Sometimes things do work out okay.
While cleaning out some old paperwork in my office yesterday, I suddenly discovered that my Hong Kong work visa will expire in less than a month, an issue that is compounded by the fact that I planned to travel in less than three weeks. Knowing the typical governmental process for any sort of application procedure, I immediately embarked on a collection of the necessary papers and documents.
What do I need? You would think that I had never experienced such an application process before. In fact, this is my third or fourth time to deal with local visa issues, but I can never remember from one time to the next what paperwork is necessary, which floor to go to, or what forms to fill out. Inevitably, I end up at the wrong counter without a certain paper or document, and I’m sent away in shame. I searched the website in hopes of locating clues as to what I should bring. I dared not print out a form and complete it before arrival—I can’t even figure out what category of visa applicant I fall under.
I awoke two hours before my alarm went off this morning and instantly began to dread the day’s task. I chose a large backpack and set out to gather everything I might possibly need. Papers. Signed letters. Photos and documents. Extra copies of everything. Might they want my United frequent flier card too? Assuming I’ll spend exorbitant amounts of time waiting, I fill up a water bottle and grab some snacks. A fully-charged iPod and cell phone. Advil. A pack of gum. One newspaper and a 700-page book. I should be okay for a day or two.
The crowd of morning rush hour took me by surprise (I’m privileged to walk to work and, thus, am not accustomed to using public transportation before 8:00am) and my trip took nearly an hour. The crush of humanity continued throughout the walk from the train station to the Hong Kong Immigration Tower—a non-descript, gray concrete building, with armed guards in the lobby and an intimidating building directory covering an entire wall. Not knowing my destination, I bypassed the elevator, and stepped onto the escalators, hoping I could study the signs on each floor.
I found the floor with counters labeled “forms” and “enquiries.” Surprisingly, there were no lines at either counter, so I wound my way through the empty ropes and approached the counter. A pleasant gentleman sat surrounded by stacks of papers taller than he was, and as I explained my situation, he immediately sifted through a sheaf of documents and handed a blank form to me. I realized my confusion: I had been searching for information on “visa renewal,” when I should have been looking for “visa extension.” Silly me.
I was equally surprised to locate a long empty space at the desks where people like me can pause to fill out forms. With plenty of space, I dumped my bag and began writing on the form in block letters, using blue or black ink. Ah yes, this is the form on which I am obligated to check the box next to “spinster.” Is this the best terminology we can come up with?
Papers in hand, I continued up the escalators until I found the appropriate floor. The line labeled “those without appointments” made me feel inadequate, as if I’d failed in my responsibilities; but I took my place and was pleased when it moved quickly. An agreeable woman scanned my form, took my passport, and printed out a receipt with a number: B26. Very efficient. They used to scribble a number in permanent marker on a bit of scratch paper.
Here we go, I thought as I examined the rows of chairs and located a place to settle. I took my time as I removed my coat, slathered my hands with anti-bacteria gel, and put away the ream of unnecessary documents I had toted along. As I glanced up at the wall in front of me, I saw a new television screen with the numbers that were being called clearly displayed in large, bright letters. Well. My usual task at this point is to practice my numbers in Cantonese, hoping I’ll recognize mine when it’s called, rather than wait until the receptionist repeats it in exasperated English.
And… what’s this? They are currently on number B22. I’m four people away! How did this miraculous turn of events come about? Before I could relish my good fortune, my number was announced. I hastily gathered up my belongings and went to the counter. With a cheerful smile, the woman behind the glass asked me a few questions and studied my paperwork. I was prepared to argue my case: I’m leaving town soon and need to rush this visa application through. Before I could embark on my preplanned speech, she graciously agreed to look into it. “Please find a seat and wait for me to call you again.”
Okay. This is when the wait begins. It’s a two-part process, I thought dully. I planted myself in a chair, glanced at my watch and then located my newspaper. Civil unrest in Libya. After scrutinizing the grainy front-page photo, I started reading the article. Suddenly, my name was called over the loudspeaker. Not B26. My name. Frazzled, I once again gathered my gear and located the counter to which I was called. The same kind woman returned my passport and handed me a form listing the date of collection of my visa—five days before my trip. She smiled, thanked me and turned away.
Confused, I asked what I should do next. “Nothing.” You mean I’m finished? I can leave now? She nodded. But I didn’t even finish the front page of the newspaper. I didn’t get to practice my Cantonese numbers. And I was supposed to have a dreadful, eventful ordeal—encountering unpleasant people, committing embarrassing language blunders, filling out the wrong forms, making multiple trips between Kowloon Tong and Wan Chai, waiting in long queues like a hungry refugee—something worthy of blogging. But this? What about the banana now located at the bottom of my backpack, or my plan to figure out how to beat level 14 of that game I just discovered on my iPod?
No matter. The shopping center I planned to visit after my visa excursion is not yet open; it’s too early in the morning. So there will be some waiting after all.