Two weeks earlier, when I arrived at the Chinese consulate in New York City fifteen people were already cued up towards the entrance, parallel to 42nd and facing the river. Across the street the Falun Dafa began to set up signs and banners, which were mostly in Chinese, but included the motto, “Truthfulness, Forbearance, Compassion,” in English, facing the consulate.
A security guard emerged from the building and set up a small rope, and the line began to move quickly. I shuffled forward, then stopped. A man with a military crew cut wearing a fleece and holding a manila envelope addressed the security guard with aggression and disbelief. The security guard shrugged and said a few words, then gestured to the rest of the line, indicating he was holding everyone up, and the man exited the line and took out his phone.
At the entrance, a hastily designed sign informed visitors that the consulate would only accept “up-to-date” forms. The sole difference between the up-to-date form and previous versions, which, studying my own form, I found to be an example of the latter, was the up-to-date form had a small header in italicized text that read, “June 2011 Edition.” I handed my form to the security guard, a stocky Jamaican with crooked teeth and one wandering eye.
“This is the wrong form,” he said. “You need the new form.”
“Can you give me a new form?”
“You have to fill out the form on the computer.”
“Do you have a computer I can use?” I said.
“Is there an Internet cafe nearby?”
The closest Internet cafe was in a Burger King on 8th avenue.
“I was pissed—I had already walked all the way down from there just ten minutes before. It’s a long way. I was worried the line would be huge by the time I got back.”
I walked the four wide avenues back up the North side of 42nd street impatiently, and was perspiring uncomfortably by the time I spotted the Burger King flag, maybe 10 minutes later. Inside: a bank of computer terminals, four in total, three occupied. A middle aged black man in shabby clothes must have spotted my confused expression.
“Do you need a Visa form?” he said.
I didn’t respond, surveyed the Burger King.
“I’m Mike. Take a seat over here, I’ll bring it up for you.”
“Do I have to do anything?” I said, as Mike leaned over my shoulder and I shifted the chair to avoid him touching me. A well rehearsed series of clicks and key-strokes brought up the June 2011 edition form, a PDF with purple-grey blank spots that could be clicked on and typed into. I asked him if this happened a lot. He was kind, sympathetic, seemed to be doing his best to make me feel comfortable. I wasn’t sure what his deal was—he was not wearing a Burger King uniform. He said it happened to a lot of people.
“I’ll help you fill it out right,” he said.
“That won’t be necessary, I’ve got it.”
“There’s things on there you need to do...”
“I’ve got it, thanks.”
“I’ll come check on the form when you’re done. Just remember don’t leave any fields blank. If something doesn’t apply, write ‘N/A,’ got it?”
“I’ve got it, thanks,” I said.
Mike moved away and leaned over the shoulder of a person in the terminal beside me. I peeked over and saw this person too was dealing with the 2011 Visa Application. On the terminal farthest from me, a scraggly haired middle aged woman bent over an elderly Chinese lady offering similar instruction.
“At every terminal someone was typing into this June 2011 Edition Chinese Visa Application PDF.”
“Ahhhhhhhhh, so you—”
I filled out my form some, surrounded by the clamor of the busy fast food restaurant: the sliding of brown trays atop linoleum garbage cans, the hum and buzzing of air conditioners, refrigerators, whatever they had behind those counters; the beeping of cash machines, the beeping of machines that informed the cashiers the food was ready, merging with footsteps and echoing off of filthy orange walls, the smell of a thousand burgers...
“A horrible atmosphere, you’d agree.”
The middle aged woman leaned over and asked if I needed help.
“No, I’m fine thank you.”
Mike helped me print the finished form.
“How much do I owe you?” I said.
He shrugged, “whatever you want to pay.”
I gave him ten dollars.
“Thanks,” I said.
I stepped outside into a light rain, tucked the fresh form beneath my collared shirt, and briskly walked the four blocks back. The security guard recognized me and allowed me to skip the line.
After finishing up inside the consulate, I lingered near the line for fifteen minutes. I watched as the security guard turned around six people, all of whom were befuddled and angry. A businessman raised his voice in displeasure. Others made exasperated phone calls to relatives, pacing. I saw some people begin the walk to the Burger King.
I approached the security guard and said, “I’m Adam.”
“I’m King,” he said.
“This is really crazy, you know?” I said.
“Man...” he said. He must have faced a fair amount of abuse from these turnarounds on an average day, and it was not something that he was in any position to do anything about.
“How many people do you turn around every day?” I asked.
“Like how many, like 50?”
“Some days, some days more.”
Next door to the consulate was a pizza place that didn’t look to be drawing much foot traffic. I went inside, asked to speak to the manager.
I said, “you need to get an internet cafe.”
He said he wasn’t interested.
I said, “there are 100 people who are being turned around from that consulate every day and every one of them could be helped if you set up an internet cafe.” I surveyed the interior, saw an open spot near the window. “Right here.”
“No, no, no,” he said.
“I’ll help you,” I said. “You could make money.”
“I don’t want those people in here,” said the restaurateur. I took it to mean he didn’t like Chinese people.
“You could make a thousand dollars more per day,” I said.
“Thank you but I’m not interested.”
I went back outside, walked all of the nearby blocks, looking for another small business to pitch, and found nothing suitable, so I approached the security guard, King, once more, and asked him what he thought would happen if I came back the next day with a van, and a printer, and offered to print out forms.
“I think you’d make a lot of money,” he said.