Memories of Beijing

Author Gary Moreau

When I spoke to a group of college students recently I was asked my advice for anyone traveling to China. “Be patient. There will be many chances to get frustrated but it will all work out in the end. Just remember, it’s not about you. They are not doing it to make you frustrated. Their culture is just different. No better or worse.”

Yesterday I had to repeat that advice to myself a thousand times.

My wife, who is Chinese (and has a legal green card, thank you), needed to get her Chinese passport renewed. The closest Chinese Consulate is in Chicago, where we would normally have to go for the processing. It turns out, however, that the Chinese Consulate sends a team to the Detroit suburbs every so often to serve the Chinese community living here and to process travel visas for Americans wishing to visit China.

Fantastic news. So we made an online reservation a couple of months ago and proceeded to acquire all of the documents required. Some of it was pretty straightforward but some of it wasn’t. They wouldn’t accept cash or credit card, for example, so we had to obtain a cashier’s check. (Both cash and credit cards are highly susceptible to fraud, of course.)

And the size of the picture required for a Chinese passport is different than the size required for a US passport. Try finding any photo store in the US that can print in anything but the US size. They will look at you like you have two heads and say, “No one has every asked that before. But you are in the US. They should accept the US size.” (There are volumes of bias in that sentiment, of course, but I won’t go there today. Maybe another time. Suffice it to say that when I had my US passport renewed at the US Embassy in Beijing they would not accept the Chinese photo sizing. The difference was that every photo store in China will print in any size you want.)

In the end, however, we had all of our documents and were ready for the appointment. At which point my wife tells me that we are lucky to have made the appointment early, as there are no openings left, according to the online appointment system.

Our appointment is for 1:00 pm and as is my habit we arrive 15 minutes early. (Lombardi time, my father called it.) They laughed. “It will be at least 3 hours.” And we had an appointment. (More on that later.)

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I had a panic attack. The room was packed to overflowing and loud and hot. There was no place to stand, much less sit, and the volume was loud. (The complete loss of personal space is the first adaptation Westerners have to make in China. It’s crowded!)

It reminded me of the early days of my Chinese experience in August, 2007. As a condition of my Chinese work permit I was required to have a full physical examination by a government clinic. Judge it as you will, but China is a big country and they don’t want any more disease to deal with. (Western countries do the same thing but normally focus on fruit and pets, not people.)

I arrive at the designated facility in Beijing back in 2007 for my scheduled appointment. And I went alone and spoke virtually no Chinese.

And when I walked in the door I was greeted with the same scene that greeted me yesterday. A virtual sea of people; hot, loud, and with no apparent organization to the process. No signs; no greeters; no one reaching out to help.

I finally figured out the system through observation and took a number to wait my turn and found an open seat. I had my number and calm slightly. Until I realize that they are announcing the numbers in Chinese. And this, mind you, was a room full of foreigners. The Chinese are all in a different room.

Fair enough. It IS their country.

So I hold my little ticket out in front of me hoping that one of the two people nearly sitting on my lap beside me speaks a little Chinese and can let me know when my number is called. And sure enough, one of them does. A European woman, I think.

I survive the day. (A very long day.)

Fast forward to March 18, 2017.

Hearing the news of the 3-hour wait my wife and I confer and decide it best for her to stay and for me to go home and watch the NCAA BB tournament. No complaint from me.

After 3 hours, however, there is no phone call for me to pick her up but I am optimistic that one must be coming soon. So, feeling a little guilty that my wife has been stuck in a cramped, hot room, I decide to drive back to wait for her there. That, I figured, would at least save her the time it would take me to drive there when she was finished.

I arrive and sit in the car waiting for a while and finally get a little impatient. So I go inside to find her. And she is there. But informs me that she has just been told her it will be another 2 hours. This is already 4 hours after we arrived – and our appointment was supposedly scheduled. So, 6 hours wait in total.

I leave again.

And my wife, being both resourceful and sensitive, walks in the door 2 hours later. She didn’t want to make me drive back so found a Chinese woman to give her a ride home. (The Chinese do that for each other and I didn’t have a moment’s hesitation about safety.)

“How did it go?”

“Great. Finished. Passport will come to our home in the pre-paid envelope we provided.”

“And how long did the process take once you got called up?”

Some thought. “About 2 minutes. Everything was in order.”

So, why did it take 6 hours? I have a theory.

As I say in my book, Understanding China, the inductively minded Chinese don’t have much love of process. And an online reservation system is a process. My guess, therefore, is that few of the people who showed up yesterday had a reservation or ever thought about making one.

And no one representing the Chinese Consulate would have even considered turning them away or asking them to come back.

Because a queue is an institution, if you will, and the Chinese don’t have much respect for institutions, either. Remember, the Chinese culture turns on relationships and all relationships are personal – with a person, not an ideal like fairness, or an institution like queuing.

Remember that if you travel to China. People will not wait in line, although that is admittedly changing. And don’t expect the store workers to enforce a queue. They won’t. Remember that they are Chinese, too, and in no way offended by this perfectly normal behavior.

Thank goodness for relationships, however. My wife met someone who she will probably never see again but as a result of a brief conversation, probably involving their hometowns, she got a ride home. (China is very safe. I gave my daughters far more freedom there than I would here in the US. Just the way it is.)

And I didn’t have to miss a game.

Contact: You may reach the author at Mr. Moreau is also available for public speaking and the provision of third-party written content on a wide variety of topics for your website or other communications material.