#1Feb 1st, 2009
-- It's never a good feeling to lose your passport and all your credit cards in the biggest city in the most populous country of the world. It's an even worse feeling when you realize that your country isn't going to lift a finger to help. Getting back to the United States from China, where I was traveling with friends in September, was a week-long saga of closed government offices, stubborn officials and airline personnel and a constant refrain of ''I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do.'' It wiped away my perception that as long as I didn't do anything illegal, the U.S. government would clean up any problems. I was heading back from a grueling hike in Anhui province when I left my passport and credit cards in a taxicab in Shanghai, two days before I was scheduled to return home. I stumbled through the streets, trying to avoid the Shanghai drivers who probably wouldn't yield to a pedestrian even if Chairman Mao were to rise from his grave. I entered an Internet cafe, where I used Skype to call the U.S. Consulate (the embassy in Beijing had closed). The woman on duty told me that the Consulate was closed for the weekend plus a weeklong Chinese holiday, so I wouldn't be able to get a new passport for 10 days. I wasn't sure, but she sounded slightly gleeful. VISA WOES Hundreds of years ago, Marco Polo traveled across modern-day Uzbekistan and Mongolia and ended up in the court of Kublai Khan in China without a passport, or even a visa. ''He is heartily welcome,'' the khan is reported to have said. Later, the khan made Polo governor of Yangzhou, a city near modern day Shanghai. Today, it's not so easy to enter China. For my trip there as a tourist, I had to apply for a visa, providing the Chinese with my itinerary, proof that I had a plane ticket to leave the country and copies of hotel reservations. When I lost the passport, I lost that hard-earned visa too. The U.S. Consulate requires citizens in the area who need a new passport to go to the Exit-Entry bureau in Shanghai's Pudong district to get an official police report saying they lost their passport. I approached the man at the lost passport booth -- unluckily numbered 13 -- and told him I needed the police report fast. ''For emergencies, ask him,'' Passport Man said, pointing to a man sitting at a booth, where a long line waited. An hour later, I explained my emergency to the supervisor: that I needed a police report so I could get a passport so I could get a visa before the Chinese government closed for a week. Unless I got a visa in the next two days, I would be stuck in China for a week and a half. He listened calmly, and then told me to come back the next day for the police report. If the U.S. Consulate could get me a passport the next day, the Chinese would rush me a visa, allowing me to leave just a day late. The U.S. Consulate wasn't as flexible. They told me that once I provided them the police report, they could get me a passport the next day -- if I was willing to cough up $1,500. Short of that, they said, there was nothing they could do. ''See, this is why our countries are different,'' Passport Man said later. ``We serve our people always. Your country just makes them pay money. We would never charge our people.'' SHANGHAIED In the 19th century, crews of ships desperate for skilled sailors often kidnapped men, drugged them and sailed off into the horizon. Because many of the ships were bound for Shanghai, the action came to be known as getting shanghaied. It later began to mean being held against one's will. I felt shanghaied in Shanghai. Passports are a fairly modern invention as we know them today, visas even more so. Passports were issued after World War I, when the International Organization for Refugees gave Russians fleeing their country's revolution formal documents, called Nansen passports, to ensure them safe passage. As countries became more nationalistic after World War I, they required passports of people trying to enter their country, said John Torpey, a professor at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Not everybody liked the idea that you couldn't go from one country to another without lots of red tape. Advocates protested the restrictions on freedom of movement, said Jonathon W. Moses, a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. A German author even wrote a novel, The DeathShip, about sailors lacking passports or any documentation who are deported from one country to another, unwanted by officials everywhere. In Shanghai, I felt like I was on a death ship of my own, held hostage by my own country. I was shocked when, four days after I finally got my passport, I got a call from a man named Dr. Lu. He was a friend of my mother's boss, and he knew someone high up in the Communist Party. His friend had arranged for the Chinese government to open for me and get me the visa early, he said. I was incredulous. Why would the Chinese government open during one of the biggest holidays of the year to get me a visa, when my own government wouldn't budge? But I didn't ask questions. I just showed up at the government building, waited to get my visa, and power-walked away before they could change their minds. Throughout the whole endeavor, I was kicking myself for losing my passport, but there wasn't much I could have done. Travel insurance wouldn't have been able to help with the closed offices, and copies of my passport didn't help either. My only take-away: Money belts worn around your waist are easy to lose. I had taken mine off to remove a piece of paper and left it in a cab. If I had to do it all over again, I probably would buy one that went around my neck, rather than my waist. Yet, it's strange: We have borders plus passports that show our allegiances to our homelands, but citizenship doesn't get you as far as you would think. We don't get stuck on death ships anymore or shanghaied onto merchant ships -- instead, we're beholden to paper documents and bureaucracy so vast that it probably would have persuaded Polo to just stay home. One thing hasn't changed, though -- it's still possible to get stuck in China, dependent on the whims of a government official to get you in or out.
Last edited by china; Feb 1st, 2009 at 09:20 PM..