Enterprising New Yorkers help ease Chinese visa woes

Had a problem getting a Chinese tourist visa in New York City? Apparently you’re not alone. Travelers around the web have reported consistent frustration with the Big Apple’s PRC Consulate, with issues ranging from rude employees, to inconsistent approval policies, to prolonged waits.

Travel visa bureaucracy may be nothing new, but the city’s entrepreneurial reaction to it has been intriguing. As NPR reports, some enterprising New Yorkers have managed to create a surprisingly successful business, operated out of a mobile van, to help travelers deal with the hassle.

Adam Humphreys and Steven Nelson, owners of Lucky Dragon Mobile Visa Consultants, have become a beacon of hope for travelers turned away by the consulate’s downright baffling policies. For a flat rate of just $20, they’ve set up a mobile van that operates across the street from the consulate, offering printers, helpful advice, updated application forms and fluent Mandarin speakers to assist with travelers problems. According to the report, the business has been wildly successful – the pair are reportedly clearing upwards of $500 a day.

Have you experienced problems getting a Chinese visa? How did you handle it? Leave us a note in the comments.

[Flickr photo by Zach Klein]

Knocked up abroad: applying for a baby’s passport

baby passportAs my new baby girl was born in a foreign country, getting a passport was a necessity for her to even return home to America. Though Vera was born in Turkey, she’s an American citizen by virtue of her parents’ citizenship and entitled to a US passport. For Americans born outside the country, the US consulate issues a Report of Birth Abroad that acts as an official birth certificate and proof of US citizenship. After a trip to the US to visit family and a vacation in Malta, Vera’s been in three countries before she reached three months of age and is rapidly racking up passport stamps.

As soon as we brought the baby home from the hospital, the first order of business on the road to getting her baby passport was getting her Turkish birth certificate. While not required by the US consulate, it is necessary in order to get her residence permit, required for anyone staying longer in Turkey than the 90-day tourist visa. I learned that I could obtain this at my local registry office with a letter stating that I had given birth at the American Hospital (this is provided in both Turkish and English by the hospital). I set out with my one-week old baby in her stroller, sleeping peacefully, assuming that the office would be a short walk from our apartment given the local address. An hour later, I had walked as far as one of Istanbul’s busy highways, dripping sweat, in tears, and definitely lost. Google Maps is generally a useful tool for many city addresses, but for some parts of Istanbul, you may as well be mapping a jungle. I enlisted the help of some Turkish friends who found a satellite image of the office online and emailed it to me. In true Turkish fashion, the registry office is actually two streets away from the mailing address and no one in the area can give you an exact street number when you are frantically seeking directions.When we finally got to the registry office, I took a number, left my stroller downstairs (in Turkey, you can trust that no one will steal it, but I did take the baby out first) and went in search of the counter for birth certificates. Naturally, Vera chose the moment I was filling out a form to launch into her first meltdown. As I struggled to write down my contact information and covertly feed her, I was ushered behind the counter and installed at a random guy’s desk, with an old Turkish lady practically forcing me to sit down and nurse the baby. Once the baby was content, I returned to the birth certificate lady but was met with a new obstacle in the form of a major language barrier. Fortunately, another man waiting at the registry office was able to translate for me – I would need to come back with all of our passports, residence permits, and marriage certificate from the US. The next day I returned armed with every possible bit of documentation and while every woman in the office gathered around Vera, exclaiming over her cuteness and wondering why the crazy foreigner was taking her baby out in public so early, I provided information for the birth certificate. I needed more translation help, as you are asked questions about your education level and religion (Islam is the default in Turkey, so many non-religious Turks are still considered Muslim even if they are non-practicing), which I couldn’t answer in Turkish but there is generally always someone around who can speak English. A few more rubber stamps and Maşallahs and I had her birth certificate.

Next step was a passport photo, a seemingly easy task that is particularly challenging the younger the baby you have. The US State Department requires that the baby look at the camera with eyes open, and that the photo be taken with a white background and nothing in the photo such as your hand or a baby seat. Newborns tend to sleep a lot and their vision is quite hazy, so getting them to be alert and somewhat focused on something is easier said than done. While some parents might opt to take the photo themselves, I decided to go to a professional rather than try to mess with the correct measurements and angles myself. One afternoon when Vera was barely two weeks old, I waited until she seemed awake and took her down the street in her carrier. The five-minute walk immediately put her back to sleep, so the photographer and I tried everything we could think of to wake her and get her attention. Somehow a half hour of tickling and a Turkish man yelling “kız bebek!” (baby girl) only made her sleep more deeply. Finally, we managed to get the photo you see above, which will remain her passport photo and primary means of identification until she’s five years old. Though some online information led me to believe they may not accept the picture due to her open mouth, the US consulate approved it for use.

Passport photo in hand at last, we made an appointment with the US consulate to apply for her US passport and Report of Birth Abroad, which will serve as her official birth certificate. The paperwork for this report turned out to be slightly more complex than anticipated, as it requires precise dates of presence both in the United States and abroad for each parent. If you keep good records, this could be simple and straightforward. As I’ve traveled frequently for the past decade and have been living in Istanbul for over a year, this took a lot of time to estimate using passport stamps, old travel confirmations in my email, photo date stamps, and anything else that could give me an idea of dates I spent outside of America. You are also required to provide documentation of the parents’ citizenship (my husband is Russian-born, so we needed the approximate date and place of naturalization), marriage (if applicable, it’s a whole other can of worms if the parents are not married), and dissolution of any previous marriages, which can result in some frantic emails to friends back home and calls to US registry offices if you don’t travel with all your paperwork.

The US consulate in Istanbul is far from the city center (you can take Metro to İTÜ Ayazağa and then a quick taxi ride) and resembles a fortress on a hill, with American-style maximum security. Most places in Istanbul with metal detectors, including the entrance to the airport, allowed me to skip security while pregnant (I got a cursory pat down at the airport) and often with the baby, and often ignore metal objects that cause the detectors to beep. At the consulate, I forgot to remove my camera from my purse and was yelled at when I attempted to remove it myself (“Ma’am! Step away from the bag!”). After clearing security, we waited in the US Citizen’s Services room to present the baby and our paperwork. There was another couple waiting with their month-old baby which turned out to be their sixth child, and they were fairly blasé about the fact that they had come from Iraq to have the baby in Istanbul (we guessed military family) and planned to return home to the US only two weeks after applying for the passport. Presenting our own paperwork turned out to be easier than expected, as they only needed to see that we had in fact lived in the US before, but it’s a good idea to have all of your travel dates on hand in case you are questioned. Finally, we paid our $205 for the report and passport, and had them both delivered to our home one week later (compare that to the weeks it usually takes to get a passport at home!).

We planned our first trip out of Turkey for when Vera would be six weeks old, which was just enough time to get all of our paperwork in order and feel competent enough as parents to travel. She will receive her Turkish residency next month after she is four months old. When we went through passport control leaving Istanbul, there was some confusion as she had no visa or residence permit and we were prepared to pay a fee to leave the country, but we were eventually allowed to pass through free and only purchase a tourist visa when we re-entered Turkey that will cover her until her residency is established. Now the adventure would really begin: actually traveling with a baby.

Stay tuned for tips on traveling with a baby and destination guides for foreign travel with a baby. Waiting for baby to arrive? Check out past Knocked Up Abroad articles on traveling while pregnant and what to expect when you’re expecting in Turkey.

Pack spare passport photos – International travel tip

When traveling abroad, it is a good idea to have an extra set of passport photos packed among your belongings.

In the event that your passport is lost or stolen, you can save valuable time by immediately taking these photos to the embassy or consulate when you apply for a replacement. Without the photos, you may find yourself frantically searching for a photo lab in a potentially unfamiliar city or town.

[Photo: Flickr | selmerv]

June 4 trial date for American journalists in North Korea

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, both reporters for Current TV, will be tried in a North Korean court on June 4, 2009 for entering the country illegally and planning “hostile acts.” Ling and Lee were picked up along North Korea‘s border with China on March 17, 2009

Anybody want to guess how this one will end?

According to reports by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), which is controlled by the state, the two reporters have been allowed contact with a consulate. Since the United States does not maintain diplomatic relations with the reclusive Communist state, they met with a representative from the Swedish embassy. Sweden plays the consular role for visitors (willing or otherwise) from many western countries.

What’s missing is a clear description of the charges. It is unclear what the reporters were doing. This will make it difficult to bring the affair to a conclusion.

Though it’s speculation at this point, the charges could carry prison terms of up to two years.

A Canadian in Beijing: Goodbye Schmoozing, Ni Hao Guanxi

On Monday night, I had a fabulous night of guanxi.

Guanxi, which literally means “relationship” or “relations” is a central concept in Chinese philosophy and represents one’s social standing and, therefore, social potential. I’ve heard this described also in terms of its obligations. By this, I mean that guanxi is very much about one’s role in exchange with others to both assist and seek assistance and thus maintain one’s intregity or “face” in society. Guanxi speaks to social status; if one properly maintains one’s guanxi, then the social group also maintains its strength. There’s mutual advantage to guanxi that cannot be overlooked.

Yes, it’s “what-can-you-do-for-me?” based, but it’s also “what-can-I-do-for-you?” Thus, not exploitative in nature (or else, mutually exploitative and condoned as such) and I like that.

In Canada, I can only relate this concept to the notion of “connections” or “making contacts” and by extension, an expression called “schmoozing” (commonly used in the arts industry). This expression has always held a negative connotation for me as it’s laced with the notion of sucking up and kissing the behinds of prominent figures in your field. There’s something that is inherently selfish about it.

I’ve never been one to schmooze. In fact, I usually avoid it.Unlike much of western culture that advocates such an individualistic notion of success, I find that guanxi is a concept that places more emphasis on the group integrity and takes longer to cultivate. There’s not as much competition or focus on being the “one” on top. I don’t sense that kind of competitive urgency here.

But, let me begin my story again: On Monday night, I had a fabulous night of guanxi.

I went to see my Canadian musician friends at Star Live, the same music venue at which I had seen Sonic Youth the week before. I was already in a good mood when I arrived because I had successfully found the place with little incident (getting lost in Beijing is becoming my norm!) and so when I walked up the stairs and saw Andy, the promoter for the Canadian touring bands who I met in Shanghai, I was full of smiles and so was he. He immediately greeted me and then asked if I had a ticket to the event. I said that I hadn’t bought one yet but was prepared to, and then he said “come with me,” and he whisked me by security, handing me a complimentary entrance ticket and pointed in the direction of the stage saying: “They’re up now. You’re just in time.”

VSH was on stage (well, without Suzie who had to go home early) and they were tearing it up. I sat at a front table and snapped some pictures and when they were done their set, I went around to the side of the stage to say hello.

Here, I met a man that is on tour with them acting as a tour manager named Norm. He, too, greeted me with a kind smile and grabbed my elbow to tug me back stage rather than side stage, past the security and into the room that was filled with sweaty Canadian musicians. They all greeted me with hugs and tired smiles (it was a night of double duty for each band — two venues and two shows each!) and I was immediately invited to hop on the tour bus and head to the other venue with them in order to catch their second set.

We headed down to “Nu Ren Jie” or “Lady Street” where a bar called “The New Get Lucky” is situated. I’ve been there a few times already and I was familiar with the venue. The owner, who I’ve met through Traci, gave me a smile and a nod of recognition.

I was helping my friends to set up when I heard my Chinese name being called out by a man at one of the tables. It was one of the men, Luo Yan, who had been on the picnic in Shidu on the weekend and he invited me over to his table and we started to talk. Turns out that he’s a bass player (for China’s “T Band”), a studio engineer and a record producer in the music business and he introduced me to some musicians who were sitting with him — four young men who are currently working on their album at his studio. I passed him my CD and press kit and he was truly excited to realize that we are in the same industry and that we’re both professional touring musicians! I was too.

My friends in the Canadian band were trying to do a sound check at this point and I could tell that they were having a hard time communicating and so I excused myself from Luo Yan’s group and started to translate between the stage and the sound person. Eventually, the sound person just motioned that I should take over and so I started to do the sound myself. Luo Yan also got up and helped by suggesting to me (in Chinese) what should specifically be changed in terms of detailed frequencies so that I could make more finite adjustments. (His studio ears were truly appreciated!) I literally saw the young men at Luo Yan’s table change their opinion of me from “foreign girl who sings” to “professional musician with technical knowledge.” It was just a flash in the air that seemed but was a tangible shift in the energy between us. It was a great feeling and VSH’s sound was pretty good after all.

Mid-way through their set, I was introduced to two women who turned out to be the arts contacts at the Canadian consulate! I spoke with them for some time about touring in China and they encouraged me to stay in touch with them as they can be helpful in terms of grant applications etc. What luck to meet them on this night when I was just riding a wave of spontaneous connections!

Then, as I’m heading outside for some fresh air between sets, a non-Chinese man comes through the door with a Chinese woman beside him. He was carrying a guitar and greeted another Canadian woman using English and with a Canadian accent. He looked at me with vague recognition and I looked at him with the same kind of look – that “where-have-I-seen-you-before,” cocked head of confusion. This man is Chairman George, a Canadian songwriter who performs in China in both Greek and Chinese and who lives in Ottawa, just an hour from where I live in Canada. Turns out that we’ve never really met but that we have some common “guanxi” back home and may have been at some of the same events. He offered to introduce me to some of his contacts in China and took my information, even intimating that we could possibly do some shows together next year. I was thrilled.

He introduced me to the woman he was with, Zou Rui, an opera and pop singer, internationally touring performer and model here in China. She lives in Beijing and makes her living in the arts. We all sat down and had a great conversation and Zou Rui and I became instant friends. She will most definitely be a subject of my “Beijing Women in Music” research, but more importantly I am happy to have met such a cool person to hang out with. She’s also excited to have met a language partner and so we’ve been spending some time together this week swapping Chinese for English and vice versa.

When I walked towards the restrooms, I saw Andy again standing by the bar with his Shanghai contingent. They were so warm to me and grateful that I had come to the show to support the bands. He said he’d definitely be in touch about the possibilities for my band next year.

As I was leaving the bar, I said goodbye to Luo Yan who gave me his number in case I wanted a bass player while I’m here. Then, I said goodbye to Kim and Elana of VSH who gave me warm hugs and thanked me for my translation and my support. I assured them that it was truly my pleasure to see them, hear them play and just to spend some time with them — my fellow Canadians — in this beautiful country.

I waved to everyone from the taxi window filled with even more smiles than before.

This is the kind of connection-making I want to experience.

Goodbye schmoozing. Ni hao Guanxi.

[Group shot above is from when I was in Suzhou last week. From left to right: Suzie Vinnick, me, Kim Sheppard, Elana Harte (all making up VSH), Randall (their drummer on this trip), Norm (travelling with them and filling in tour manager roles) and Andy, the Shanghai-based promoter.]