One of the things I dislike most in this world (and I don’t think I am alone) is dealing with the government. For example, filing taxes was always like torture to me – every year I thought how much easier it might be to just store my money in mayonnaise jars buried in the backyard. Unfortunately for me, living overseas means a passport is necessary, so every five years I pull my hair out over the process of getting one.
Canadian passports are only valid for five year blocks (even Chinese passports are good for 10 years – come on, Canada!), and a person cannot add pages to a Canadian passport either. Also, the application form and requirements are the same whether you are applying for your first passport or your eighth – no special renewal procedure here. I understand it is all to do with security and confirming identities and all that, but it sure is a pain!
It can be a stressful process to complete in Canada. One can think they have everything prepared, send the application away, and wait for a couple of months, only to have it all returned because his signature touched the blue area around the signature box.
But now I’m experiencing the pleasure (ahem, sarcasm) of completing this process in China, and let me tell you, it’s even less enjoyable in a small city in a foreign, non-English speaking country. And that lack of enjoyment can come down (in my case) to three little Chinese words: 差不多.
“Cha bu duo” means ‘almost’, ‘about the same’, or (in my interpretation) ‘good enough’, and is clearly one of the national mottos of the People’s Republic of China. I dislike it almost as much as “China has a long history…” (and if you’ve read this blog, you know that’s a lot!). Everything is 差不多 – the way your hair is cut, the fit of windows into window frames, the fit of pants, the adherence to laws…差不多!
The problem with 差不多 is that for many Chinese, when they say it, they really mean it and it’s true! A lot of things in China that aren’t completely correct can be smoothed over with a meal, some drinking, and some 红包 (gifts of red envelopes containing money). But when we’re talking dealings with a foreign government agency, somehow I doubt that the problem is going to go away just because I say it is close enough.
I know, I know, I’m rambling. But you need to know all this (if you didn’t already) in order to fully appreciate the saga of my passport renewal. Here we go…
My current Canadian passport is due to expire in early March, so in late November I went to visit my Chinese boss (a lovely man, but perhaps the most scatter-brained guy I’ve ever met – why he is in charge of all our paperwork is certainly a testament to his schmoozing skills and not his organization!) to ask him about finding my guarantor to sign my application and pictures. We had a confusing conversation, but the gist of it was that he advised me to wait until after Spring Festival to go to Beijing to apply, since I would need my current passport in order to travel over the holiday (and with my husband and I being obligated to visit his family and the new identification-linked train tickets, he was correct).
Knowing that time would then be short, I wanted to get everything ready before Spring Festival so that I could make the trip as soon as possible afterward.
Step one – pictures.
My husband and I made our way to one of the local photo shops to try to get my passport photos taken. We had gone over the requirements for the photos from the instruction page together to ensure he understood them clearly so that he would be able to translate them clearly to the shop assistant. We even took the paper along for reference. My lovely husband got approximately four words of explanation out of his mouth before the assistant interrupted him, saying, “Oh yes, I know, I know. We’ve done passport photos before” (note: This is another thing prevalent in China, it seems – claiming you know how to do something that you really don’t…sigh). We both did our best to re-interrupt her and continue explaining what the specifications were and how important it was that they be correct (the guarantor has to sign one of the photos – if I travel all the way to Beijing and they reject my photo, I have to travel all the way home, have new photos taken, get my guarantor to sign the new ones, and return to Beijing to try again), but she continued to insist that they had taken Canadian passport photos before and understood what was needed.
(Add to this the fact that I had recently read an article online about how Passport Canada is even more strictly enforcing the photo requirements recently and you can understand my uneasiness.)
I sat down and we took the photos (to their credit, they did re-shoot when my hair was in my face or my head was not straight). So far, so good, right?
We arranged for them to print the photos, but since they didn’t have a stamp with the business name and address on it (this also has to be included on the back of one photo), the only thing to do was to hope that it would be acceptable for someone to write this information on by hand and then have them use the business “chop” (official red-ink stamp) to show it was valid. Since the chop was locked up in an upper office and the person with the key wouldn’t be at work until the following day, my husband agreed to return to pick everything up when it was ready.
My hopes were dashed when I opened the envelope and saw that the pictures were approximately half the size required by Passport Canada. 差不多? Probably not in the eyes of the embassy!
We returned to the photo shop with everything to try to explain why the pictures weren’t acceptable and to get new prints made. As expected, I was met with cries of 差不多, and much scrutinizing of the original order paper to attempt to prove that this was what we had asked for in the first place. Finally, it was agreed that they would reprint the photos in the proper size. How many did I want? One set, so I could measure them myself with a ruler, and then give the approval for further copies to be printed. Once this was accomplished, we again discovered that the chop was locked away and we had to return a fourth time to pick up the completed photos.
Now it was time to tackle the application form. I sat down one evening and painstakingly filled out each section, reading and rereading instructions (dark blue or black ink, all capital letters, which forms of ID qualify, etc.). I called my Chinese boss again to reiterate that I really would appreciate having everything finished before Spring Festival, so if he could track down my guarantor, that would be great (you see, the guarantor has to be someone who works in a specific field, has known me for over 2 years, AND understands the language of the form – English – a pretty narrow field of candidates here in my tiny little city!). My boss seemed to understand and asked me to give him the form and photo (note the singular form of this word, it will become important later). I did, and he called me a couple of days later to tell me that my guarantor was on his way to my boss’ office and could I stop by? Sure, I’m on my way.
I arrived, greeted my guarantor, and we set to work completing his section of the form. (Oh, did I mention that my boss temporarily lost my picture? It turned out that it had been picked up with a pile of papers he sent to the accountant’s office and was returned, but there were several tense moments as we searched his desk.) Mr. Guarantor nervously scratched out his name and occupation in English block letters, stopping to check spelling with me. All was well until we came to his place of employment – his large block letters ran outside of the given box!
My boss looked at me and asked, “Is that OK?” (差不多?) I had no idea, though I sort of doubted it. Luckily for everyone, another empty passport form was located and all the information was reprinted, inside the lines. Again, so far, so good (I really need to stop thinking that!).
Ironically, at this point, my boss and I were having a discussion about the very thing I mentioned earlier – that he is in charge of all our official paperwork and knows the Chinese forms and applications like the back of his hand, as well as knowing all the police and government officials he has to deal with to get our legalities approved here, so that if something does happen to be amiss, he can almost always smooth-talk his way out of it and everything will be 差不多. I half-joked that I didn’t think I’d be able to pull the same trick with the Canadian embassy.
Time for signing the declaration on the back of the photo (“I certify this to be a true likeness of…”). I wrote it out clearly for him on a scrap paper, since the example on the instruction form is very small and the letters can be unclear for someone whose first language is not English (ahem, Passport Canada), and he set to work. Success!! And then…
My boss picked up the photo to hand it to me, smudging the not-yet-dry ink with his thumb.
Yep. Thaaaaat’s right. (For my family, this is when the phrase “Sandor luck” ran through my head.)
Remember how I said I had only given my boss one picture (so that he wouldn’t lose all of them, you see – scatter-brain, remember)? Stupid girl!
It was at this point that Chinese problem-solving kicked into high gear. They had paper, they had liquid – this was an issue they could fix.
So the two of them set to work dabbing the smudged ink off the back of my passport photo with a wad of paper soaked in the tea they’d been sharing.
I could do nothing at this point but watch them do their best CSI impression to remove the smudges, and my guarantor rewrote the missing words. After he finished, my boss (carefully) picked up the photo, held it under the breeze blowing from his heater for a few seconds, took a look and delightfully exclaimed,
I forced a smile, collected my papers and picture (carefully) and made my way to my desk in the teacher’s office, where I examined the photo more closely. Upon inspection, it was still pretty apparent to me that something had happened to the writing, that the back of the photo was stained a light tan colour, and that the image on the front now had a mark from the wetness seeping through. Sigh.
Was I going to have to risk a trip to the embassy based on 差不多?
In the middle of teaching class that evening, it hit me. I did have extra pictures, but they were just at home. My guarantor had told me he lived in a residential zone near mine. He had included his cell phone number on the application form. My husband speaks perfect Chinese to explain everything. I crossed my fingers that Mr. Guarantor would understand and agree to meet me near his home to sign a new picture. Thankfully, he is the nicest man alive, and he did.
(By now, I have been to the embassy in Beijing and dropped off my application. They accepted everything, so hopefully that means there are no problems and that in a couple of weeks I will receive my brand new passport and not have to go through this for another five years!)