Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Visas and Guanxi

Borden, and overall dissatisfaction led me to quit my first job at the language school. Unfortunately my visa expiration date fell around the same time period. The burden of renewing my visa fell to me, a powerless white girl with Chinese nowhere near the level needed to get myself a new visa. Luckily, my friend, a professional here Dalian was willing to help me renew my visa until my next employer could sponsor me for a legitimate work visa.

Normally, to renew a visa, a foreigner must go to Beijing in the least and possibly even leave the country. I assumed that it would be the same case for me. However, I received my first lesson in the power of what the Chinese call, “Guanxi” (connections/relations). As it turned out a my friend's brother in law knows one of the visa officials. This means that we all make quick “friends” to exchange favors.

The entire process consisted of two meetings. The first meeting was just to understand my “options.” To me the meeting felt like classic modern Chinese bureaucracy - sketchy. The small sparsely furnished completely undecorated office had white washed walls with smudged footprints and cracks. A layer of black dust had settled on everything not regularly used. The visa official was also a classic picture: short, dark skinned, with a belly reflecting his financial prosperity and slightly oily hair past due for a cutting. He sat back in his desk chair with a cigarette and periodically checked a thick book of rules and regulations. While the two men spoke I observed from the sidelines. Afterward my friend translated the whole hour’s meeting to me in about two minutes. From this I gathered that much more was discussed that was let on, although actually I think he was probably just sparing me some useless details. I’ll never know! Basically we concluded that he could help me get a new visa without even leaving Dalian, let alone the country! But I was warned that these were special circumstances and that I should probably not flaunt it around other foreigners.

He later said that that we would need to return the favor to the official. Fearing the worst, I withdrew extra 100’s from the bank. Instead, he produced a fax which was the visa official daughter’s English homework assignment! I couldn’t believe it. So, my friend and I sat together in his office and wrote the middle school English homework together. I wrote it in native English and then he strategically added in some “Chinglish” to make it believable. If this doesn’t demonstrate the value of English proficiency in China, I don’t know what does. The whole deal was sealed with a letter of recommendation explaining that I was studying acupuncture in China for a few months and that it was not my intent to work. While it all felt sketchy to me, this is how China works right now and I was assured that because the rules on book are changing so quickly, it was not exactly illegal to make our own way.

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