Monday, June 9, 2008

The American Embassy

The U.S. embassy in Beijing is located off of Jianguomen Dajie (Jianguomen Street), just west of the Silk Market, the most well-known shopping destination for westerners who want to bargain shop for fake or off-label products. When I was here before I didn't register but since I'm now planning to be here for an extended period of time, and am no longer associated with a formal program, I decided that registering my whereabout would be worthwhile in the unlikely case of an emergency.

I went a couple of days after my arrival back in Beijing, on a beautiful afternoon for being outside and walking through the tree-lined streets of the embassy area in Central Beijing. The U.S. embassy is in an area behind the centrally located Silk Market shopping center, off of Jianguomen Dajie. I found the guarded gate to the old embassy area and saw that there were signs saying there were no cell phones or cameras allowed so I walked into the enclosed area where there were lockers for people to leave their things, only to be shooed away by several older Chinese women who looked at me like I was crazy and said "American? No!" while shaking their hands to indicate that I didn't have to leave my things. The guard at the gate looked at my passport, asked what I wanted, then let me through.

One of the first compounds across the street was the American Embassy. There's a guard house at the entrance, complete with metal detector and x-ray machine. I had to hand over my cell phone and camera for safekeeping before being allowed entrance and had to explain the reason for my visit. I said I wanted to register and was given a number, then I walked out of the guardhouse and into the compound proper, over a cement walkway to a side entry manned by a marine behind bullet-proof glass. He buzzed the door open and pointed me down the hall when I asked where to go to register. I found the correct room and entered it to see about fifteen people, children and adults, sitting on the three or four benches or standing at one of the four windows. The windows were covered with (probably bullet-proof) glass. I sat down and observed my fellow Americans - some tourists, some Beijing residents. We each waited for out number to be called and I was happy to only have to wait about fifteen or twenty minutes to be seen.

My main reason to be there was to register my location, in case of an emergency. However, I decided to take advantage of my visit to do something that I used to dream about doing when I was a little kid: get extra pages added into my passport. When I was little I thought it would be exciting and romantic to travel so much that I would need more space for all of the visas and stamps. Issued in August 2001, my passport now houses entry and exit stamps from Canada, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Morocco, Peru, Singapore and Thailand, in addition to the several full-page visa stickers and entry and exit stamps from China, and is nearly full. U.S. embassies add additional pages into valid U.S. passports for free.

While I was waiting I filled out the simple one-page form to request additional pages. When my name was called I met briefly with a Chinese woman speaking good but not completely fluent English and she took my passport away to have the new pages added, gave me the registration form and told me to sit back down, fill out the form and wait for her to call me again. The registration form was about half the size of letter-sized piece of paper and asked for my name, passport number, reason for being in China, local and U.S. contact information, and expected departure date. My name was called after about ten minutes; I turned in the form and received my passport back, with 12 additional pages (24 if you count both sides) sewn into the middle. Now I can keep traveling and not worry about whether or not I have enough space to get into or out of countries that have requirements about that sort of thing.

I still don't know anyone from the U.S. embassy. I've socially met people from a number of other embassies, African and European. I have met other Americans, through hiking or social events, but no one from the embassy.

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