Part the First – Proposal
There comes a time in every young intern’s life when they make that first big step up. It was a nondescript October day when the carrot was first dangled in front of my eyes: the General Manager was offering me a Work Visa, the legendary holy grail of an intern’s China career. It glistened like Excalibur, golden and empowering. I could see it in my mind’s eye, almost taste it. The prospect was tantalising.
“We would like you to obtain the visa by November,” said she. “There are many tasks for you to complete, young intern, and the path will not be easy. Once you have completed the gauntlet, then—and only then—will you have proven your worth and earned the laurel known by the name ‘Work Permit for Foreigners.’” The weight of the feats I must perform lay heavily on my shoulders, already crooked from hauling around a laptop for months. What was one small folder full of important documents gathered for the purpose of ensuring the legality of my employment added to that? Little did I know then that this epic was only in its preliminary verses.
Part the Second – An Enemy Arises
Thus began my arduous travail. I spent weeks enthralled by the enormity of it, researching for each task piecemeal. The tales rarely mention the preparation that is undertaken by the hero before he sets out on his life-altering quest. Mostly because it’s fairly boring. At that time, this hero was also occupied with the task of supervising a replacement employee, planning lessons, and resisting the urge to strangle a hopeless class of final-year university students. It was not an easy run, but I came out of it alive at the end of the month, whence emerged my truest and vilest enemy: the HR Department.
They come to you in the guise of fair maidens, offering assistance and advice, but before you know it they’ve stranded you for dead, and you’re left reaching a quivering hand after their quickly retreating troll-shaped backsides. Perhaps that is unkind. They don’t actually look like trolls.
They had yet to reveal themselves as antagonists when they dispatched their informative decree which detailed what documents were necessary for the procurement of the Work Visa. It looked achingly familiar, and then it dawned upon this gentle young intern that it was an exact copy of the Visa regulation breakdown I had delivered to HR that very morning. When I handed that printed sheet to the solemn-faced troll, he had nodded as I explained what it was and retorted, “Yes, but why are you giving me this?” That should have been a vermillion flag upon a cloudless grassland sky indicating the 麻烦 mafan I was about to encounter.
Part the Third – Barter
We entered into a slow and painful dance, HR and I. I had been lulled into a false sense of financial security when my business trip visa expenses had been promptly and fully reimbursed in August. It seemed to me a simple matter of explaining costs that would be incurred on this quest and receiving a promise of repayment. Not so. As previously mentioned, this lowly intern had done her research, not a task to be sneezed at, mind you. When regulations had only just been revised a few months ago in a country where chaos rules as order snivels at its feet, information was seriously hard to come by. Knowledge garnered so painstakingly is not to be scoffed at, yet such was the reaction of the HR Department.
I had just returned from a stressful yet successful foray into the realm of the American Embassy. To obtain the mystical Work Visa, one’s passport must be willing and able to receive it; mine was running dangerously short on pages. My encounter with the Embassy’s Chinese employees was marginally less than favourable; however, the place’s greatest offense was architectural. I pity the bewildered American expats and hopeful Chinese emigrants who visit that place in the winter, as security kept all people outside on a bench before allowing them through the metal detectors and into the main building.
Upon my return to the company, despite being the proud owner of a pleasantly plump-ified passport, I was stressed about the greatest of all tasks in the gauntlet: the securement of a criminal record background check. I had yet to initiate this process, despite having been told to do so several weeks prior. The time to begin was now. I sat at my desk and rapidly devised a plan of attack. It was straightforward, really. America has a no-nonsense approach to paperwork that I have yet to discover in the other countries I have inhabited. Yet the process got complicated and expensive once international shipping of documents was factored in. After finalising my strategy, I entered Their lair.
As expense after expense was laid before their eyes, the trolls grew restless. The exchange was priceless:
“You see Annie, these expenses are quite high. Why haven’t you considered getting it done in the UK where you went to school instead of getting this FBI check?” the kindly head-troll crooned.
“Well,”I retorted, “The cost is actually exactly the same to have it done in the UK. How do I know that? Gosh, I think it might be because I actually researched it. During office hours. When I was supposed to have been working. Never mind that this is your job. Not to mention the UK has an extra requirement that I provide two proofs of address for my most recent UK address, which I simply do not have. How did I know that? RESEARCHED IT.”
The exchange was brought to a conclusion, and I exited their domain feeling victorious. Shortly after, however, I was brought back down to earth. The phrases “direct expense” and “accompanying documents” were mentioned, in the context of “Finance will only reimburse direct expenses, and not those incurred obtaining accompanying documents.” To quote a pair of ‘90s heroes no less great than Odysseus or the Fellowship: “That’s totally bogus, dude!”
Further progress on this task was halted as the head of my Department attempted negotiation with the General Manager for better expense coverage for foreign staff. It was a fruitless sortie, but one good thing came of the whole malarkey: when I bleakly reminded HR that the costs they were refusing to cover totalled a month’s worth of my salary, I found out exactly how much of a raise I would be getting when the fabled Work Visa was cradled in my hands.
Part the Fourth – Fingerprint Sifu
In every dark cloud there is a silver lining or two, and in this epic tale that silver lining manifested itself in the form of a man called Ding Shunzhi. Mr Ding is a fingerprint technician at the Qiushi Judicial Identification Office in Chengdu. He is a god amongst men, and a master in the art of fingerprinting… a perfectionist whose gentle words coax rather than rebuke. His expertise is tangible, and all who watch him work quickly fall into respectful, awe-filled silence.
After the final showdown with HR, I could no longer delay the process. In order to get my FBI criminal history summary check, I had to get fingerprinted by an official legal agency, and send these off to another agency in Chicago, who would then send them off to the FBI. As I said, it was simple, except for all the travelling.
At the start of this week–over a full month since the journey for Work Visa began–my colleague’s chest infection worsened, and it became necessary to take her to the hospital. When this had been done, I struck the iron while it was hot, and used my afternoon off to obtain my fingerprint cards.
Alighting from the lift into the dingy old office of Qiushi Judicial Identification Office (I promise its name is less bulky in Chinese), I was immediately swept away into the Fingerprinting Room. I had called ahead, and they had been expecting me. At once I was struck with the appreciation that comes when people know how to do their effing job, and do it well. Mr Ding coached me in the proper movements for rolling my fingertips across the ink and then the paper, and softly chastised when I lifted my finger too quickly. He methodically blew dry my fingertips each time I had to wash the ink off for the next set; the brightly coloured hair dryer he used looked odd, yet not quite out-of-place.
When I had finished he allowed me to slowly fill out the information on the top of each card, despite the fact that office hours were ending.
“Take your time to fill it out, child. If you rush and make a mistake, we will have to do it all over again!”
After 20 rolls, 8 presses, and 4 trips down the cigarette-smoke-filled hallway to the toilet to wash my hands, your valiant hero wasn’t interested in a do-over.
When all was finished, the icing on the cake was an adorable blue bag with the Office’s logo on it to take my freshly-sealed prints home in. All heroes like booty.
Part the Fifth – Lost in Translation
This book ends with a reminder that HR had not yet given up its fight. At the outset of this quest, I had immediately provided my original diplomas and a CV to HR. These needed to be translated into Chinese before they were submitted with my final application for the illustrious Work Visa. On Monday, the solemn-faced troll had approached me to deliver some unwelcome news: I was being asked to translate everything myself.
“No one has been available to tackle this task, small intern. And as you know, my English is not very good.”
But the head of my department would not allow it.
“We are short-staffed while they are not! It is their job, not yours!” he cried.
I mustered my courage and shouldered my lance.
“I am unfortunately too busy to do this for you!” I hurriedly declared.
“That’s alright, little intern,” soothed the kindly troll. “We’ll find someone else to do it.”
Yet several days later, the solemn-faced troll asked me: “How about your translated CV?”
I wished to reply: “How about you go f**** yourself?” but did not (heroes never deign to utter such tactless words) instead politely reminding him that his boss, the kindly troll, had given me reprieve.
Thus Endeth Book One. To be continued…