Friday, June 5, 2009

Enter The Dragon

Yes! After weeks of uncertainty, the China visa is finally stuck in my passport! Now there’s nothing that could possibly keep me from boarding that plane taking me and my two little ones towards Tibet this summer. Unless one of us unexpectedly dies, I will drag each and everyone of us onto that plane, come what may, serious!

They don’t say for nothing that you can take a person out of his phayul but you can’t take the phayul out of the person. I tell you I’ve been so homesick.

My eyes hurt from longing to gaze at those snow-capped mountains around my parents’ hometown; my nose is so eager to smell the aroma from the local farmers’ market in the middle of town; my ears want to hear the antique Tibetan dialect spoken; my lungs want to breathe the clear mountain air. I’ve been starving with all my senses and now it’s going to happen.

I’m so happy.

I’m so happy I completely forget the humiliating trips to the Chinese embassy it usually takes in the forefront.

Although I’m a bona fide citizen of this country, I can’t line up with the regular folks at the visa counter of the Chinese embassy. I need to call in advance and make an appointment with that specific guy who is in charge of handling visa requests from Tibetan expats.

Visa applications by regular folks get handled at the counter by clerks from the Foreign Affairs Office. It normally takes four days to issue a regular tourist visa. If you pay an express fee, you get it the same day.

Visa applications by Tibetan expats get handled by a bureaucrat from the Tongzhanbu, somewhere in the back office of the embassy. In my case, the United Front bureaucrat is not even an ethnic Chinese; he’s one of us, probably the saddest part in this whole thing.

So I called the guy up and fixed the appointment. Then I went to the embassy on the agreed day, to apply to be allowed to apply for a permit.

I handed in my application forms plus the sheet providing exact details where I would go, where I would stay, who I would visit, how I was related to them and the telephone numbers to contact.

I asked him when I could expect his call that I could come for the visa application.

“Well, that is not possible to say in advance”, the bureaucrat tells me without looking up from his paperwork.

My head is going: “Don’t mess with me, wannabe.”

But my mouth says: “Oh, just tell me roughly based on your long experience, Gen-la.”

“20 days”, he says again without looking up from the paperwork.

I know he has to refer my application back to the Tongzhanbu headquarter, and the headquarter would refer it to the Tongzhanbu regional office, and the regional office would refer it to the local office, and all the way down the ladder, until it lands on the Tongzhanbu desk of my parents’ hometown. That’s the procedure. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s the way it is.

Let me tell you what is wrong.

The guy is a pervert. He loves to be intransparent, enjoys keeping people in uncertainty and, worst of all, is corrupt.

Two years ago, when I went through the same procedure he said I could only get a visa if I bought the air ticket from him. That would be the new procedure.

I innocently asked why it was considered necessary to introduce a new procedure.

Don’t fall off your chairs.

He said a lot of Tibetans would either not return or not arrive properly, that’s why they introduced this new rule with everyone having to fly with a Chinese airline.

I bet you the Chinese ambassador had no clue what our little zangbao was doing right under his nose. Abuse of authority in its purest form.

Luckily I could talk myself out of the situation by telling him I needed to travel a certain route which would not be covered by “his” ticket. He grudgingly said, ok for this time, but next time, don’t do it like that.

Well, when I went back this time, there was no mentioning of the air ticket. I trust he realised it’s wiser not to engage in irregular activities.

Once when I was living in Tibet, I was summoned by the police.

They came into my classroom in the middle of a lesson. No idea what the students thought when the teacher was taken away by Public Security people.

There were three of them Gong An’s behind a huge desk in that office and I was by myself seated on the opposite side of the desk. I got a severe scolding in Chinese from the fat boss and his two side-kicks for working on a tourist visa. How come I did that? His fist came smashing down on the table. For sure I must know that’s against the law?

Actually the school had told me they would sort the visa thing out when they hired me. But obviously they had not done it at that point. That’s all I could try to say to the police and ask them to speak to the school principal.

Thinking back it could have been a stereotype scene straight from a Bollywood movie, making the police look really shabby: Three of them ganging up on a somewhat na├»ve young woman who couldn’t even speak well enough to explain herself. The story only got sorted out because a knight-in-shining-armour came to my rescue and managed to explain the whole “case”.

And believe it or not, the villain in my story, the fat police guy, got stabbed in the stomach a few weeks later during a fight in a night club. Bollywood again!

Meanwhile, a few months later, the knight and I got married. Bollywood all over:--)

But at the time though it wasn’t funny. It was scary. The surreal thing remains the utter loss of countenance of these people in that police office and the uneasy feeling that no one seemed to be able control these guys.

Years later, I ran into one of them by accident. He greeted me as if we were old pals, so cordially: “Oh hello, hi, it’s you! When did you come back? We’ve met, remember?”

That stinking rat.

Yet I forced myself to smile back: “Oh yes! I remember! You are so and so. How have you been?”

I hated myself for doing that. It sounded as if I was selling my soul.

But in effect, I was calculating in cold blood: You may need his help sometime down the road. He may know someone whose help you may need to get something done. Even if he doesn’t have any useful connections, he could still harm your projects or people connected to you, so you’d better not give him any reason. It would be unwise to jeopardise chances in the heat of the moment.

I would have loved to just beat him up, but one thing you learn when you enter the dragon is to never allow yourself to get irritated by its raw demeanor. That can completely backfire, so don’t be like Bruce Lee, be a tough cookie.

Be like Sunzi in The Art of War.

Beat them with their own weapons. Use people like the police guys or the embassy guy a thousand times in return. The worse they act, the more focused you become.

There are a lot of them, all members of the much discussed new aristocracy who are complicating the political situation with their vested interest and their feudal mindsets. They thrive in this situation of intransparency and unaccountability.

What they don’t know is that they can’t win. Tibet will always be bigger than all of them combined.

As our Lamas say:

"The sword of hatred is ornamented with the handle of invasion,
A red star has imprisoned the sun and moon,
The high snow-peaked mountains are cloaked in the darkness of a poisonous wind;
The peaceful valleys have been shattered by the sound of artillery.
But the dignity of the Tibetan people competes with the glory of the sky."

Chogyam Trungpa

I only hope I can vaguely remember these lines when I enter the dragon this summer.

Mountain Phoenix

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