Saturday, September 27, 2008
I go with 'Honey' to the visa office in Pudong to get my work visa. Pudong is the super new part of China, across the Huangpu river from the Bund, and antiseptic and uptight just like Century City in Los Angeles. In fact the main drag is called Century Ave.
It's gonna be a long wait: when we enter, they are on #156, our number is #253. It's 10:10am. We're timing it so that Eric is getting the Foreign Expert Certificate required for the work visa in Xu Jia Hui while we get in line in Pudong and wait for him to arrive. Ideally, the plan will not waste too much of anyone's day. Last time, Honey spent the whole day acquiring the work visa for another teacher: getting the Expert Certificate herself and then traveling across town and waiting 4 hours in Pudong.
'Honey' is a worker in the Headmaster's Office of Lida. She handles the official paperwork of foreign teachers at the school. Her name is Hua, which means flower, and her voice is sweet as nectar--the sound you would expect coming from those lovely ruby-lipped, eyebrow drawn, creamy skinned women from Old Shanghai, now iconized on coasters, posters and cards. I ask if i can call her 'Honey' because her voice and person are so pure and sweet; she declines with a subtle tilting down of her head and silence. She has an old-fashioned and diplomatic sincerity, but also a steadfast decency to tell the truth. She is patient with the bureaucracy her work is so mired in, but is able to speak up about its inconsistencies, in the most paced and dulcet of tones.
We leave Lida at 8:30 am for our trek across town. On our way over to Pudong, I notice Hua's feet girlishly tapping up and down. She has happy feet, I tell her. She smiles. She is happy not to be in the office pushing paper, to have a breather on this beautiful day out and about.
During our long wait, I ask her about billing in China. She tells me she has a friend who rents an apartment in the city, and has to pay electricity and water bills, and that by the end of the month, he has no money to save. I need to pull focus about my idealism about socialism: But I thought that the state takes care of all the bills. If you work in a school or a factory, she tells me, those things are taken care of for you--though you still have to pay a little bit of rent. Since the wages are low, the cost is adjusted according to your wage. If you want to move ahead, like most people in Shanghai do, you work for private companies and your wages increase many times over, but you have to rent your own apartment and pay bills. Doesn't the government own the apartments? The new ones are all privately owned. So the rents are high? And so one wants to rent, everyone wants to buy. So like that one over there--she points to one of the skyscraping apartment buildings out the window of the visa office--one apartment unit will cost 3 million RMB. It's expensive around Renmin Square too. Freedom is expensive, she says. Freedom is not free, I tell her in English. She nods.
We get a call from Eric. The person who said that the Expert Certificate would be ready in the morning is not there. Hua says that's impossible, she checked twice, talked to the person twice and he said it would be ready this morning. It's because of this one Expert Certificate that the processing of the work visa has been held up for 8 days. Eric says that there will be someone there at 1:45pm. It's 11 am now, and they are already in the 200s. The numbers are being called swiftly. At this point, we go and get a new number every half hour.
What about for hospital? The last time I was in China and I was diagnosed with 'wind in the head.' I paid 10 fen (cents) to see a doctor. Granted it was in a room with three doctors and three desks, diagnosing through the socratic method, and then prescribing a concoction that tasted like the stew of someone's old and sweaty shoe, but lo and behold, my 'wind in the head' ceased (the literal kind at least). Hua tells me, you have to pay. We get 4-5 % deducted from our wage to have a health card that can get us in to see a doctor for small things. But if your case is severe, you have to pay.
And is this mainly a cash society? People put their money in banks and even invest in stocks. They take out loans to buy apartments, but they must have enough to put 40% down. There is huge pressure on the young Shanghainese to buy apartments and so the competition is intense. I think Shanghai might be as expensive as the U.S. Do your retired parents own their apartment? They were given housing from their work unit. That was from a time before. They are able to buy their housing for very cheap, something they can afford on their pension. I tell Hua that they should be given a break, having gone through the Cultural Revolution and all. She nods.
I have to adjust my own idealism. I come into this society, immune to its language and propaganda because I cannot read it and my vocabulary is limited. I see, sitting here in Pudong, that the surface of progress is well tended, but the innards are still heavily socialist. I continue with Hua. But I thought this was socialism, that it would take care of its citizens. Hua tells me that, for instance, for the victims of the Szechuan earthquake, there will be financial compensation and new housing will be built for them. For these big national tragedies, the government must come through. And what about the milk situation? If it were that widespread, wouldn't the numbers be more than 53,000? Did the government adjust the numbers? That only happened in one of the cities near Beijing. That's why the number is so low. But still, the Sanlu brand can no longer exist. And the woman at the top, in charge of the Sanlu brand had to be removed.
We've taken two poker handfuls of numbers. We make friends, giving our unusable numbers to those who have numbers way behind ours. (In Los Angeles, at the Chinese consulate that day before I left for Shanghai, a sailor leaving port in 2 hours gave an old Chinese lady US$100 for her number; at first skeptical and not understanding, she made the deal, much to her big grin.) One of our new numbers friends suggests that someone can make money from hanging around the visa office and selling off the numbers about to be called. Yeah, except for the Ah-yi at the ticket counter, policing the number of times your drawing a new card. We give him our #382 and he gives us appreciative kowtow hands (when you put hand on top of fist and knock up and down, the way you worship at a buddhist shrine with incense).
So if the newspapers are censored, I wonder to Hua, do many people still read it? Yes, she says and nods, it is good for basic information, for what is happening locally, to keep up to date. If you don't read the newspaper, then you don't know what people are talking about, and then people will think you are 'stupid.' She says 'stupid' in English.
Eric arrives at 2:45pm when #403 is just being called. We tried to trade our number for one around #410, but all were after our #431. He explains that at 1:45pm, the man still hadn't processed any of the Foreign Expert Certificates. The crowd of 15 had a shouting match with him, and he was cowed into basically putting a photo on a piece of paper and stamping an official seal on it. 30 seconds worth of work. Hua says that we are at the bureaucrats mercy, as if they have all the time in the world to talk on the phone and avoid the work, and they make 100,000RMB a year. One small detail missing and they send you off to return again and wait. If we say anything, they might give us even further problems. I tell her that that kind of bureaucratic behavior happens in whatever system you are in. And she says that this guy, the one the crowd had to shout down is particularly grotesque because he will move faster if you are a pretty girl. He looks at Eric and it won't get done. Besides, we have no connections with that office because Lida is a private school. If we were a government school, we would have gotten the certificate much sooner.
Hua and I move towards the windows when #429 is called, ready to charge the moment #431 will flash on the screen . I see that the Chinese news is showing clips of Obama and McCain debating in Mississippi. Ha, the impetuous and senile McCain is debating after all. We are called. It takes 2 minutes to do process the papers. It is 3:45. We are free to tour Pudong.
Had we been efficient and Hua's plan had worked out, she would have had to go back to Lida to finish her shift until 4pm. But because of the bureaucratic delay, I am able to take both Hua and Eric for a meal at the super new, super wide, super shiny Super Brand Mall, where we have a meal at the Old Shanghai restaurant. The food is 'not bad' according to Eric and Hua, both native Shanghainese. There were so many choices, but we opted for the local flavor (that was 10 times what we'd pay in Songjiang) and was extremely tasty, and fresh and not salty. (Still a bargain compared to U.S. prices). When we wait, it is socialist slow. When we consume, it is capitalist quick.
Here I am with Hua, my 'visa.'