118. Easing into China

Easing Into China: We had a fortunate snafu in trying to get our visas for China, fortunate because it really shocked the lazy out of us. Seven days before Amy and I were set to embark from Ireland for Hong Kong, we breezed into the Chinese Embassy in Dublin, scratched some answers into the necessary paperwork and slid it across the counter of a stern Chinese bureaucrat seated behind a thick glass window. Frowning, frantic page flipping and head shaking ensued, all of which conveyed that he was unimpressed with our make-it-up-as-you-go travel style. He wanted a detailed itinerary. He wanted proof of onward plane tickets. He did not want to have conversations like this, in which he was scandalized by my every answer:

Him: Why apply in Ireland? Why not apply for visa in United States?
Me: Because we’ve been traveling for seven months.
Him: Seven months?!
Me: That’s right.
Him: Where were you before Ireland?
Me: India.
Him: India?!
Me: I visited India twice.
Him: Twice?!

And so on. Nothing in our recent history made him comfortable, so he took five minutes to read every stamp in my passport aloud, speaking with a level of confusion and creeping dread normally reserved for unfortunate medical test results. Philippines…immigration. Cambodian…departure. Malaysian…tumor. And he slid the paperwork back across the counter with an icy stare that made us feel unwelcome for the first time in a very long time, standing as we were on this tiny patch of Chinese soil in the warm heart of summer Ireland. The truth is that we’d done what we vowed never to when we started this trip – take for granted our privileged status as travelers from a wealthy Western superpower. We were lazy, naïve, a little arrogant and woefully unprepared for the rigorous suspicion of China.

A week of hand wringing and self-flagellation later, we were in Hong Kong, which still thankfully requires no visa for most Western visitors. As it is slowly absorbed into the heaving mainland of China, this will surely change, but for now the winds in this city blow in our favor. It turns out that Hong Kong is the easiest place in the world to get a Chinese visa, so one short visit to a reputable travel agent and we had our permits in hand less than 24 hours later; though it turns out that the government now charges double price for US citizens, and only for US citizens, visiting China. Reciprocity. Tip your hat to the Department of Homeland Security.

Happy to have the formalities behind us anyway, we had plenty of time left to wander the steep lanes and broad, glitzy boulevards of Hong Kong, a blissfully easy city for the English-speaker to comprehend. Thank you very much Your Majesty. Still it is very much a Chinese metropolis – pure electricity, charged with emotion, running on that unshakable sense of coal-fired superiority, working 24-hours a day, and bigger in scale than most places on the planet. Hong Kong is a colorful mass of density that leaves me feeling like there’s no way to stop China, even if I wanted to. And why would I want to? That unstoppable quality that is nationalistic fever is what draws me to this place, what defines so much of its interest, as much as its dreamlike landscapes and antiquated wonders. It’s also what accounts for the stomach-flutter of intimidation I felt as we walked across the border from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, shuffling along a slow, silent line under the harsh judgment of a dim screen that displayed the only English word visible in the entire arrival hall: FOREIGNER. The routine of the immigration checkpoint has never made me feel so small and so eager to dispense with it. Nor will it, I imagine, ever again.


  1. Anonymous says:

    i’m not comfortable with china.


  2. Cate says:

    Hey Amy! It’s Cate, the girl from Cork City, we went to the Blarney Stone together. I finally sorted through my paperwork that I dumped in a pile on my desk after unpacking my backpack and found your playing card with the website. Glad you’ve made it to China! Let me know if you want any advice on great places in Shanghai… the best hostel I’ve ever been to is in Beijing (it’s called Templeside) and you’ve got to go to Simitai to see the Great Wall, and I know some great restaurants and resources in Shanghai. I hope your trip is going as fabulously as it was when I met you! I’m glad you and your boyfriend are back traveling together. When I get a chance, I’ll read more of your entries. Give me a call if you’re ever in DC and we can down another bottle of wine over dinner while you show me your pictures. In the meantime, my email is catemeg@gmail.com and I hope you enjoy every moment of this great trip!

  3. J£€ says:

    Every time I read these blogs, I become so envious. It’s like an addiction gone sour–addicted to reading, humbled by what others can do and I never will.

    I admire your courage.