“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Friday, October 17, 2014

Visa Saga: Getting a Chinese Visa if You're a US Citizen born in Taiwan

Usually I am the one with the suspect travel documents.  My old passport still had my married name on it so I would travel under that alias and not my current legal/maiden name*.  When I need an entry visa, I prefer to apply in Chicago beforehand so I'm confident I have all my travel documents in order and have time to fix any speedbumps that might appear.  So for the China portion of our next trip, we were a on our guard that we may run into an issue with F's visa.  F was born in Taiwan, moved to the US as a child, was naturalized, and is now a US citizen with a US passport.  You'd think this would be enough, but little did we realize what we were about to get into.

The first issue to arise was Danielle's passport.  When she bought her plane ticket, her passport was about to expire so she applied for a renewal and expedited the process.  She had a new passport in her hands in two weeks.  Excellent.  Then she mailed it via USPS to Carrie in Chicago (certified, signature required) at her office because Carrie was going to take care of her and Danielle's Chinese visas at the local consulate.  This is where it went off the rails.  The downtown Chicago post office lost Danielle's passport package.  Someone signed for it at the post office, but they couldn't locate the package.  We were 6 weeks from departure.  Danielle was distraught and Carrie was on a mission.  She opened a case file at the USPS.  She called daily.  The office manager at her agency said sometimes it takes a few days for packages to go from the local post office to the office buildings... sit tight, it'll come.

It didn't.  Carrie stepped up the pressure.  I don't know how the post office did it, but they found Danielle's passport a week later.  When they realized it contained time-sensitive, legal, and highly personal information, they increased their search.  Carrie was then able to get their visas.

Lesson learned: Send via FedEx or UPS.

While this was going on, I was responsible for getting my and F's visas.  When I arrived at the consulate, they accepted my paperwork.  They handed F's back to me.  No dice.  Since she was born in Taiwan, they considered her a Chinese national so we had to change her application to read original nationality as "China" and not "Taiwan".  "Taiwan is not a country.  China is."  Duly noted.  And since she was a former Chinese national, they wanted a copy of her original Chinese passport and birth certificate.  F said that she nor her parents have these anymore.  And a birth certificate was back in Taiwan.


Could F get into China??

Carrie and I were making a brief road trip to Cedar Point, so in the car we mapped out backup plans to how we could get F into China if she couldn't get an official visa.  72 hour visa waiver?  Change flights?  We had a decision tree.  We had a backup plan.  I filled F in when we returned and told her we'd start with the paperwork and tackle the hard part first: priority was getting that official entry visa!!

I combed TripAdvisor and other travel sites for others in the same position: US citizens born in Taiwan.  Over and over I read that it couldn't be done, they couldn't get a visa.  I wasn't giving up.  There HAD to be a away.  The mission for an entry visa was becoming a full-time job.  F wasn't the only person the planet in this position.  I happened upon a post by a woman who said her husband had the same predicament and was able to get a visa using alternate paperwork, expediting the application, and applying in person.

F and I got together, we combed through her documentation.  She had a copy of an endorsement stamp from her mother's Chinese/Taiwanese passport from when F was a baby, with F's Chinese birth name.  Not the entire passport or the data page, but just the stamped endorsement page.  She had her certificate of citizenship, and the legal paperwork for her name change.  The name on her endorsement match the name on her citizenship certificate which matched the name on her name change document which matched the name on her passport.  We were going to try this again.

As a precaution, we threw money at the problem to expedite the process.  We had enough time, but we wanted to give this priority in the consulate's eyes, plus it was a sign that we meant business.  Additionally, I made 6 more versions of her visa application, noting her original nationality as China and not Taiwan, and adjusting other little details.  If they said an application was incorrect, we had 5 more versions of it in our back pocket signed and ready to put on the table.  This time, F joined me at the consulate.  A sympathetic face may help.

The same gentleman that granted me my visa was at the window again when F and I stepped up days later.  I explained that we were on the same itinerary and they had given me my visa, and I couldn't go alone (white lie).  We walked him through the chain of F's paperwork, from Taiwan to the US, and through her name changes.  He asked her to pronounce her Chinese name so he could write it in Chinese characters on the application.  She was a baby when she left Taiwan so she never learned to write in Chinese.  Good thing she came along because I had no idea how to repeat her name properly.  We told him we were expediting as well, he stamped the application, handed us a receipt and told us to come back in 2 days.

One step closer!  I returned on Monday to pick up the passport and pay for it.  I nearly fell on the floor with relief.  My dad was in town visiting and I brought him with, finally jumping and cheering with joy on the sidewalk when we stepped outside.  F was able to join us in China!!

And, well, if you read the Mongolia and Beijing entries, you'll see she made it.  :)  I didn't want to write about this escapade until we had returned safely and uneventfully from China.  You never know who is monitoring the interwebs so we were playing it safe in case we were stopped/detained in China.  In, out, done.

Lessons learned: When it comes to visas, especially for notoriously strict governments, give yourself PLENTY of time.  Visit the consulate in person, if possible.  Have backup plans.  And don't give up.

* Regarding my own passport issues, my book was full upon returning from China.  Thailand is the next stop in a few months and it wouldn't fit any more stamps.  It was high time to get a new passport and change to my REAL name in the process.  I applied in late September and had it back in a couple weeks.  Well, the book as come back, now I'm waiting for them to return my old passport and supporting ORIGINAL documentation.  I requested a double book of 52 pages instead of 26, which is no extra charge.  You've all been warned, help me fill in this new book!

Beijing Day 4: 798 Art District and Hot Pot

After the a week in the wilderness, Forbidden City, Tienanmen, night market, shopping, and the Great Wall hike, I was exhausted and my knees were in pain.  It was time for Fay to return to the US the next afternoon.  She, Carrie, and Danielle decided to venture out for some more shopping then return in the late morning to finish packing.  After breakfast I climbed back into bed and relaxed with my iPad.  I didn't have the energy.  The plan was to escort Fay through the subway to the airport express train, then the remainder of us would visit the 798 Art District in the northwest of the city.  Knowing we'd be walking all afternoon, the girls went ahead of me and I rested.

Before the 2008 Olympics, Beijing only had two or three subway lines.  Now there are 15 and growing.  The stations are clean, spacious, modern, and everything is written and spoken in Mandarin and English.  Once you've ridden a subway line outside the US, they're really the same everywhere.  And at 2 Yuan, it was only a few cents to get to the airport line, which was another 25 Yuan.  We found our way easily to the line and bid our farewells to Fay.  Off she went down the escalator, out of sight... and then there were three.

Beijing is an interesting city.  Dogs don't bark.  They're well-behaved on their leashes.  Kids aren't running around, they stay near their parents and are barely heard.  We only saw two strollers all week: parents carry their children in their arms.  No diaper bags.  Beijing fashion is no fashion: If it fits, put it on.  Mixed patterns, mixed colors.  Pantyhose.  Parasols to shade from the sun.  Bikes, mopeds, and scooters.  The mix of old and new.  It was charming, adventurous, so very different from Western society.  If there was a place that was opposite of America, we were standing in it.  For the beginning of our visit, we remained in central, old Beijing.  We wanted to get out of the neighborhood and see how the rest of the city lived.

The 798 Art District was formerly an area of factories which had been converted into low-rent artist studios.  Nestled behind modern apartment buildings and suburban office complexes, the art district had an intimate feel about it.  Graffiti, public art, sidewalk cafes, galleries, shops, and ice cream stands.  Since none of the three maps we had on hand were up to date (the city is developing so rapidly), the subway stop we wanted was actually closed (or did it even exist?), so by the time we walked from the next nearest stop to the district, it was mid-afternoon and we were famished.  We had identified a cafe mentioned in the Rough Guide with rave reviews so our initial focus was to find food, then explore.

@ Cafe was just what we needed.  The outdoor patio had large umbrellas that would shield us from the rain that had been teasing us all day.  The decision was swift: we were ordering a bottle of champagne and three glasses.  And roast duck.  And pizza.  And broiled fish.  And bruschetta.  it was perfect.  The noodles and rice of recent days were delicious, but we're Americans and need variety in our lives.  We topped off lunch with a visit to the ice cream stand across the street and began exploring the district.

I loved this neighborhood.  Jewelry designers, galleries, fashion designers, wall hangings, fabrics, pottery and ceramics, and random brick-a-brack.  From one shop I ended up with three beautiful painted glass plates of different sizes, with a heavy stylized image of a pack elephant.  With plate stands, which weren't originally for sale, but EVERYTHING is for sale in China, and I walked out with the plate stands after some haggling.

The rain and a weekday had kept most people away so it was lovely to wander the alleys without the bustling crowds of central Beijing.  The rain had increased and the consensus was to take a taxi home.  This would be our first taxi ride since we had been in the city.  Rain + rush hour = not easy to hail a cab.  Those that we initially stopped didn't want to take us downtown.  Eventually after a few tries we found one.  Chinese taxis: No tipping!  The fare is also calculated by the kilometer, so when you're sitting in traffic for ages you're not worrying about racking up a steep bill.  50 Yuan back to the city center and we were still dry.  The days of rain had started to sweep the smog from the city basin and we were finally able to see the mountains that ring the metropolis.  That night we were finally able to see stars and were hopeful that the smog would be kept at bay for our final day in Beijing the next day.

The Chinese eat later in the evening than we do, around 6pm, so by the time we get hungry at 8 or 9, most restaurants are closing down.  Our options were limited.  One place that was still open was a hot pot restaurant around the corner with the most fabulously gaudy exterior and giant red paper lanterns hanging over the front parking lot.  The lot was always full of cars and people so we figured this was as good a place as any to try; crowds = good.

Oh, and was it!  Thankfully Carrie and I had done a hot pot run in Chicago's Chinatown weeks before so we were able to gauge how much food we needed and how hot pot actually worked.  Here, instead of a giant single pot, we each had individual pots.  This worked out well for Danielle who had her vegetarian pot to herself and it wasn't contaminated with our meaty goodness.  I spiced mine up quite a bit with red chili peppers.  Carrie went the Goldilocks route and her hot pot was just right.  The service was quick and efficient, and we had another round of the plum drink that we first sampled at the night market.  How do you know what to order?  And how do you eat hot pot?  Between the three of us, we picked a plate of sirloin, some fish tofu, tiny dumplings, and squid.  It was just enough, and we could have spared leftovers if we weren't forcing it down.  We also added cabbage and mushrooms.  Add red chilis and some green onion to the broth to adjust spiciness, and cook the meat thoroughly, which only takes a minute or two in the boiling soup.  Dip in sauce and enjoy!

We had one more day to go in Beijing.  The Summer Palace was definitely on the list, including a hopeful visit to the Temple of Heaven and the CCTV building.  We still hadn't had Peking duck or dim sum.  In a city this vast, we were finally sobering up to the reality that there is too much to see and eat for only 6 days.  We would see how much we could accomplish on our final day.