Navigating the San Francisco Chinese Consulate

So you’re a Northern Californian going to China soon – congratulations! Your Visa application journey will probably take you through the Chinese Consulate at some point. At various points of my experience with the Consulate I wished I had been better prepared or known what I was getting myself into; now I present to you a collection of precisely that – what you are getting yourself into.

The consulate is located at 1450 Laguna St, San Francisco. However this address will take you to the main entrance, which is irrelevant to you. Go around the corner and depending on what time you arrive, the true entrance will be made obvious by a blockbuster line. The consulate is open 9am-2:30pm and I would recommend getting there as early as possible. There are two lines that often bleed together into one. On the left side of the entrance is the line for Chinese passport holders who already have an appointment, to the right is for everybody else. I recommend bringing something to entertain yourself with that does not need cell phone service, as there is none inside the building. Food is also prohibited.

In line to get inside the building you will be given a number by a very nice and understanding security guard. If you arrive even at 9:45 you risk getting a number higher than 100, which will give you a wait time of numerous hours. My first attempt at getting my paperwork turned in resulted in a number of 134 and 4.5 hour wait time total.

The line to get in the building is truly just a line for a metal detector that can only take one person at a time. Inside the consulate, seating is limited. I found a good spot to sit on the ground and lean against a pole near the passport photo line.

I do not know if this works for your first time at the consulate, but if you have tried and failed to turn in paperwork because of an error or having an incomplete form, you do not need to wait for your number to be called. Someone informed me of this while we waited in line during my second attempt to turn in paperwork and it saved me two hours of wait time. Simply go up to window 6 and turn in what you have. You will pay when you pick up.

If you are in my situation and are at the consulate specifically for authentication purposes, here is what you need:

  • Authentication form
  • Notarized Document (in this case, college diploma notarized by both the university and the state department, city criminal background check notarized by the state department). This will be 2 pieces of paper stapled to one another, the first page will have a form filled out by the apostille and will feature a stamp that should go onto the second piece of paper.
  • Photocopy of said notarized documents. Do not remove the staples when you photocopy these, otherwise they will be invalidated. If you forget to photocopy the docs at home, they have a photocopier at the consulate which is 25 cents a copy, cash only. The security guards can make change for one dollar.
  • Color Passport Photocopy.

If you are unable to skip the line, there are luckily come-and-go privileges once you’ve gotten through the metal detector a first time. Your hand will be marked with a blue highlighter. Official, I know. The two security guards are good at giving wait estimates if you’re curious.

The Japantown Mall is walking distance. If you have a long wait ahead and can’t skip the consulate line, I’d suggest biding your time in the Marufuku Ramen line before the restaurant opens.  A very yummy way to spend your lunch hour.

I hope this helps make your Visa application process easier!

One Month Later

Four weeks ago, I was in a Beijing hotel room. I had said my goodbyes that morning to those I love in Changsha, and was trying to put on a happy face. I went out to dinner with some other exchange students going home, and we had Korean food…a cheap replacement for the meal Sangmin still owes me, but good food none-the-less. I was trying to  focus on the present, and was surprisingly successful. Now I wish I could really say the same…

I’m here. Back in California, where I was born and raised.

I’m surrounded by an overwhelming culture, and everyone looks the same. No matter where I go, I feel surrounded by people with straight hair. It was cold today, and I wore an outfit that just seemed so out of place…it felt like everyone was staring at me. I rode a public bus after school that was completely packed.

It’s things like this that are the strangest. I’ve been here almost a month but it still feels like just a few days. So many things in this country are strange…and so many people aren’t as great as I expected them to be. The troubles I faced in China were different in specific ways from each other, but now I’m seeing that overall the same things are always coming up. I… I don’t really know what to write, other than I miss China a lot. Not China as a whole country, really, just Changsha I suppose. That city became as much of a home to me as where I live now, which is impressive, considering I’ve lived in the same house here as long as my memory. Looking at that last sentence, I’m not all together sure whether or not it’s correct. My English really has gotten a lot worse.

Anyways. From what Pauline and Moritz have told me, a lot has changed at Tongshenghu..both for the better and worse. Their schedule is different now, and they’ve got homework. Midori changed families. Sangmin gets back from Korea today, Karina got back from Yunnan (a different city in China) sometime last week. I haven’t gotten to talk to Giulia or May yet… my friends set up Skype on the library computer, but it didn’t work when they tried to call me last night. Hopefully tonight it will work. Honestly, I think I miss them much more than I missed anyone from the US when I went to China in the first place. When I went to China, I knew I would be coming back, and that things wouldn’t be too different upon my return…whereas now, who knows when I’ll return? And it’s obvious that it can never be the same way again.

But that’s the thing with life, isn’t it? It’s always growing and changing;forever moving on. You’ll never be able to relive this exact moment. Sometimes that’s a good thing, and other times bad obviously, but that emotion or opinion is completely irrelevant to the fact of it’s validity. This all sounds so cliche but it’s so true…there’s a reason cliche’s exist. Sometimes it just takes a while to know really what they mean, and not just remember what they say..

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The Last Night

Well, here we are. The last night in Changsha.

It’s something I’ve always known would happen, obviously, and admittedly some days I yearned and yearned for this day to come. Compared to many, I actually didn’t get too homesick during my stay here, and sometimes actually had the opposite–California was the last place I wanted to be. Five months ago, I was on a plane headed towards Beijing..and in less than 48 hours I’ll be on a plane to San Francisco. Tomorrow morning I fly to Beijing, then the next morning I fly back to SF. Honestly it’s pretty crazy for me to believe.. yes, I’m packed now, I’ve said most of my goodbyes.. but it’s still incomprehensible. I feel so at home here. My host family has turned into as much of a real one as my parents in the US. My friends here, though I’ve only known them five months…I really feel like it’s been my whole life. And in a way, it has..my life in China. Maybe my whole life was leading up to this, my first fifteen years were only the first chapter in the story of my life. I thought “so much” had happened to me in my life, and then I came here. And I began.

I’ve grown so much as a person through this experience. I barely recognize the girl I was when I first came here.. sure, a lot of me is the same I suppose but honestly I feel like a completely different person. I’m a person I love. I finally feel confident about myself and who I am..

Today it snowed a lot (it started yesterday) and it was so so beautiful. My mom woke me up just to see the snow falling outside my window, Sabrina’s school blanketed in white. The whole city looked really pretty..though it made transportation take longer and my feet cold, I loved it. And this is saying something, because usually I really don’t like snow at all. Ahh I don’t know if I can even put my transformation and just how I feel into words..

What I Learned in China: what love is, how to restrain myself, what I can and cannot stand, how to communicate without language, who my friends are, what Chinese culture is, how to wear two layers and never be cold, how to make instant noodles taste better, how to sprint one hundred meters, why respect is important, what America is like, what Chinese people dress like, how to haggle, when to speak, which kinds of people that will change and which kinds that won’t, how to eat really spicy food, what it feels like to move, how to survive while being illiterate, not to complain, live in the moment, how to let go, the virtue of indifference, the way in which jealousy taints relationships, how to wash my face, the plot of Gossip Girl, why I’m thankful I was born in the US, ways in which living in the US is a disadvantage, what it’s like to be around drunk people, that who I always wanted to be isn’t all that different from who I already am.

I hope I never forget the way I feel right now.

The Only Ones on the Ferris Wheel

Well I just got home. Not really, but I’ve been meaning to write this since I got home, so let’s pretend! I was driven home from Hypermart by a taxi driver who told me his eyes weren’t good so he couldn’t read my cell phone description of where I live, since he didn’t know where Sabrina’s school is. Just how such a person became a taxi driver is beyond me but hey, it’s China.
I spent the last two nights at Karina’s house. Wednesday evening she, Moritz and I went out on an adventure. Moritz left on Thursday for the AFS Yunnan trip, but he’s coming back before I leave so it wasn’t the last time I’ll see him. Anyhow, we first went to the large Ferris Wheel that we’ve seen all the time since we came here but never gotten a chance to go on–and boy, was it nice. We were the only people on the whole wheel! Now how many times has that ever happened to YOU? The wheel was enormous and went very slowly. Also, each of the boxes were heated, so we were kept plenty warm. There are (hopefully) pictures on my flickr that you can look at!
After the Ferris Wheel we went rollerskating at this place in a mall on Walking Street near No Sunset Play Game. Karina and I got let in for free because we’re girls (or so the security guard said) and Moritz had to pay thirty yuan. The rollerskates themselves were SO OLD and there were no inlines, though they were free so I can’t complain. The only rule at the rink was no pushing, which meant that there were a lot of people skating backwards and holding hands making chains of five people while smoking their cigarettes…but you know what? It worked. In American rinks I feel like we have so many rules, all of which are constantly being broken causing chaos. But here we have only one and it doesn’t get broken, and surprisingly chaos does not ensue. I like it.

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Girl’s Night and a Chinese Dream

Technically it’s Monday right now, but I’m just staying up really late. On Saturday night all of the girls had a sleepover and it was really, really fun. We’re all so close now it’s just crazy to think we’ve known each other for such a short amount of time! Really, I feel like we’ve all been friends our whole lives. Though really, being here has been a life in and of itself, so I guess we have.

The theory of our sleepover was one that apparently Pauline and Giulia’s friends had done before–basically buy a bunch of junk food and stuff yourself. I know, what I’ve been doing while I’m here! But no, everyone else was going to too, but we didn’t really buy enough food. And plus at a certain level of tiredness two people kept talking about how “fat” they were…which is basically my least favorite conversation topic of all time. Because lo and behold every time that said conversation takes place in front of me, I get ‘accused’ of being skinny. Now, to anyone who has never been unhealthily or almost unhealthily skinny at some point in their lives, this is not going to sound like a bad thing. But really, often ‘skinny’ is used with negative connotations, especially in todays society. Some will still argue that it’s better to be ‘too skinny’ than ‘too fat’ but really both are equally bad and I think they’ll both get you bad looks. Anyways.

We played UNO for almost two hours. Well, one hand was almost two hours…I won in the first seven minutes of that particular hand and then was just bored for a while, eventually taking over for Karina so she could dye Midori’s hair. The hair dye wasn’t a success like it had been with me though, since she was trying to dye it lighter. Oh well, we all told her it would be more obvious in the sun, and it’ll be overcast for a while. We’re good.

Since I just remembered now, I feel like I should tell you all because it’s exciting–at the sleepover I had my first ever dream (that I remember) in Chinese! I was with all my friends at some old woman’s house and she kept trying to give us tea but we didn’t want it. And I dreamt that Sangmin was really drunk and so was Midori and she kept wanting more beer so we all went to KFC. And at KFC, I ordered in Chinese! And then the guy was trying to give me really small drumsticks so I told him I didn’t want them, I just wanted cookies, and I was expecting Subway-esque cookies but no, there were Oreos. We eat so many Oreos in China! Pauline even gave them to me for Christmas. But anyways.

Tomorrow, or today technically I suppose, all the foreign teachers and students are getting together for a going away party for me. I think that’s what it is? I think there’s going to be a surprise element of some sort because I know for sure Karina’s mom was physically hiding something in her room that I couldn’t see at the sleepover last night. I guess I’ll find out!

Comparing China and the USA

Today was my last at Tongshenghu. It was definitely bittersweet–though I hate that school, I’ve had some great memories there and I can’t imagine not going there anymore. Who knows how many years it will be till I walk those campus grounds again? I truly have met some amazing people here. I got pretty teary-eyed at the end of the day cause it’s me and I cry at everything, but I managed to hold myself together.
I’d like to tell you all about some random things I’ve seen in China, such as a traffic light on top of a car. About three feet of pole was between the car itself and the light but there it was, sticking straight up. I just saw that going across an intersection once and thought it was so strange…I couldn’t help but stare. Once a taxi driver had his cell phone wedged into the wheel and proceeded to yell into the receiver while driving. It was annoying to say the least. Usually taxi drivers talk to me here though and I’ve had some good conversations with them in Chinese. I mostly speak in Chinese to my mom and taxi drivers. When I have to talk in front of Vala or someone usually I get nervous that I’ll mess up (which isn’t typical for me) and then I won’t want to speak Chinese at all.
Speaking of Vala, today she “fought back” against our complaints about Tongshenghu by interviewing a bunch of our International Department teachers and classmates…she told us all the bad things first collectively and then afterwards had a one-on-one conversation with each of us about the positive things. During the negative part I of course put up a fight because some of it was ridiculous or just a difference of cultures so not really anyone’s fault and it was quite a heated argument…it ended with all of the foreign students being pissed and Vala being..I don’t know, Vala. She tried to be nicer to us this time though, which was a good change. During the one-on-one part I started crying too (I just made a small river in the library today haha) not really cause I was super upset or sad but because she asked me to describe the main differences between China and the US and it just all became very clear to me why I’ve been having so many issues with the Chinese system and with Vala etc. I felt sort of bad after my realizations because it’s not Vala’s fault (entirely) nor is it mine, my American values and the way I was raised is just so much the opposite of China. Really, I don’t think there are two countries more opposite.
China focuses on the group, USA on the individual. This is both apparent on a large general scale and in little things you wouldn’t notice at first–in a Chinese classroom, the teacher lectures and the students never raise their hands to ask questions, there is never time to ask questions, the teacher never asks if there are any. They just teach. In America the teachers try to make sure every person gets their questions answered and in some classes, you’re FORCED to write a question just to make sure you’re asking one if you’ve got it.
In the US, you’re graded by yourself. You’re not constantly being compared to your peers, your performance is nothing but your own. Here you’re graded compared to your classmates, and ranked publicly. If you fail a test, everyone will know about it. You have to compete to get into higher level classes, and then within those classes to be the best. It’s…it’s…it’s China.
I don’t know, there were just certain things I remembered about the US that made me…I don’t know what. Like I remember that in the US when you’re walking down the sidewalk in your neighborhood people say things like “Good Morning” and “Hello”. People only say hello to me here because I’m white. If I wasn’t, there would be no recognition.
It’s little things like that that I’ll be looking forward to in the US. Really though, I don’t know how much I want to go back or how much I want to stay here. Most of us feel like we’re in some sort of in-between–we don’t want to be here but we don’t want to go home either. Oh well, I’ve got two weeks left. We’ll see what happens.

What I’ll Be Saying

Well Happy New Year everyone!
I hope you all had a fun time ringing in 2011, I know I did! We (Karina, Pauline, Sangmin, Moritz, Giulia and I) all went clubbing and it turned out to be really fun, a night I definitely will never forget.

It’s January Sixth today, and you know what that means? Two weeks until I leave Changsha. Pretty crazy, huh? For those of you who have been reading since the very beginning, it’s been a very long road to get here. It’s hard to believe it’s all going to be over. In some ways I really don’t want to go home but in others I’m very excited…it’ll be hard to adjust once I’m back and I’m not looking forward to that at all. I’ll probably be repeating myself over and over, and everyone will think I’m crazy. Some of my to-be-most-commonly-used-phrases will include:

1. “It’s so CLEAN here!!”–I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before (though I don’t know how I could not have), but Changsha is incredibly dirty. Like I really cannot describe to you how dirty…I always want to say the ground is dirty but that seems obvious, doesn’t it? Dirt is most commonly found on the ground. But no, the ground is especially dirty, the streets and sidewalk are, the cars are covered in mud, the streetlights, the seats in taxis, peoples hands and bodies…even the plants near my school are caked in a layer of mud. Even saying all this, I don’t think you can imagine the level of dirt here. So California will seem so so clean I tell you. So so clean.

2. “Look at all the foreigners!”–even here when I went to Guangzhou over the weekend I would say this, though there weren’t many. Whenever I see a non-Asian person here I stare. It’s pretty sad, when we first came here we’d all complain about people staring at us but now I can totally understand why…I saw a blond girl whilst in Guangzhou and I seriously was like almost yelling out of excitement, “Look Michelle! It’s a blond girl! Do you see her? Look at her hair! Oh she just went behind that tree, but I swear, I just saw a girl with blond hair!”

3. “Everyone’s English is so good!”–now this may sound a bit racist but it’s true–I’m going to be utterly shocked when I speak to Asian people who don’t have thick accents. Actually, I’m just going to be shocked that anyone doesn’t have an accent and speaks perfect English..there are so few people here that have English as their first language..I can’t imagine meeting someone new who is fluent in English. I can barely remember what that’s like. I’m also going to have to refrain from speaking Midori-English, which is the extremely simplified version I use when I need to communicate something that she doesn’t know all the words for. This would be extremely embarrassing to use, let’s hope it doesn’t happen.

4. “They’re all wearing…normal clothes?”–Chinese fashion is very different from other countries, and when we all came here most of us were generally appalled by it. A outfit composed of entirely cheetah print? No thank you! But now we’ve been here so long and seen the craziest of clothing, I’ve become pretty immune to seeing people wear sheep print pajamas that appear to be made out of quilts when out and about. I honestly can barely remember what people in America wear normally..we were watching Youtube videos (on a proxy) today from each other’s home schools and Giulia was showing one and I was amazed at the students all wearing different clothing. And jeans! Did you know people wear jeans every day to school? I can’t even imagine! Ugh when I go back home I’ll have to care about what I look like again, I can’t wear ugly sweats everyday. Poor me.

5. “In China they…”–be prepared, friends. I will either talk about this experience non-stop or none at all, I’d prefer the latter but knowing me it will probably end up being the former. So get ready, because all those questions you may or may not have about China? Oh baby, I’ll answer them.