I arrived in Shanghai, China around 5:30 PM after traveling for fourteen hours across fourteen time zones. As the China Eastern airlines plane approached the airport, I could do nothing to hold back my smile. My flight was at least three-fourths Chinese with few Westerners. I wondered what the other passengers thought of this American, who sat with a steady smirk to ear to ear smile while looking at nothing in particular. I wondered what customs and immigration would be like. I wondered where the hell I would stay that night. I wondered what the city would look like, sound like, smell like. I wondered…
As I deplaned, I waved goodbye to Irichi and his wife, who returned my smile with two sets of beaming teeth. I shuffled behind the mass of passengers in front of me as we made our way down a corridor. The first thing I noticed was the architecture; the outside slanted like a parallelogram with a glass façade all around, natural light illuminating the hall. Steel beams jutted out from concrete pillars at sharp, precise angles up to the ceiling, providing a structural stability and a striking aesthetic. As some passengers angled to the right to different departure gates for connecting flights, I headed left through a door marked “Arrivals” and into a neat, spotless, brightly lit area that gave me a sense of restraint and order, if not strict formality. I made my way towards and under an electronic sign. “Foreigners”. It struck me that this was the first time in my life that I was the foreigner. I was the different one. I was in someone else’s world. I double checked to be sure I had all of my things, including an immigration arrival card that was given to me just before landing, which I filled out to include basic information about myself and my intended stay in China. It occurred to me that I hadn’t done any visa research about entering the country and had just assumed I would have no problems. As I approached the immigration queue and noticed the stern faced security officials, I wondered if I had made a big mistake. No matter, I made way into the winding line and took in my surroundings.
There was a quiet in the hall, with the only sounds being curt orders, “Next and this way”, along with the hushed conversations of the security authorities and passengers being processed. No small talk, no chatting, and very few facial expressions. It was an austere process that evoked a sense of duty over anything else, symbolic of China’s image of collectivism. The tall nail gets the hammer, indeed.
When it was finally my turn, I approached the official, who was seated slightly above me at a desk encapsulated in glass. It was more like a judge’s bench than a routine administrative cubby. This little detail created a clear authority-subject relationship and commanded respect. I do not think this was unintentional. I handed over my passport and arrival card.
“Hello. How are you today?” I asked with a smile.
“Where you come from?” The female official with jet black, straight, shoulder length hair and unremarkable circular-rimmed glasses replied.
“Where is transfer ticket?”
“They did not give me one. They said I needed to get new ticket when I checked in tomorrow.”
She returned my answers with a slight scowl and motioned to a larger desk located centrally behind all of the other officials. The presumptive supervisor walked over and the two women conversed in Mandarin. The new women asked me to follow her and led me to the larger, central desk.
I stood as she walked back behind the glass to her desk and began using her computer. I smiled to myself, laughing at the circumstances. What else could I do? I was being detained by Chinese immigration officials. I could now check that off the “Things I never imagined I would experience” bucket list. I knew I had done nothing wrong, morally, though I wasn’t sure about Chinese law. The worst thing that could happen, I figured, was that I would be detained for the evening or even night. Given my flight wasn’t until the next day, that didn’t concern me all too much. They apparently didn’t want to let me into the country so easily, so I was willing to bet they would be glad to have me leave the country. So I waited and dug the scene. The women typed away at her computer for several minutes, then picked up her phone and talked for several more minutes, never glancing my way. After hanging up, she motioned me over. She unceremoniously stamped my passport, jotted down some notes on it, and then slid it through a tiny window in the glass.
“You go to Bangkok tomorrow! You leave China tomorrow, understand?” She pointed her index finger for emphasis as she scolded me.
“Yes, ma’am. I don’t want to stay in China anyways. I am definitely going to Bangkok tomorrow. Thank you very much for taking care of all of this for me. I appreciate it.” I responded with a smirk and turned to walk away, looking over the first stamp in my passport, the Republic of China. I had been issued a one day visa. I did take notice she skipped my first blank page, not missing a chance to strike for her country in the surreptitious conflict with America. Given my remarks to her, I thought it was only fair. I felt triumphant, and relieved, as I made my way down to the baggage claim. Final score: Jameson: 2, China: 1.