Attempting to Talk Your Way Out of a Visa Fine
I learned the Chinese word for deport the other day. Contextually. As in, “You should be happy that we are only going to fine you 5000 kuai, and not deport you.” That was what the uniformed man at the public security bureau said.
The PSB is the dispensary of visa’s in Chengdu, and I imagine that the uniformed man, having dealt with lots of foreigners, probably finds that when a foreigner is complaining about a visa-related fine, brandishing the notion of deportation ends the argument pretty quickly. My reaction was to start crying.
The tears were heartfelt, but also a bit calculated. As I whimpered, I continued to reiterate bullet points from my case for leniency. “I did not overstay the time stated on my visa; I was not informed of this regulation by my school; I am just a student, I don’t have that kind of money. ” My game plan was to start respectfully, and through a series of questions, lead the PSB official down a narrow corridor of logic, bring him to see the glaring inequity with which I was being treated. That tact having just failed, I had moved to plan B.
Now I should come clean here and say that I am not totally blameless in this matter. When my student visa for this semester arrived at my home in the US, I noticed that in the “duration of stay” field, there was not 180 as I had expected, but 000. I emailed the company that I had gotten my visa through, and they emailed me back saying: “000 means no limit on the stay. However, you need to register your visa within 30 days after you enter china.”
Expats who have lived in China for a while know that resident aliens must register at the local dispatch center, and I was not surprised to learn that I would have to register, having registered when I studied here previously. A year and a half ago, I applied for a student visa when I was in China, and I had gone to the dispatch center- where I interrupted the officers playing cards and registered- before I got my visa. But this time I already had my visa in hand, so, arriving in ChengDu- busy applying for this and studying for that- I put off registering at the dispatch center, reassured by the knowledge that my visa was, at least in some sense, unlimited. Not quite.
The uniformed man before whom I was crying did not break the bad news to me. The seriousness of my situation had gradually crystalized in my brain over the past week of errands that had strung me from PSB-School-PSB-Dispatch Center-PSB-School-PSB-School-PSB. There was a lot of frantic biking in that string of errands, a lot of waiting, and a lot of me nodding sheepishly and agreeing, trying to look as non-threatening as possible. Notable highlights from the sequence include PSB1, when I learned that any 000 visa is invalid after 30 days, School1, when I learned that the maximum fine was 5000 kuai, and PSB4, when I signed my statement apologizing for my violation, sealing it with a red right thumb print.
I went into PSB4 with a little bit of hope that I might not be charged the full fine because of the specifics of my case. My spoken Chinese is good, and so is my luck, I thought that I would probably be able to get the fine reduced by performing a delicate ballet in which I defused a bomb attached to a dancing bear. I was hoping to charm them.
After PSB4, I had the sense that I had made some progress. I had told a story of a conscientious sinophil tripped up by a bit of bad luck mixed with honest misunderstanding. The suited man’s suited subordinate had been thrilled to watch me write a few characters in Chinese. But ultimately I had not gotten any resolution on the size of the fine. The suited subordinate said that the size of the fine was ultimately not his decision. I had been ready to cry at PSB4 but without knowing the size of the fine, it didn’t happen. That night I emailed my mom, and she replied, “You were right not to press, but early tears may have saved you a couple hundred bucks.” The next day, at PSB5, I was ready to put it all on the table.
After presenting a letter from school stating that I was a student there, I was told that the fine was going to be 5000 kuai. The night before, lying in bed, I had thought about particular verbiage to use in the event that I was handed down the maximum penalty, and at this point I began to make my case, “don’t you think that my situation is somewhat different from the typical visa expiration case,” I said in Chinese. The uniformed subordinate then sighed and ushered me next door, to the office of the uniformed man.
I had prepared for this showdown two arguments. The first was that fundamentally, I had not overstayed my visa. I had paid a semesters tuition and the semester was not over. Had I jumped through the bureaucratic hoop in time, my visa would have been automatically extended to cover my period of study. Now I had registered, and I was still within that period of study. No harm, no foul. I should not be treated the same as someone who just decided not to leave the country within the time written on their visa.
The second argument was that a duration indicated “000″ was erroneous and misleading. Even if I had registered within 30 days, I would have had to technically re-apply for a new visa, and my old one (the one marked 000) would have been invalid. Under any circumstances that visa would have expired after 30 days. It should have said 30 days on the visa, not 000.
Although often I have a hard time composing my thoughts in Chinese when I am angry, nervous, or excited, (all three of which I was,) at that particular moment my phrases were landing together, like Tetris pieces, in a colorful interlocking melody. With each point the uniformed man nodded gravely, waiting until I finished, and expressing regret that regulations offered him no room for leeway in assessing penalties. He lost no opportunity to pass the buck. “Did they not tell you at the border that you had to register within 30 days?” he said. “Did your school’s foreign student office not ensure that you had registered? How irresponsible of them. Maybe they will bear some of the burden of paying this fine,” he said. “Why didn’t your visa service explain this to you? You should report them to the government. They can be held responsible.” he said.
He seemed well practiced in affecting empathy, but his voice carried a fatalistic monotone that suggested an unwavering certainty in the outcome of the conversation. My plan was to cry as a last resort, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to have to force it. As it became more clear that the uniformed man was not going to lower the fine, the tears sprang forth surprisingly naturally.
Have you ever cried before a man in uniform? It was my first time, but if you think about it, it has probably happened consistently over the course of history. The man in the uniform always has some bad news for the person crying.
Now when I say crying, I wasn’t yelling or whining or waving my arms, but there was definitely water flowing down my face. I was taking shorter gasps of breath in between my sentences- I wouldn’t go so far as to call them sobs. I fiddled with the Chinese language study book that I had brought, deliberately stuffed with sheets of vocabulary words, as a symbol of my diligence. I was making one last lunge for salvation, for pity, and the uniformed man was parrying me. it went something like this:
Me: “I’m a student, I cant pay that much money. I just don’t have it. ”
UM: “You’ll find a way. You can borrow it from your family.”
Me: “Who has that kind of money laying around”
UM: “That is not a lot in dollars. Your family will give it to you.”
Me: “That would be too shameful. I can’t ask them.”
UM: “It is the job of parents to take care of their children, they will support you.”
Me: “You don’t understand, every family situation is different. I cant ask them.”
UM: “Then ask one of your friends. You’ll find a way…”
Me: “I will go bankrupt.”
UM: “You will find a way…”
He trailed off at the end, as if to say “… or you wont. But in either case my lunch break will be occuring at 11:30, and I will be leaving the office then.” I stood there red faced and quiet for a moment. Then I left.
And of course he was right. I did find a way: thanks to a timely (and abnormally generous) 500 dollar Christmas gift from grandma, I showed up to the PSB three days later with a stack of redbacks. Of course my passport wasn’t ready then (as they had said it would be), but when I came back the next day and paid the fine, I was able to finally reclaim it. Only one catch. No visa. That 5000 kuai only included the penalty for my expired visa, and not the processing of a new visa- that would be an additional 1000 kuai. Although I have never had one, I have heard that during a colonoscopy a smallish metal rod is inserted into the rectum to a certain point, whereupon the end of the rod opens and smaller rod with a surgical mouth emerges (ala the alien’s mouth in Alien) and bites off a piece of tissue from your colon. The second charge felt sort of like that.
One of the bad things about having bad things happen to you is that once you tell someone, everyone else wants to know about the bad thing, and you wind up reliving the event through your interaction with others. With my friends, I used a series of sodomy jokes to convey the plotline (I should have said I was Shanghai-ed), but with my girlfriend and my family, I had to dissect each step of the story- my growing impatience with the topic seeming more and more like defensiveness in the face of my own failures. My mother sent me an email saying that my father thought that maybe it meant I wanted to come home, and I sent a sharp email back saying that it was, “just bad personal business management coupled with bad luck.”
In some ways my mistake was understandable. Things weren’t always this strict for expats. A couple of years ago I probably could have weaseled my way out without a fine. But we are in post-Olympics China, and blind adoration of westerners is passe, at least among the officials at the PSB. If I wasn’t ignorant, then I must have been incompetent. Talking about it has cleansed the wound, but it still irks me whenever I pass the dispatch center which is on the same street as my apartment complex, about 50 meters from the gate.