You’ve got a lot to learn,” warned my first neighbors in China, a wary older couple who eyed most things with an air of suspicion. During my first few months, while they weighed up whether I was a person to be trusted, they also took it upon themselves to warn me against the pitfalls that many new arrivals fell prey to. All caught up on the latest community happenings, they’d tell me which stores to avoid for price gouging, help me steer clear of the fabled scam artists who sought out uninitiated foreigners looking for an easy target, and advised - whatever I did - to keep my passport on me at all times.
Carrying their lessons (and my passport) around with me as I navigated early days in China, I narrowly avoided the odd scam, ducking around touts flogging counterfeit tickets and dodging out the way of unlicensed cab drivers looking to make a quick buck always emerging unscathed. As I adapted and relaxed into to life in my new city, their teachings became second nature. It wasn’t until years later when I would get caught out where I wasn’t even looking: At the hands of my trusted visa agent. Just as I should have known, it was life admin that would be my downfall.
Most of the time, a friend to many, these agents act as a lifeline for confused foreigners navigating the complexities of the increasingly strict visa system. Wherever you are in the world, you hear the anecdotal reports of people’s visa woes. Friends had recounted all kinds of tales about the teachers lured over to schools with promises of sponsorship only to be left on tourist visas, bosses who tried to hold on to employee passports, and people who’d unknowingly overstayed. But I wasn’t teaching, my company was legit, and this wasn’t my first rodeo.
Like anyone who’s traveled or worked abroad for a while, I’d navigated the world of visas more times than I cared to remember. After multiple trips to various official buildings marked by shades of grey, I was armed with all the right documents for a new work visa. Clutching stacks of paperwork emblazoned with bright red official stamps and still recovering from a good probing at the Chinese visa health center - a rite of passage for all foreigners living in China - I knew I didn’t need to worry about anything being out of place. My I’s were dotted, my T’s crossed.
That was when it all went wrong. Three months into the process - all precious paperwork in the hands of my agent, deposit paid, finish line in sight and Champagne (well, a cheap alternative) on ice - the date for my scheduled appointment at the immigration office came and went without any word. “These things happen,” I assured myself, “It’s perfectly normal.” “Delays happen. All. The. Time.” A few frantic attempts to get in touch with the agent resulted in deafening silence.
After a sleepless night of catastrophizing, the next afternoon my phone finally buzzed. I psyched myself up for the news that my application had been rejected (disappointing, but manageable) or a full stop was out of place and the papers needed to be done again (again, frustrating but not totally unexpected). Instead, it went like this:
My visa agent: “So, we no longer have your documents - including your passport,” followed by a long pause. “Right. But that’s normal yeah?” I replied hopefully, assuming this was just an overly dramatic way of telling me my paperwork was still with visa officials but the process had been put back weeks by an incorrect spelling (sigh.). The answer: Not exactly. The long and short of it, I would later discover, was that actually this once-trusted agent had an outside-the-law side hustle and my beloved passport was suspected collateral, presumed caught up in an office raid.
I was in a foreign country and my passport was MIA. My mind immediately chastised me for my foolishness, I’d ignored the golden rule: never let your passport out of your sight. Now ghosted by my visa agent, over the next two weeks, I was bounced between various administrative and official departments. A comedy of communication errors and confusion over its whereabouts resulted in my passport being officially declared lost, canceled, re-found and eventually returned to me with a warning to pick a better agent next time and not worth the paper it was printed on.
Despite the extra stress, expense and life admin that came from my “visa gate,” I refuse to look at it through a purely negative lens - I did really hate my old passport photo – I’ll still never let my passport out of my sight again.