Body shaking, palms sweating, tears threatening to create salty waterfalls down my face, I am doing everything I can to remain calm as I am sitting in the passport and visa control security office amidst Chinese chatter unfathomable to my English-only ears. A seemingly endless number of possibilities to the end of this nightmare turn over in my mind.
En route to Singapore, I had two very long layovers in China, 24 hours in Shanghai and 17 in Haikou. When I entered Shanghai, I was given a transit visa stamp in my passport. Unbeknownst to my naïve and dare I say ignorant self, this visa required my departure from the country within a span of 24 hours. Having shared my flight itinerary with the Chinese officials, I had foolishly assumed that the visa would be good for longer than that and I would have no problems.
After spending two nights sleeping on and off in sketchy airports in China, I was so excited to board my final flight to Singapore. However, Chinese immigration crushed these dreams when they stopped me at passport control. I had overstayed my visa and it was time to face the consequences. I witnessed my passport and boarding pass changing hands like a hot potato, drifting in and out of my sight. I am told something about not being allowed to board the flight to Singapore and a potential side trip to Hong Kong. I’m all for spontaneity, unplanned trips totally welcome. But, call me crazy, this was an impromptu excursion I wasn’t exactly eager to embark upon.
A phone call to my mother is made in haste. I know I am waking her up at 2 am but at this point I don’t care. I can only imagine what was going through her mind, being woken up with a call from her daughter in China simply to be greeted with “Hi Mom, I am stuck in China and I might need some money…” I like to keep things exciting for her, keep her on her toes.
Sitting in a chair as I watched my former fellow flyers proceed through security, I am approached by one of the security officials who informs me that “Chinese government requires that there be a punishment since you overstayed your visa.” Oh my god. Heart sinking, I felt like I would vomit right then and there. I don’t think I can survive a day in jail in America; I could only imagine myself rotting away in some remote prison in the middle of a foreign country.
Thank god for this dear old man who was sitting in one of the chairs next to me, devouring his smelly Subway sandwich. He intervenes and says that the word the official is looking for is “fine,” not “punishment.” Phew. I’m then led into a small room and told to sit. The minutes take their sweet time ticking away as the Chinese officials huddle over a computer with my documents in hand, chatting away and exchanging a few jokes (at least I imagine so). All sorts of scenarios run through my mind. In hopes of ridding myself from the excess moisture building up in my eyes waiting patiently for me to lose it so it can pour down my cheeks, I ask them what can I do to make this go away? The response to this inquisition: “you wait.”
Fears unsuppressed and stomach unsettled, I do as I am told. Documents are spit out of a printer and my signature is requested amidst the illegible calligraphic Chinese characters. Eager to please my captors and not knowing if I am signing my life away, I shakily print my John Hancock as instructed and await my doom.
What happened next was one of the greatest moments of my life. It was as if all the clouds parted on my rainy day. I follow one of the officials through security, my documents are returned to me, and I am led to the currency exchange booth. I am asked for 500 RMB. Obligingly, I hand over the cash. The next thing I hear is music to my ears. “The plane is waiting for you.” I think this whole thing is a sick joke. I rush to the gate and just as I am about to step foot on the plane, my boarding pass to salvation is snatched from my hands for some “procedure.”
Stomach drops. Clouds return. I walk to my seat on the plane as though I am walking the plank, convinced that it is only a matter of time before they are going to fetch me back off the plane. But wait! That is not how this story ends! Sure enough, my boarding pass miraculously finds its way back into my possession. I snapped that seatbelt on with such determination you would think I actually believed it was the difference between life and death for me. Let’s just say I won’t plan to have any more layovers in China.