Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The country may be communist, but the Chinese like to sell things. That's a fact. This morning I was looking for a Chinese travel agency in Seoul, but couldn't find it. Making things worse was the pouring rain. All of a sudden, someone called out "CHINA VISA! CHINA VISA! Yogi! Yogi! (Here! Here!)" There was a woman standing and pointing into a building. This wasn't the reputable travel agency I spoke to yesterday, which I think was about 100 metres down the alley, but it was raining.

After I filled out the application and walked away looking for an ATM, she saw me again, this time at the entrance to a subway station. "CHINA VISA? CHINA VISA?" I told her that I had already done it, in Korean, but that didn't concern her too much. The woman is Korean, but she deals with China enough to absorb its relentless entrepreneurial spirit.

I have every reason to believe that she was simply touting for the travel agency, asking anyone and everyone walking down this busy street if they wanted a visa to China. No plans to go to China? No problem, you have three months to use the visa! Circumstances change.

Applying for a Chinese visa at a English-speaking travel agency is like a job interview: the travel agency asks a series of questions to determine how the Chinese government will arbitrarily discriminate against you. For example, if you are a brunette whose parents were born in Hungary, you will have to apply for your visa in the Chinese prefecture with a sister city relationship to the Hungarian county in question. Visa-free entry to the Chinese prefecture in question is available to all Europeans except those of Hungarian origin. Those of Hungarian origin must apply for their Chinese visa at the prefectural Public Safety Bureau. Yesterday, an English-speaking travel agency told me that express visa service (two days, not four) was not available in my case because my legal residency in Korea expired in September and I was going back to Canada after my trip and...

Korean travel agencies are simpler. The only parts of the form I filled out were my address, phone number and a statement testifying to my absence from any other countries over the last two weeks (probably swine flu-related, but it wasn't specified). I've learned to curb how many revelations I make when dealing with immigration authorities. Explaining my entire life story and planned itinerary (traveling on a one-way plane ticket, my religion, traveling to the currently troublesome Xinjiang province, etc.) in the interests of sociability is, I've learned, a bad idea.

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