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.