One sluggish winter afternoon in early 2008, I had a momentary lapse of sanity. Many factors were to blame. There were the short winter days, meaning I entered Work before the sun had risen, and left Work after the sun went down. Utterly depressing. There were the endless spreadsheets that required mind-numbing attention to detail. There were the endless reports that were passed around internally from department to department like a pinball spinning aimlessly around in a pinball machine, pinging from one station to another, never resting, until it disappeared into the Black Hole of Approval. And there was me, a zombiefied drone in a cubicle, printing out reports like my job depended on it. All those factors resulted in my making a decision that changed my life: I decided to quit my job and run off to China.
Drastic? Yes. Melodramatic? Absolutely. Insane? I can’t argue with you there!
However, the fact remains. I did it. I ran off to China, but it took me another six months before I actually got on a plane and hopped across the Pacific. I didn’t realise it at the time, of course, but I was about to get the Full China Experience before I ever stepped on a plane.
Other people have talked about getting a full-ride scholarship in China. It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Send in an application, get a full-ride scholarship, enjoy your year (or more) in China. That was what I thought. I thought that applying for that scholarship would be a similar process to all the scholarships I’d ever applied for for college. Boy, was I wrong. This application process was so complicated that there was an entire forum thread dedicated only to applying for this specific scholarship. And those posts get so long that they make a new thread every year.
When I applied for the scholarship in the Dark Ages, nobody knew anything. That forum thread was still a work-in-progress, a tiny candle, lighting the way through the labyrinthine horror of opaque Chinese bureaucracy. My scholarship application process was complicated by the fact that I was a Singapore citizen living in the US. So… where did I send my application to? The Chinese embassy in the US? Or the Chinese embassy in Singapore? Did it even matter? Nobody knew.
I called the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, and the following conversation ensued:
Me: Hi, I’m calling about the CSC Scholarship…
Consulate Flunky: There’s no such scholarship.
Me: …but I’m looking right at the websi-
Consulate Flunky: Lies and deceit! *hangs up*
Me: Hello!? Hello? @#$%@#%!@#%@#$
Any half-way sane person would have given up right then. I mean, the website hadn’t been updated since 2006! What on earth was I thinking? I wasn’t, clearly. Yet I still persevered, and called up the Singapore Consulate in San Francisco, who weren’t much help either. But come on, it wasn’t like the scholarship was being offered by the Singapore government. They did give me the link to the website of the Chinese Embassy in Singapore.
I tried the phone number they gave me, but nobody answered. There wasn’t even an answering machine. I was to learn much later that Chinese people apparently never use answering machines. Out of luck, I tried the website for the Chinese Embassy in Singapore, and hit pay dirt. I found a page with 15 or so phone numbers. After checking out timezone tables, I set up shop one evening at my desk, pulled up a notepad and a good pen, and started dialing down the list of numbers. Out of 15 numbers, I was surely going to get somebody, right? Right? Ah, how naive I was. Of the 15 numbers, 13 of them were never picked up, 1 was a fax machine, and the last the visa line.
The hours I spent trying to contact people regarding this scholarship would probably have been better spent doing so many other things, but the insanity was strong in me back then. One day, in utter desperation, I managed to place a call through to the CSC headquarters in Beijing. (Don’t bother asking for the phone number, it doesn’t work any more. I suspect they changed it after I got through…) After getting routed through five different people, I managed to talk to somebody who seemed to be somewhat high up in the CSC food chain. He was so high up, in fact, that he only had enough time to say one sentence to me: “Apply at the Chinese embassy in the country you are a citizen of.”
I had literally spent weeks of research for one dude to say one sentence.
No matter, I sent in two packets to two different departments, since I had no idea who I was supposed to send the application to. I got the scholarship in the end, so I suppose those weeks weren’t wasted. I came to find out once I’d gotten to China that the crazy application process was merely a preview of what I could expect in China. Everything is done like this in China. Everything.
This fact is being brought home to me once again, as I navigate the convoluted twists-and-turns of returning to China. Though I am going for work this time, and the process is a little different, the craziness is still the same; but that’s a story for another time.