart phone. I kept thinking about doing so, but the Consulate had given us all a “dumb” phone and it basically served my needs. So I had to admit to this woman that I did not have a phone to scan their code. She thought for a moment, then with an ah-ha moment happily suggested “go get your husband.” Without thinking much about it, standing there with my daughter at my side, I replied, “I don’t have one of those either.”

This happens fairly regularly – most still make the assumption that if you have a child, you have a spouse. But I was unprepared for the woman’s response. Her face immediately crumpled. She quickly said “Oh my god, I am so sorry,” hugged me, grabbed a small box from the table, slipping her business card into the side, handed it to me continuing, “please take this gift and here is my card if you ever need anything.”

I blinked. I was speechless. I have had people upset and apologize for making the assumption, but no one before had appeared quite so horrified at the prospect of my having a child without a husband. I have no idea what her assumption may have been – that I was divorced, widowed, or otherwise. I will never know (unless of course I contacted her from her card, which I have no intention of doing).

This did lead me to do some thinking. When I wrote my essay I was thinking about US stereotypes of single parents, not those we might face in other countries. Yet as Foreign Service Officers we have to face them in both realms. It was not that long ago that women after marriage were strongly encouraged to leave the US diplomatic service. (read here) Of course single moms are by nature generally not married, yet I doubt such women were any more welcome, and most likely less so.

Just a simple Google search to see if there were any articles on that topic led me to Careers at State Q&A forums with women asking if single moms are even hired into the Foreign Service. These questions were asked not twenty or thirty years ago, but rather in 2011, 2012 and 2014. I found myself surprised and saddened. When I started in 2011, pregnant and single, it never even occurred to me that I would be unwelcome or unable to serve as a single parent, yet clearly some US women are concerned that is the case. I suppose when you hear from some US politicians that you are destroying the fabric of American society and breeding criminals, (like here), it can make you feel you are undesirable as a representative of your country abroad. I wish that too were something from the distant past, except only recently a bill that would allow some companies the right to fire an unmarried pregnant woman surfaced.  (see here)

Yet it was the response of the AmCham woman that prompted me to look into how single mothers are treated in China, and what I found was unpleasant. Though it would seem that attitudes may be changing, the Chinese marriage and birth registration system and traditional values still create an environment where single mothers are shunned and subjected to social stigma and their children are treated as second class citizens. (see here) Given these government and societal attitudes it is highly unlikely that the Chinese government or Diplomatic Corps includes any single mothers.

Yet China is not alone in its approach toward single mothers. Google “single mothers in _______” and finish it with Korea, Japan, UAE, India, Jamaica, etc, and you find articles that indicate that there remain social constraints and stereotypes amidst a rise in numbers. Another member of my Single Parent in the FS group shared with me that when she lived in Israel a woman once snarled “no wonder your husband left you” when she asked for five more minutes for her daughters to play in the shared garden. This forced me to realize that there may be times when my statement that I am a single mother may be met not with embarrassment or pity but even with hostility.

I am not sure what I will do then, but I am trying to be prepared now. I want to do more in this area in the future; my current job as visa interviewer extraordinaire however does not give me much time or opportunity to work on other things. Until then I just want to continue to be a good Foreign Service Officer and mother and hope that by doing so, and sharing my status with others, it makes a difference somehow.

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.