A clever way to protest

Every so often I see currency that has anti-government writing on it. In an environment where speech is not free, and where expressing anti-government opinions is illegal, using a country’s legal tender as a means of spreading anti-government messages is clever. 

I just got this one today. The text is printed right on the bill:

On the left is written: “The Chinese Communist Party is not China. Patriotism isn’t love for the Party.”

On the right is written: “Communism is an evil spirit from the west. It sold my country’s land and harms my country’s populace. Everyone quickly wake up, quit the party and save your life.”

I was a visa officer

For the past two years plus two weeks, my job was to interview people who wanted a visa to go to the United States. I interviewed over 27,000 people. To be exact, I adjudicated 27,377 cases. I said “yes” 18,936 times, and “no” 8,441 times. Every interview was different, of course, but there have been some specific categories of applicants.

Talking with some kinds of people was very pleasant. I really enjoyed issuing visas to these people:

  • Parents who were going to America to see their child graduate from University. Especially if the parents were farmers, and their child was getting a PhD from an Ivy League university. Every time that happened, I said to myself: that’s the American dream.
  • Gay couples who are going to America to get married, even though they knew that their marriage would not be recognized by their own government when they returned, but who wanted the chance to express their love and commitment to each other, in a country that had a legal mechanism for them to do that. I especially remember the lesbian couple who were going to the US to try to conceive via in vitro fertilization. I really hope that they succeed.
  • Children who wanted to experience the wonder of Disneyland, and their parents who wanted the same thing. I always smiled when the parents say that their kid has always wanted to see Mickey Mouse, and the kid is 9 months old. You aren’t fooling me, dude, it’s you who wants to wear the mouse ears!
  • Newlyweds who wanted to honeymoon in Hawaii, because they think it’s the most romantic place on earth. Hard to argue with them.
  • The woman traveling to the U.S. with her “boyfriend” for two weeks. She was 75 years old, he was 80. They were holding hands like teenagers. Very cute.

There have also been some unpleasant interviews.

  • The student who is going to a very expensive university, barely making passing grades, wasting a lot of his parents’ money, without seeming to care.
  • Family members going to make final arrangements for a relative who recently died while in America. That happened too often for me.
  • The person who wanted to go see a family member in America, who, because he committed a crime on his last trip, is now permanently ineligible for a U.S. visa.
  • Parents who believe that they are going to see their child in America, unaware that their child has flunked out of college, is in America illegally, and is doing who knows what.
  • The applicant with a stack of documents showing evidence of their job, house, bank statements, documents that were all clearly fake.

I think that I was able to help people, in different ways.

  • A person was was applying for a visa for the second time. Reading the case notes from the first interview, it was clear that the applicant was qualified for a visa, but for some reason, he just choked on the interview the first time around. The visa interview is a high-pressure situation for the applicants. Maybe he was calmer this time around, and maybe I was able to help him communicate his situation.
  • I refused a woman who was clearly unqualified for a visa, and who I suspected was planning to engage in illegal activities like prostitution in the U.S. By refusing her visa, maybe I kept her out of an American jail.
  • A man going to the U.S. on business, clearly a successful young businessman, whose mother happened to be living in the U.S. Is he planning to visit her? I asked. Probably not, was the answer. His parents divorced when he was a kid, his mom remarried and emigrated to the U.S. He hasn’t had any contact with her ever since. After issuing his visa, I mentioned that regardless of the past, a mother would probably be thrilled to hear from her son after so many years, and encouraged him to look her up when he was in the U.S. Maybe he did.
  • The young couple, clearly very poor, whose 9-month-old child has a rare form of eye cancer that can’t be treated in China. They said that they got a lot of donations to help them pay for the treatment, and I chose to believe them.

And of course there were cases that I just couldn’t figure out.

  • Like the couple who were applying together. She was married to his boss. They claimed that he was going with her to “help” her on vacation, as part of his job. Yeah, right. My guess is that they were having an affair, and were sneaking off to Las Vegas for a hot weekend of illicit nooky. After I asked for a work contract from his boss, to prove that he was really going for work, I never heard from them again. What a surprise.
  • Or the divorced couple who claimed that they wanted to get back together, and were using a stressful international trip to a country where they don’t speak the language, to rekindle the romance. Good luck with that.
  • And the young man who was dismissed from college because he had mental health problems. He wanted to go to the U.S. to talk with the school and ask them to re-admit him. Did he have an appointment with the school officials? No, and in fact, the school asked him to contact them via Skype. But he thought that it would be “better” for him to show up unannounced in person. That would not have ended well.

My “tour” is now over, and I am moving on to my next assignment. I am sure that I will never forget this tour. The last two years were educational and rewarding. I worked with some excellent people. It’s probably too much to hope that my next tour will be as memorable as this one. So I will cherish the memories of this experience. I have been very lucky. Good-bye, China, and thanks for an eventful two years. It’s been a strange experience. I’m sure that I will see you again some time.

Onward and upward.

The kidney bean saga

A lot of the funny things that happen to me are my own fault. One good example is the catastrophe of the kidney beans. I’ve been wanting to tell this story for a while, but only recently my friend TM put the icing on the cake for me.

This post is a “consumables post.” That means that the State Department has determined that a significant amount of food items that an average American might want to buy are not available on the local market. In order to keep us supplied with peanut butter, cake mix, canned soup, and the like, we are allowed to ship in a certain amount of consumable items. We pay for the items, but we don’t have to pay for shipping, and restrictions on liquid items don’t apply. It’s a nice benefit, and helps to compensate for living at a “hardship post” like Shenyang.

Soon after I arrived a post, I did a survey of things that are available locally (katsup, salt, flour, Snickers) and things that aren’t (granola bars, corn tortillas, breakfast cereal), or that are really expensive (wine, coffee), and prepared my order. There is a military warehouse in Europe that we can use for consumables orders. It’s really convenient: there is a spreadsheet that has thousands of items on it, you tick the box next to the items you want, give them your credit card number, and you get your goodies in a few weeks. Super easy.

Among the items in my order were liquor, pasta, canned tomatoes, garbanzo beans (for hummus), black beans, salsa, and kidney beans. It was the last item that was the mistake.

I thought that I was ordering two flats (24 cans) of canned kidney beans. You know, for making chili and the like. Who doesn’t need kidney beans?

The spreadsheet from the warehouse is formatted in a really small font, hard to read. Plus, the lines are very close together. Plus, I need new glasses. Plus, I’m a careless idiot.

I thought that I ticked the box next to the line for canned kidney beans. Instead, though, I ticked the box next to the line for dry kidney beans. Instead of 24 cans of kidney beans, I bought 24 pounds of dry kidney beans.

24 pounds of dry beans is a lot of beans. It’s approximately a lifetime supply of beans.

I am definitely not out of beans

Over the last two years, I have made a lot of chili. Thanks to all my coworkers for coming over and helping me eat chili. And thanks to the Consulate for putting on the chili cook-off. My “generous” contribution of the beans helped me get rid of about half of my beans. I got rid of many bags by giving them away. I only have three pounds left.

The story was a good cautionary tale for my coworkers when they were planning their consumables orders. Be sure you look at that spreadsheet carefully, I’d helpfully warn people. Also, if you need kidney beans, I’m your guy, I’d hopefully offer.

A few weeks ago, my friend TM was telling me about buying something from Amazon. When her order came in, she realized that she accidentally ordered the wrong thing. She told me: “I kidney beaned my order!”

I have contributed to the creation of a new family word. I’m famous. And an idiot.

Regardless of whether I agree with the message,…

…I can’t help wondering what the public outcry would be like in my home town in America, if a police car was parked on a corner, broadcasting that a religious practice is a scam, and encouraging people not to be taken in.

Because that is what this car is doing. The message is that face reading, fortune telling and numerology is a scam. This is on the street next to one of the largest temples in Beijing. And this is a police vehicle, meaning that the message is being delivered at the behest of the government.

As someone who has a complicated relationship with religion, I have mixed feelings about the government broadcasting anti-religion messages. On the one hand, I tend to agree with the message. That the government is telling people not to be swindled out of money seems like a good public service. On the other hand, it seems like this action on the part of the government is pretty obnoxious. If someone wants to be religious, and gets emotional satisfaction from religious expression, it’s not nice to get in their face and tell them that they’re being played for a fool.

Maybe I’m overreacting. The actual practices that the bullhorn is calling out are probably manipulative and deceitful. The claim that you can change your lot in life by changing your name seems unsupportable. So maybe an “emperor has no clothes” message is a public service.

By the same token, you could make  similar accusations about the cosmetics and fashion industries. And the government doesn’t broadcast that makeup and fancy clothes are a scam. It seems to me that the Chinese government has chosen to target religion and ignore other activities that could be labeled “scams.”