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May, 2014:

A very small town

As we drove on a side street through a small town near the North Korean border, I shot this video of the houses and people. It’s obvious that this is not a wealthy town.

The Marriage Market

If you visit a certain riverside park in Shenyang on the weekend, you will see an interesting site: the marriage market. I don’t know if that’s the common name for the local people, it’s what my friends in the consulate call it.

This is what you will see when you walk through the park:

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What are the people looking at on the ground? Resumes.

People who come to the market are mostly parents of unmarried adult children who want to get married but for whatever reason can’t find a mate. The parents are sharing their children’s resumers, and are looking at others’ resumes, trying to find a suitable partner for their child. In addition to parents, matchmakers also display their clients’ resumes.

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One resume reads:

Looking for Marriage:

Male, born in 1983, native of Shenyang City, height 1.75 meters, master’s degree, working in city government (official capacity). Seeking female, born after 1986, prefer native of Shenyang City, over 1.62 meters tall, at least bachelor’s degree, stable job (prefer civil service job, teacher would receive preferential consideration). Telephone xxx-xxxx

Another resume for a female:

Female, born in 1980 (brief previous marriage, no children), 1.68 meters tall, working for the city government, stable job, filial to parents, easy to get along with, responsible. Looking for an ambitious man of similar age, worker or businessman. Tel: xxx-xxxx.

I saw some people pick up a resume from the ground, and immediately the owner of that resume engaged the person in a conversation, apparently discussing each other’s client’s qualifications, and exploring the potential for a relationship.

It’s kind of sad that some people are so busy with work that they can’t find a partner on their own, and have to resort to this method. On the other hand, it’s no worse than hanging out at a bar to try to find a life partner. Arranged marriages have a low divorce rate. Who knows, maybe this strategy would yield better results than a person trying to find someone on his or her own.

I also like the idea that parents are helping their kids look for someone. Presumably, parents would have their kids’ best interest at heart, and would honestly want to help them find happiness.

I don’t know if this method results in a romance or love at first sight, but in the long run, maybe those things are less important than a stable, caring relationship between two people, and long-lasting happiness?

An answer to the restaurant hygiene problem

Chinese restaurants, even in Taiwan, are notorious for not cleaning their dishes very well. I suspect that’s why hepatitis was historically endemic in Taiwan. One solution that is in common use here is to outsource the washing of dishes.

Restaurants can contract with a company to supply clean utensils. Trays of utensils are delivered to the restaurant, on demand. The utensils come sealed in shrink wrap. Each package contains a plate, spoon, soup bowl, tea cup and drinking glass.

I’ve eaten in a dozen different restaurants, and used the same company’s utensils.

No hepatitis yet, knock on wood!

Sealed for your protection

Sealed for your protection

Intellectual Property rights are respected here, …

…except when they aren’t.

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Tough guy fail

Sorry, dude. I appreciate the effort to look tough: wife-beater shirt and tattoos on your arm and back.

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But when you sit on a pink stool and hand-paint a ceramic princess in a park, the tough-guy image sort of melts away.
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toughguy

 

Adjudicating Visas

My job at the Consulate is to adjudicate visa applications. When someone wants to come to the U.S., they have to apply for a visa, and come to the consulate for an interview. The current immigration law, which governs foreign visitors to the U.S., requires that every applicant be interviewed by a consular officer before being granted a visa. For this tour, I am a consular officer.

There are (literally) millions of people who apply for visas every year. That means that consular officers have a very heavy case load. It isn’t unusual for an officer to conduct 100 interviews every day. You can do the math: consular officers interview for five hours a day. If we interview non-stop, back-to-back (which, in fact, is how we do it), we have to do 20 interviews every hour, which means we only have three minutes for each interview.

In those three minutes, we have to take the applicant’s fingerprints, review the their application and travel history, determine their purpose of travel, and decide if their situation qualifies them for a visa. At the same time, we have to take notes in the computerized visa system, and keep a record of the interview and the applicant’s information.

Oh, and the interviews are conducted through a security window, and they are conducted in Chinese.

The process is incredibly complicated, and daunting to a new consular officer (like me). The process has to be complete; we can’t skip steps. If we issue  a visa to a person who is on a watch list or who has been excluded from entry to the U.S. because of criminal activity or abuse of a prior visa, we can get in trouble. If we issue a visa to a known terrorist, we can get fired and go to jail.

It would be a lot easier if people always told the truth. Unfortunately, many people lie. Some of my colleagues would go as far as to say that most people lie during the interview. The area that I am posted to has one of the highest concentrations of fraudulent applications in the world. So in addition to using the computer system, following the legally-proscribed interview process, and conducting interviews in a crowded booth in a foreign language, I also have to look for signs of fraud, such as inflated claims of income, fraudulent documents, bogus student status , and made-up employment.

I have been “on the line” for a week now. My supervisor is easing me into the job, having me work in two-hour shifts. I’m getting faster, but I am still averaging six minutes per interview, far slower than the goal of three minutes. My coworkers are understanding of my situation, though, because they have all been in my position, and they are supportive. They say that I will get faster as I gain experience and familiarity with the system. I am taking my time, making sure that I am following all the procedures. Quality over quantity.

This job can only be learned by doing it. It’s sort of like learning to swim or to drive. You can only learn to swim by getting in the water. The only way to learn to drive is to get behind the wheel. As the saying goes, “practice makes perfect.” What’s interesting is that as I have been doing the job, it is quickly getting less confusing. I may never be perfect, but the learning curve isn’t as bad as it seemed when I was in training.

 

Where three countries meet

Our trip to the borderland last weekend took us to the end of the line, on the borders separating China, Russia, and North Korea.

This is the general area where we were:

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And here’s a zoomed-in picture:

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As you can see, even Google Maps has difficulty distinguishing the borders. On the ground, though, it was much clearer. Barbed-wire fences clearly marked the borders.

The Tumen River separates China and North Korea. On the Chinese side of the river, a barbed-wire fence keeps refugees from crossing the river.

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On the other side, a Concertina wire fence separates China and Russia.

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At one point, we were driving on a road where we could see the barbed-wire fences on both sides of the road. We were driving along a thin strip of China, between Russia and North Korea.

An old post marks the border that was agreed upon between Russia and China in the 1860s, but it’s on the other side of the fence, so it clearly doesn’t mark the current border.

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A sign along the river reads “Illegal crossing of the border will be met with severe legal prosecution,” in Chinese and Korean.

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From a lookout tower, you can see Russia on the left, China in the middle, and North Korea on the right, across the river. Three countries meet on this little strip of land.

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The bridge across the river is for trains that run between Russia and North Korea.

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We saw a train approaching from the Russian side, moving toward North Korea. We all got excited and though that we would see the train leave Russia and enter North Korea. But then it stopped just before the bridge. We think it got help up in customs and immigration.

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Proof that I was there: that’s North Korea in the background.

In another place along the river, there is a foot bridge connecting China and North Korea. Apparently, the border is in the middle of the bridge. You can walk halfway across the bridge, but not all the way across.

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“National Border”

You have to buy a ticket to go on the bridge. Buy when I went to the ticket office to buy a ticket, the person in the booth (who was wearing a military uniform), sternly told me “Foreigners are not allowed!”

So we had to settle for taking pictures of the bridge instead.

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There is a group of Chinese tourists on the bridge, just at the mid-point. The end of the yellow lamp posts marks the end of the Chinese side of the bridge.

I have had a morbid fascination with North Korea for a many years. After this trip, I think it’s out of my system and I can move on.

As if one foreign language wasn’t enough

Just north of where I am living is the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, an area near North Korea and Russia, where a large number of ethnic Koreans live. Street signs are in Chinese and Korean, and a lot of store signs include Russian as well.

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Can you tell which is the Chinese, which is the Korean, and which is the Russian?

Training in the park

We have monthly training days in the consular section, and once every year we have a big offsite training day. This year’s offsite was held in a city park, on a beautiful late spring day.

The training activities were very good, we did a lot of team-building exercises. I personally enjoyed the opportunity to interact more with our Locally Engaged Staff (LES). We work side-by-side with them in the consulate, but we officers are busy with visa adjudications, which the LES can not do. Although we work closely together, I feel like we are not working together. Preschool teachers talk about “parallel play,” in which children at a young age can play in the same room, but they don’t really interact with each other. That’s how I feel like the officers and LES usually work. It’s too bad, because I really like our LES.

So this training day was a chance for me to get to know the LES a little better. They are all delightful people who have been working in the consulate for years, and know many of the procedures better than the officers. They understand the strange quirks of Americans, and don’t seem to judge us for our odd behavior.

Here’s a quick picture of a training session, led by our colleague Ted. Look at this picture carefully. Notice the bike path behind Ted. That bike path is important; I will refer to that bike path in a little bit.

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As you can see, we were in a grassy place in the park, but we were in full sight of everyone. Many people who were passing by were curious about this group of Americans and Chinese talking together and doing group activities. Some people stopped and watched us for a while before continuing their walks.

One fellow was very, very curious about us. He wandered right in among us, and started to take picture of the Americans. I have seen this before. White faces are still pretty uncommon in this part of China, and the Chinese people are interested in, and curious about, us. They often want to take pictures of us, or even better, have their picture taken with us. I’ve already shot many selfies with Chinese people in the few weeks that I’ve been here.

This guy was not subtle at all. He walked right up to us, pointed his camera in our faces, and snapped his camera.

People who know me know that I tend to respond to obnoxiousness with obnoxiousness of my own. I pulled out my camera and started to take pictures of him, just as obviously as he was taking pictures of us.

He saw me taking his picture, and boldly started photographing me as I was photographing him. We created a photographic Mexican standoff with our cameras:

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Right about then it happened. Before I tell you what “it” is, I have to tell you a few things about bikers in China. Some people like to carry radios in their backpacks when they ride bikes, and play music as they ride. Older men like to sing songs from Chinese opera as they ride. I think they are showing off when they do it, trying to attract attention.

Now picture this: an old man riding a ten-speed bike, singing Chinese opera at the top of his voice. Strange, but not unusual for China. Now picture him riding past a group of Americans, noticing them, and turning to gawk at them. He wants them to notice him, so he sings a little louder, and watches the Americans to see if they notice him. While he is singing and watching, he is also pedaling his bike, but he isn’t looking where he is going.

Crash! The singing suddenly stops.

The old man, not looking where he was going, crashed his bike into another old man’s bike. That other old man that he collided with also wasn’t looking where he was going, because, hey look, there’s a group of Americans over there!

We caused a traffic accident, just for being white.

It was the best training day ever.

First China haircut

Many people who have lived abroad would agree that getting one’s hair cut is a bother. My experience in Asia has been mixed. White people’s hair is finer than Asian hair, and many barbers and stylists in China don’t have experience dealing with it.

On the recommendation of a couple of coworkers, I went to this place today. It’s near the Consulate, so I went right after work. This is what it looks like:

20140529-191433-69273377.jpgThe last time I got a hair cut in East Lansing, I took pictures. I showed the stylist the pictures, and told her that I wanted it done like that.

The stylist was a very young lady. She looked like she could be in junior high school. She was a little hesitant to engage me in conversation, I think she wasn’t sure that I spoke Chinese, even after I purposely talked to her a lot, and tried cracking jokes. Maybe she was intimidated by a handsome egotistical foreigner, maybe she was trying not to laugh at a strange middle-aged foreign man.

She seemed to know what she was doing with the scissors, though, and she cut my hair with confidence, all the while keeping up a running conversation with the lady customer in the chair next to mine in rapid-fire local dialect, which I understand about 15% of.

This is what I wound up with. Not 100% like the pictures from East Lansing, but at least I don’t look ridiculous. For a bald man, “not ridiculous” is a pretty good haircut result.

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Total cost: ¥15, about US$2.50. Win.