US Bureaucracy With Chinese Characteristics

I paid a visit to the US consulate this afternoon. I’m not American of course and as a Brit, I don’t need a visa to visit the US, so this was a rare trip to help my cousin pick up a passport for her new born baby girl. My cousin lives in Xiamen, so it’s a long way to come to pick up a passport and the consulate people – being the helpful bunch that they are – do not offer a courier service. You can see where this is going already, can’t you!

Where do I start? Oh yes, the “office hours”. They start at 8.15am and work through till 11.30am then break for lunch till 1.30pm and close again at 3.30pm. That’s unless it’s a Wednesday when they don’t bother coming back for the afternoon session.

I foolishly thought this would be a very simple mission. I’d be in and out in 5 minutes and back at my desk before you could say “Obama”. The consulate is on the 8th floor of Westgate Mall on Nanjing Road. As soon as I got out of the lift, I was trapped in what felt like a subway carriage in rush our, but it turned out to be the lift lobby. I’d arrived 5 minutes before their 1.30pm re-opening so the place was full of Chinese people applying for US visas. There was an official being very bossy and telling everyone how to form an orderly queue (no sitting on the floor). It was extremely hot and I am sure some of the applicants were close to passing out.

I pushed my way through the crowds of people who all assumed I was pushing in or “cutting the line” I think is the American phrase. I got to a relatively clear space and looked at my watch – it was 1.26pm, still 4 minutes before the doors opened. So I waited for 1.30pm and then, just to be sure, I waited another 2-3 minutes before asking an official where I go to collect a passport. He pointed to the front of the line where I showed another official the collection receipt and he buzzed me in.

There’s an x-ray machine like the ones at the airport. I felt like I was about to fly somewhere, especially after being asked to remove my belt. I was allowed to keep my shoes on though. They asked if I had a mobile phone and I showed them my iPhone and they took it away and gave me a key with a number on it so I could reclaim it later.

There were hoards of Chinese people inside going through the visa application process but I was directed to a smaller room for consular services. I was surprised to find there was no collection counter and all the counters required a ticket number, so I took a ticket from the machine and waited for my turn.

After about 20 minutes my number (78) finally came up and I rushed enthusiastically to the allotted counter with the receipt, the letter of authority from my cousin and my own passport to prove I was the person nominated to collect the passport on behalf of my cousin. “I’ll be back at work in around 20 minutes” I thought. Not too shabby.

“Do you have a passport copy of the father?”

“Erm, no. We were told just the letter, the receipt and some ID would be all that’s required” I replied.

“Hmm, no, you see for a new born baby, you need a copy of the father’s passport”

“Well I don’t have it and I’ve come a long way today” I lied. “You can call him and check with him if you’re worried” I suggested.

“Okay have you got his number?” replied the lady behind the counter.

“Well, no I don’t, you’ve taken my mobile phone!”

So basically, I had to go retrieve my phone from the security officer, go out of the consulate to find the number (and call my cousin to ensure he was able to receive a call in a few minutes) then go back inside, through all the security procedures again and then back to the lady at the counter, who of course was now serving someone else.

I waited till she was done with the other person then handed her the phone number and all the documents. She went away and then came back and informed me someone was trying to call my cousin now and asked me to wait a while, while she served yet another person. I saw after a few minutes someone handed her back my passport and other documents so I guessed everything was no in order, but of course, I didn’t have my phone so I had no way to check with my cousin.

Eventually it was my turn again and the lady behind the counter was looking through all the documents once more. She then looked at her computer screen and then I noticed a puzzled look on her face.

“So what is this other phone number starting with 134?” she asked.

“I have absolutely no idea, but why does that matter if you’ve already called my cousin to verify that I am authorised to collect his daughter’s passport?”

She tapped in a few more details then went to get the passport and handed everything back to me except my passport. Then tapped a few more things on her keyboard before finally handing me my passport and that was that.

I have so many unanswered questions I don’t know where to begin. Firstly, why on earth do they need the passport copy of my cousin. What are the chances that I found the receipt and managed to guess my cousin’s name and write a forged letter of authority? Secondly, they have all his details on the computer. Why not call him themselves rather than ask me to give them the number? Was that part of the test of my legitimacy? And finally, why, AFTER verifying with my cousin that I am authorised to collect the passport did she spend time asking me what the other number in their system was for?

The answer I came up with is “because they are idiots”. What should have taken 3-4 minutes ended up taking 55 minutes. I feel truly sorry for the poor Chinese people who had to endure far worse than me and thank the lord I don’t need to ever apply for a visa.

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22 Responses to US Bureaucracy With Chinese Characteristics

  1. T. says:

    All of your answers in 1: Passports are now a huge hassle because of 9/11. I am serious.

  2. flutter-by says:

    Maybe I’ve gone through too much purebred Chinese bureaucracy, the whole story still sounds like a walk in the park to me.
    And you know what, Shanghai Public Security Bureau thoughtfully provides courier service for nonlocal passport applicants – with a pricetag of RMB50 only, while normal commercial courier charge is RMB10.

  3. Lil bro says:

    Agreed, it sounds indeed like a walk through a open, green space.

  4. WoAi says:

    Yes, I know that 50 minutes is not a big deal in the scheme of things, I just foolishly expected it to be far simpler and quicker. My bad!

  5. wisemanofasia says:

    Is the service run by Chinese people? Because the British one is and I can assure you it is a lot worse than this sounds!

  6. WoAi says:

    @Wiseman – Yes the girl was Chinese and a complete waste of space!

  7. wisemanofasia says:

    Woai – haha I am sure she was….but the ones at the British visa service are unbelievably terrible.

  8. Joyce Lau says:

    If it makes you feel any better (and it probably doesn’t) I encountered big lines, hassles and trips back for extra paperwork when I got my and my daughters’ Canadian passports. And I’m a Canadian-born citizen. Plus this was in super-efficient Hong Kong.
    I think consulates are just like that. If only I had such a long lunch break as these guys!
    (But to give credit, at least our consulate had air con and polite people. But waiting an hour to just collect a passport is pretty silly).

  9. Lil bro says:

    I think monkeys could provide a better service. When I went to collect my visa for my recent and very memorable trip to Shanghai I was reminded that photo ID was essential before they could return my passport. Not very clever.

  10. My boyfriend is currently stuck in Singapore applying for a new British passport which takes upwards of 4 weeks because the Asian applications are done via London via Hong Kong. Still not sure how long it will be until he can travel (i.e. come back to China). No expedition process exists, apparently.

    As for why people need copies of other people’s passports, who knows? When I applied for my first visitor visa to China, they didn’t believe that I had never been to China (because I am ethnically Chinese). Why would I lie about that? Then they didn’t believe I was born in my home country (even though it says right there on the passport, and I was applying in my hometown). For whatever reason, they needed a copy of my birth certificate, and copies of both of my parents’ passports. I was 25 at the time, and pretty sure I didn’t need my parents’ permission to travel. Oh, China.

  11. @Lil bro: But they can’t accept your own face as ID. They need to compare the picture on your passport to another picture. It’s logic.

  12. anthony says:

    this blog is getting boring. first stocks
    now this .. its time for a blog about
    girls . lol

  13. T. says:

    @anthony – I think I can speak for WoAi here – please send your request for a refund check for the amount you pay to read this blog to the following for processing:

    WoAi Blog Refund Processing Center
    c/o Margaret Thatcher
    123 Fake Street
    London, GB
    123-456

  14. flutter-by says:

    Don’t be so harsh please. I’m sure WOAI is now brewing some interesting posts on football. Stay tuned.

  15. WoAi says:

    @Joyce – Yes, my friend is Canadian and he had a tantrum at the Canadian consulate when he was sorting out stuff for his Chinese wife. Seems they are particularly bad. I am seeing a pattern here though. Every country is the same!

    @Lil bro – So did you bring any photo ID in the end? Or was your passport acceptable as proof!

    @Anthony – Just for that I am ONLY going to post about stocks and visas for the rest of the year!

    @T – WoAi doesn’t give refunds because WoAi never disappoints. Oh, sorry, on the blog yeah, you might be disappointed!

    @Flutter-by – Thanks for sticking up for me (and for giving me added pressure to write something about football now!)

  16. chengdusticksguy says:

    Tantrum? Full blown conniption was more like it. When the Canadian visa processing centre staff (an outsourced service for our Consulate) lady told her colleague – “I wish they would shut that stupid baby up – I wanna slap him.” Well, no one bothered to inform us that people with newborn babies were allowed to go to front of line.

    They are all bad . . . period.

  17. anthony says:

    @Woai – nooo ! lol
    @T – i’d prefer a woai tshirt ! – lol

  18. WoAi says:

    @Chengdusticksguy – I’d actually forgotten the specific details about the baby slapping. That’s so Shanghainese I must say. Not unlike the waiting staff at the Grand Hyatt Cloud Nine Bar who were loudly yapping away while we tried to have a quiet drink, totally oblivious to the fact they were being inappropriately loud.

  19. WoAi says:

    @Anthony – Today’s blog post is for you!

  20. WoAi says:

    @Bananaundercover – Strangely your comments were stuck in the spam folder! Yes, all passports are now routed through Hong Kong and can no longer be processed in mainland China which I imagine is a result of cost savings. It’s kind of crazy. No expedition option doesn’t surprise me either. If you’ve ever been to any consulate of any nation you’ll see that urgency is not a word they have ever come across!

    Looking forward to the day we all just have chips embedded in our brains. I don’t think we’re that far off.

  21. Bitter melon says:

    All immigration officers the world over are trained at the same charm school located in Bulgaria.

  22. WoAi says:

    @Bittermelon – And I think some of my clients also!

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