I enjoyed my trip to China immensely. It was my first time on the Asian continent, and it was full of wonderful experiences: Tianenmen Square and the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, the Olympic Stadium, the Summer Palace…Beijing was interesting and exciting and full of life.
The only thing marring my trip–the only thing that took away from my enjoyment–was when I tried to leave the country.
I arrived at the airport four hours early (I overestimated how long it would take to get there). As I was checking in at the counter, the agent said, “Where is your visa confirmation?” You see, I was flying from Beijing to Australia (with some crazy layovers).
“Um,” I said, “It is electronic. It is attached to my passport.” The Australian government’s website explicitly tells you many times not to print out the confirmation email. “You will not need it,” the website insists, “The visa is electronically attached to your passport.”
Now, I have been to Australia three times, and although I did print out this confirmation email just in case the first time, I have never needed it before. Thus, this time I did not print it out.
“You must have the confirmation email,” the agent insisted.
As it turned out, their computers don’t talk to the Australian computers. Go figure.
“I don’t know what to do,” I admitted, a bit embarrassed, “I don’t have access to the internet, and I don’t have the print out.”
That was when a very sharply dressed security guard appeared at my elbow and spoke in rapid Chinese to the agent. After a few moments, he told me to follow him and proceeded to guide me into the bowels of the airport. Beneath the pristine and shining top floor (with its starry ceiling), the airport was grungy cement and nameless offices.
The security guard led me through the labyrinth and picked a door seemingly at random. Inside there were featureless cubicles with computers. I laughed nervously and thanked him as he showed me a computer with which I could access the internet.
But, as it turns out, Google is blocked in China. And my email is google mail.
No problem, I told myself, I will just go to the Australian government’s website and access my account through there.
No good. That website is blocked too.
“I seem to have a bit of a problem,” I told the guard, who was watching me with extreme ennui, “I can’t access my email or the Australian website.”
“You must call someone to access your email,” he said, pulling out a cell phone.
“You want me to call a friend in America from China, on your cell phone?” I asked, incredulous. He nodded, and gestured again to the phone. I shook my head and typed in the country code and numbers, having absolutely no idea what time it was in the US.
My friend picked up the phone with a decidedly groggy (and confused: the number must’ve looked ridiculous), “Hello?”
“Heeeeeyyyy,” I said, “It’s standingoutinmyfield*. I’m in a China. Specifically, in the security office in a Chinese airport.” *I used my real name, though.
“… You’re…wait, what?” she asked, sounding more awake by the minute.
“Yeah. Listen, I need your help. I need you to hack into my email and send my visa confirmation to this email address.” And I read out the email address the security guard had given me.
“Wuh…okay,” she said. With relief, I printed out the email she had sent and the security guard and I went back up to the check-in counter.
But the person behind the counter scanned the email and said, “Excuse me, why does this have the date 2011 on it?”
My friend had emailed my old visa confirmation to me. The security guard (who had earlier vanished) reappeared at my elbow and we trekked back down into the bowels, and I called my friend again, apologetically, and again asked her to send the email.
During the next trek up, the person behind the counter complained that the email confirmation did not have the date I had purchased the visa. Back down to the bowels.
The next time, the counter person complained about some other detail and I went back down to the bowels wringing my hands. I had been very calm, even mildly amused, at the start of this process, but it had now been three and a half hours of walking back and forth from the basement, waiting at desks and counters, and having a security guard hover over me in a poorly lit room with a barely functioning computer. Though I had been four hours early, my plane was now starting to board, and I had not even been through the security lines yet. I was starting to get distressed.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said to the security guard, clearly desperate, “I don’t know what you want.”
He just nodded patiently, still bored. He pointed at the computer screen to the email we had just printed and taken up to the check-in counter. “Print this,” he said.
“We just printed that,” I protested, printing it out anyway, “They didn’t accept it!”
As it came out of the printer, he stapled it calmly and handed it to me. “This is what you need,” he said, meeting my eyes for the first time.
“A-are you sure?” I said, accepting it uncertainly.
“This is what you need,” he repeated, then he handed me the boarding pass, which he had magically acquired from the check-in desk, “Do not go back to the check-in counter. Do not talk to anyone. Do not stop.”
I gripped the paper in one hand, and my passport and boarding pass in the other.
I sprinted across the airport, went through security with a white-knuckled grip on my papers, sprinted through the terminals. I arrived at my gate toward the end of the boarding line. I boarded the plane. No one had asked me for the visa confirmation. No one had looked at me twice.
I sat in my seat on the plane, wide-eyed. My visa confirmation print-out was in my fist. When the flight attendant approached me, I stared at her and lifted it up to her slightly.
“Would you like a pillow, miss?” she asked.