So much of Manhattan is patches of slick tourist traps bristling with selfie sticks and oversized billboards. But if you look carefully into the perpetual scaffolding, you can still find the hotel where Tesla died in love with a pigeon, or where Washington was inaugurated around the corner from TJMaxx. If you care about that sort of thing, turn away from the selfie sticks at your own risk. There is a comfort only tourists know.
At the far end of 42nd Street, across from a windowless bowling alley, is the Chinese Consulate. When I applied for a visa last summer, the line stretched from the door halfway down the block. We stood in the sun behind a velvet rope fanning ourselves with our papers. On the other side of the rope, protesters waved signs and shouted about jailed lawyers and human rights violations. The signs and shouting were all in Chinese so most of the people in line were confused and a little scared. This frustrated the protesters and they shouted louder. Security guards walked nervously between the two groups. They also did not understand Chinese.
Past the metal detector and x-ray machine, a man in a black suit scrutinized every document before allowing anyone into the waiting area. I watched him tell an old man to come back the next day because he was missing a copy of his driver’s license.
“But my flight is next week! I don’t have time to come back tomorrow!” he said.
The man in the suit barely looked at him when he said, “You should have planned better.”
Like the most authentic Chinese restaurants in the city, the Consulate has horrible yelp reviews for service. People online complained about being turned away for merely dressing too casually. “This is China,” someone was told, probably by this very man in front of me. “Show some respect: don’t wear flip-flops.”
When it was my turn, the man spoke in clipped, newscaster Mandarin even though my passport was American.
“Why are you going to China?”
“To visit a friend.”
“Where is the copy of your friend’s ID?”
I pulled it from the bottom of my pile of papers.
He handed me a number on a small slip of paper and gestured to the waiting area.
A sign warned that phones were not allowed, and a security guard walked around admonishing violators. Fortunately, the wait was not long since only those with perfect files were there.
A week later I went back to pick up my visa. There was no line this time, or protesters. The entire block was eerily quiet. Giant metal grates covered the windows of the Consulate and even the buildings around it loomed silent. The only signs of life on the whole street were three middle-aged women cackling by the door.
The loudest of them had curly hair that was intended to be blonde but came out the orange of grease left at the bottom of a pan after frying beef with cumin. She was talking to a woman carrying a large Coach purse. They spoke Mandarin in a high-pitched chatter I have come to associate with the middle-aged nouveau riche flooding out of China in search of luxury handbags and discount tour packages. The third woman stood silently, staring at the empty pier with kohl-lined eyes. Even from across the street I could tell she had had work done. Her eyes did not move with the rest of her face.
As I walked towards the embassy, Eyeliner looked at me out of the corners of those artificial eyes. Orange Perm and Coach Purse turned towards me. Coach Purse did a quick scan from the bottom of my scuffed flats to the beads of sweat on my forehead. I suddenly suspected my sundress was too tight and wondered if my makeup might be melting. My hair was probably getting frizzy from the humidity. I stood up a little straighter.
“Hello, Aunties.” I said, with my most deferent smile. Politeness had always gotten me results, especially with old Chinese women. For good measure, I opened my eyes stupidly wide trying to look more respectful. The woman with the Coach purse took off her glasses and handed them to Orange Perm who then also gave me a quick once-over.
“Aunties?” she said. “You should call us ‘Sisters’”. She laughed and pointed to the silent woman with the lined eyes. “Doesn’t she look more like your ‘sister’ than your auntie?” Eyeliner smiled her frozen-eyed smile but did not look at me.
I suppose I should have apologized and insisted that yes, of course they could be my sisters. My mother had taught me how to be charming after all, especially to middle-aged women. But somehow I could not. Even with makeup and plastic surgery, they looked twice my age.
“Are you trying to get into the Consulate?” Asked Coach Purse, adjusting her namesake. She smiled at me like one smiles at a toddler taking his first steps.
“Yes.” I smiled back.
“They just closed. You’ll have to come back on Monday.”
“But the website says they close in two hours.”
Orange Perm laughed again. Her teeth were stained yellow and brown and she quickly covered her mouth with her hand. My mother could always tell someone’s age by their teeth. Doctors in China used excessive amounts of antibiotics in the 60’s and 70’s for even simple things like ear infections and colds. It led to terrifying supergerms in China today and permanently damaged teeth for many who were children then. Yes, these women were definitely “aunties”.
“Don’t you know?” she said when she finished laughing. “You’re not in America anymore.”
She nodded her head at the Consulate.
“This is China. They close early, open late, and take two hours off for lunch. There’s no smiles and no unnecessary words. Get in. Get out. It’s much more efficient.”
“Are you going to China to visit family?” asked Coach Purse.
“A friend,” I said.
“And you’re going alone?”
Two years ago, I ran into a group of Chinese college students in the subway who asked me for directions. I happened to be going the same way and we ended up hanging out for the rest of the day. We kept in touch and now I was going to visit them in a part of China even my parents have never seen. I saw it as an opportunity for a truly authentic experience. What would these three women say to that?
“Be careful when you get there. You kids from America are so innocent.”
“Don’t look at the rules that are written down. Look at what people around you are doing.”
“Don’t smile so much. Americans are always smiling.”
“I’m sure everything will be fine on Monday.” said the woman with the Coach purse. “Come a little earlier and you should catch them after lunch.”
I thanked her and turned back down 42nd Street.
“Welcome to China!” Orange Perm called after me. Eyeliner, who had been silent the entire time, smiled with tight lips. Her eyes followed a few seconds later. Coach Purse shook her head.
I walked back toward the herds of confused tourists. In two blocks they surrounded me. In three they overwhelmed.
A Halal cart sent fragrant plumes into the Theatre District and I stopped for a chicken kabob. The vendor handed me a skewer liberally seasoned and still sizzling from the grill. Orange grease settled in the creases of the aluminum wrapper. He didn’t say any unnecessary words, just extended a hand through the smoke for my bills and another with my food.
“Hey, China doll!” a man at the corner yelled. He was handing out fliers for the newest Off-Off-Broadway production. As I walked past, he called after me, “Come on. Not even a smile?”
I walked towards 7th Ave, ripping charred chunks of meat with my teeth. I wiped the juices off my chin while all around me tourists tried to capture a city on the flat screens of their phones. One more block would bring me to Times Square, a place so New York that no New Yorker would be seen there. But one more block and young professionals lunch on a manicured lawn where the poor were once buried and forgotten.