I retrieved my visa yesterday morning. The lines at the consulate were long. Strangers chatted with one another. The old woman behind me asked me something in Chinese. I shook my head, and she repeated the question in English. I answered her. The man in front of me turned and said, “This is going to be expensive.” I asked him if he was ready. He grinned and faced the counter again. When it was my turn to pay, I half expected the fee to be raised at the last minute, or for the teller to inform me of some complication with the application or to outright reject me because my Chinese was so poor.
The teller asked for the requisite $130, which I was ready for, and then she handed me my passport.
I stopped in the middle of the room to inspect it. Everything was there, neat, in order. Even the hyphen in my name. I kept flipping through the passport to make sure.
The woman who’d stood behind me in line was now sitting behind me on the bus. She said that the fee in the seventies had been five dollars. Then it rose for a while to thirty. And now this. She tsked. Then she said, “Why they have to pay the black guys, I don’t know.”
“The black guys. Security. We don’t need security there at the consulate.”
An Asian woman across the aisle had turned toward us. I couldn’t tell why she was staring. I didn’t know what to say. It occurred to me how futile it had been all those years ago to berate my parents for their prejudices. As a kid, I’d screamed at them, “Nobody is a ghost here. You can’t go around calling people ghosts.”
The woman behind me changed the subject: She’d lived here for fifty years, had learned English growing up in Hong Kong. And then: How long had I lived here? Where did I live now? Could I read and write in Chinese? Why not? Didn’t my parents love me? Where in China would I be visiting? When I mentioned Chengdu, she wrinkled her nose. Her wrinkled nose raised the sunglasses hiding her eyes. She looked like one of the protesters sitting outside the consulate, wrapped in blankets with wide, closed-off faces. “It’s all earthquake rubble,” she said. “Why would you want to go there?”
“To meet family,” I said.
“But still, why would you spend time there? It’s stuck in the past.”
“To meet friends,” I said.
“But there’s nothing to see.”
“I will see pandas,” I said. “Where will you be visiting?”
“Beijing, of course,” she said, and opened her newspaper.