’m into my second hour waiting to collect my passport. I’ve applied for a new Chinese visa, and waiting for the verdict to see if I’ll be allowed to remain in the country, quite frankly, feels like torture. Admittedly, I did turn up an hour early for my appointment – because better safe than sorry, right?
Whether you’ve got a new job, you’re renewing, or whatever your visa situation, there’s that moment where – especially if you have a flair for the dramatic – you hand your passport over and your China life flashes before your eyes, as if it might all come crashing to an end: first job, first taste of Beijing’s signature street food, the jianbing, first apartment, first time baijiu (grain alcohol) seemed like a good idea (that one’s a little hazy, but there nevertheless).
As I say, it’s my second hour of waiting and between distrustful glances – or is that just misread apathy? – from the security guards I’m starting to panic. Do they know something I don’t? I’m dreaming up a criminal history I’ve never had. At least, I don’t think I have? Maybe, my life’s gone full telenovela and I’m suffering from amnesia. I actually am a criminal mastermind but just have no recollection of it. Anything is possible, after all… Whatever the reason for the panic, the memories, they’re all there. Whirring jarringly and randomly through my already frantic mind as if playing on an old projector.
Day one at my first job in China flickers into focus – me, bright eyed and bushy tailed, attempting to navigate Beijing on a barely functioning and short-lived Blackberry. And then it’s gone, replaced by signing the lease at my favorite apartment. The repressed memories of around 1,000 wasted trips with real estate agents to other apartments that were either out of budget, out by the Fifth Ring Road, or essentially a cupboard, bubbling to the surface. My first bowl of liangpi (cold noodles) and the hundreds that followed. Posing with friends and strangers’ babies at the Great Wall. Warbling into the mic at karaoke. First post-hotpot stomach ache (admittedly, some memories are nicer than others).
Next up, my boyfriend and I moving down to Shanghai. I rewatch as all our worldly possessions, mostly junk with a smattering of breakables, are strapped to the outside of a rickety three-wheeler that slowly chugs off and somehow still beats us to Shanghai. My first scolding from an elderly neighbor for cycling in the rain, and then again later that day for not wearing shoes outside – I’d really miss her. That first trip to the “Happiest Place on Earth,” Disneyland Shanghai. A restaurant owner bequeathing me his mouse-catcher cat. The cat’s first night curled up on a real bed…
Slow, determined footsteps drawing near pull me back from my reveries. Are they coming for me? Oh god, I am an international crime lord, I knew it. Oh, phew, nah, it’s just another foreigner lost in a world of flashbacks while they await their fate. A bead of sweat drips down my back as my number is called, and I wander nervously up to the counter. Without looking up from the desk, the visa officer grunts for my passport collection slip, I hand it over, palms sweating and hands trembling. She scans it and her eyes dart up at me. “She knows,” I think. Knows what? Well, er, I have no idea… But something, surely something. There must be something. OK, confession time: I did once walk out of a UK supermarket (which shall remain nameless) carrying a can of Diet Coke I hadn’t paid for, but it was an accident. And, how would they have even found out about that?
The official leans back in her chair to talk quietly to her neighbor, who also flashes me a look, and then wanders out the back of the office. Fight or flight? Fight or flight… Or freeze. I stand there, glued to the spot, waiting for the next scene to play out in the police drama that’s now my life. She’s back. She walks up to the counter, puts an envelope down and shoves it towards me beneath the glass. I snatch it up and turn on my heel mumbling a panicked “thank you,” power-walking out of there as fast as my shaky legs will take me without drawing any more suspicion to my already shifty-looking self.
Back out in the open air, I fumble at the brown envelope, pleading with whatever powers might be out there that this is not a trap. That it’s not my rap sheet and the secret service aren’t about to come crashing down on me. But there it is… my passport, with the brand new visa inside. And, as I all but skip-off, I look back at that once imposing building thinking to myself: same time, next year.