By now we all know that a visa extension is no longer a matter of bringing the right identity photos to the Public Security Bureau. What used to be a routine process is now a dangerous lottery, made all the more confusing because different PSBs seem to be following completely different application procedures and demanding different requirements, and the rules may change again next week.
My boyfriend, Chris, is one of the unlucky ones unable to stay in China. He is not a protester or an agitator. He’s teaching second grade, not selling drugs. He was working for a school who has sponsored his visa extensions in the past. He has never overstayed a visa or worked on a tourist visa, but he was not able to extend his visa. I can’t think of anything he’s done that would make him a bad candidate for continued employment and residence in China.
I’m told that visa changes, like everything else in Beijing, is “because of the Olympics”. This connection has not been made clear. Some say expats are security risks, likely to turn the harmonious games into a PR disaster. Others say booting the ESL crowd will free up foreigner-friendly housing, to be rented to Olympic guests at a Western price.
I’m not going to stay in China without Chris, so I’m going back too, as sad as I am to leave Beijing. I feel stupid about leaving, too. Over the last few years, friends and family members have asked me why I want to live in China, and I try to explain the wild excitement of my adopted home. Living in China lets me move between two completely different cultures, and see the perceptions Americans and Chinese have about each other. I don’t like everything in China, of course. I’m not crazy about the subway stampede, and I don’t know why it takes 10 receipts, 20 counters and 30 red stamps to make a purchase. But I’ve tried to be a bridge blogger, even if only in my small circle. For several months, I’ve been blogging Olympics changes and Fuwa sightings for Beijing Olympics Fan! I was invited to be on a few episodes of the BBC’s radio program World: Have Your Say to talk about the amazing progress being made in preparation for the Olympics (I’ve even come close to using that cliche about “China’s coming out party”).
After telling everyone what a long way China has come since they’ve opened their borders, I feel stupid having to explain that I’m coming home because, uh, foreigners have to leave for unexplained reasons. This change in rules is shady, arbitrary and frightening, and after trying to change the perception of China away from this stereotype, I feel like an idiot.
I’m heartbroken that Chris had to leave China, but the visa issues are bigger than my personal story. Many of the foreigners who’ve been unable to get or renew a visa have a lot to offer China. International students are having trouble staying over the summer, and I think foreigners studying Mandarin can contribute so much to international relations, business, everything. Real Chinese fluency is so important for cross-cultural conversation, and it breaks my heart that students who are devoting their time and talent to this language can still be asked to leave. Freelancers, musicians, possible investors, and employees for smaller businesses are also having trouble, or simply coming in on tourist visas, which defeats the whole idea of legitimizing a vague visa system. We all know ESL was due for a bit of a cleanup, but many talented and inspired teachers have been affected, as well as the unqualified drifters. I can’t understand how expelling the foreigners who’ve invested their energy and effort into China helps anyone at all.
When I first saw the Olympics countdown commercials, on CCTV9 in my old Yantai apartment, it was over 800 days to the Beijing Olympics. I’ve eagerly watched it count down, two years, one year, 100 days, and now that there’s less than a month to go, I’m leaving China. The Olympics will be on TV at home, but I don’t know if I’ll remember the Beijing games as more than the reason we had to leave China.
I was crying as Chris and I drove to the brand new Terminal 3 airport, past the new Beijing 2008 banners proclaiming the Olympic slogans Beijing Welcomes You! and One World, One Dream.
Beijing is welcoming someone, I guess. But it’s not us.
Photos courtesy of Meg Stivison at Simpson’s Paradox.