Wednesday, April 5, 2006

It's no fun, being an illegal alien

Ah Phil, you sing it so true:

I hope those who know me think I am a patient and honest person. I also hope that you know that I’m not fabricating or exaggerating this story at all. Let me finally state that I apologize for the length, but in order to make it accurate and cover all my bases, I have had to sacrifice some journalistic pizzazz.

After two months of trying to live in Taipei (and I emphasize trying), I am quite amazed that I still have my sanity.

First let me say that I started this blog as kind of a travelogue for my time in Taipei. I was hoping to document it week after week with an interesting post. The problem is that the first few posts were more rants and kind of negative. I thought I should probably wait until I had some positive experiences to write about: those of us who have traveled before all have had culture shock but it usually turns around quickly. A positive thing will come along… any day now.

And before I go on, at the risk of sounding immodest, let me also note that this is not being written by a ‘newbie’. This September will be my 10 year anniversary of traveling to and living in Asia. I have lived in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai, often for periods of over a year or more.

Okay, that being said, let me start by unraveling my story:

It all started when I visited Taiwan about a year ago around this time. Like many, I was impressed with the people, the place and the general air of sophistication that goes with living in many large Asian cities. Also with a few friends here, I had a really good time. It’s always more fun when you are visiting friends.

My first two degrees have focused on China-related topics and though Chinese competency was requisite for my degrees, I have always dreamt of really ‘mastering’ my Chinese. In 2002, I was awarded the China-Canada National Scholarship (CCSEP) in which I got to go to Beijing to study Mandarin. Sadly, because of SARS, my study was cut short only a few months in (we had time off for Xmas and Chinese New year) so I never really got to achieve my aim.

Anyhow, I got in into my head that maybe I should give Taiwan a try. After all, Taiwan is also a Mandarin speaking region (as much as can be said for China—every place has its regional dialects). So I went about looking for the best Chinese language program. From advice from various friends and forums, I was told that National Taiwan Normal University was the best place to study. So I applied by the required date in January and looked forward to starting my studies in March 2006.

There was nothing from the school for about two weeks after my application, so like any student anxious to get going, I wrote the school and told them that I needed to get going if I was going to arrive in Taiwan early enough to be there for registration, which was around February 21. It already stated that you should register as early as possible in order to get the proper classes, etc.

Anyhow, I had hoped to arrive a few days early—five, actually—so I could actually take my placement test without worrying about jet lag. So there I was writing in the second week of February saying that I had the application in a week before the deadline and should I be making plans to buy a plane ticket, etc. I received a short one-line email saying that I was indeed accepted and a letter of admission had been sent but might take a few weeks to arrive. Please remember that I had told them that I really needed to get going in order to make it in time. Also note that there was no mention of any specific visa processes that I needed to follow.

Knowing that I was accepted and had a formal letter on its way, I quickly booked my plane ticket and got about getting my visa application ready. Checking the university website, I read that once you had a formal letter of admission you could apply for a visa, so I hurried off to the ROC ‘underground’ consulate to get my visa.

I thought it was interesting that I entered the TECO (Taiwan Economic and Cultural Affairs Office) to the sounds of some white guy raving about being treated like a criminal. He told them he wanted all his visa materials back and there was no way he was going. It seems they had made him sign some sort of confession or something. Obviously, this guy was LOONIE…

Next, it was my turn. I walked up with my bank statements, air tickets and other requisite items for getting the visitor visa and laid out my application for the attendant. She looked it over and told me that I had to change my plane ticket because I could only stay in Taiwan for a maximum of 180 days. I had intended on studying for two semesters so I had booked a September return. I told her that I understood and I would arrange another ticket to leave Taiwan, probably to visit some friends in Hong Kong. (I lived in Hong Kong for about 3 years from 1996-2000, so I always love going back.)

“You must declare this statement on a piece of paper and sign it,” was the attendants response. Was this the ‘confession’ the loonie was talking about? Boy, was he touchy…

As I took a piece of paper and began writing ‘I LWB solemnly swear to leave Taiwan before 180 days’, the attendant quickly added:

“Also, you must write that you will not work or study while you are in Taiwan.”

Study, how? “Do you mean teach?” I asked her. “No, study… like study Chinese.” But that was why I was going!

“Do they change the visa once I get to Taiwan?” I asked. It seemed reasonable after my experience in British Hong Kong, the HKSAR and Mainland China. Most of these places make you enter as a visitor and then you have to go and register to become a permanent resident, student, or whatever. I’ve done this a lot of times on HK and the mainland. Plus, the university website had mentioned about after 4 months you apply for an Alien Resident Card (ARC).

“I don’t know anything about that” was the attendant’s response. So standing there, pen in hand I had a choice. I surmised that this was just some legal red tape and that I would be instructed on what to do after registering at the university (after all, I wasn’t yet a registered student, so it still kind of made sense… you are visitor until you are a registered student.) So I took the pen and wrote, I understand that I cannot work or study under a visitor’s visa. And off the visa went to be processed. It was either that or don’t go at all. The visa was returned the three days later and off I went to Taipei.

Returning to Taipei was nice, except that on arrival I had some bad dumplings and that laid me up with food poisoning for about 5 days—lost about 10 lbs. Oh well, I needed to lose weight anyway. Since I was spending most of my time on the porcelain throne, I phoned the school and told them my difficulty. No problem, they said, just come in the same week and register late.

Around this time, it started to sink in what kind of a predicament I was in. I had hoped to live with my friends at the other end of the city and commute to school, at least part of the way, by scooter. Of course, to do that I would need to purchase a scooter and convert my license. This is where the first shoe dropped. I found out to do any of this—that is to register a scooter or even get a license to drive one—I needed to have an ARC. What was I going to do in the four months to get to school. ‘Drive illegally,’ I was told, ‘everyone else does’.

Determined to obey the laws, I started taking the bus to school, because it wasn’t really that difficult. It made the commute in just over one hour. I could leave around 11am and arrive just after noon.

So I arrived at school fresh from my commute the first day for orientation. ‘Visas’ our cheery, church-going, mandarin-speaking, white-guy host informed us, ‘are so complicated here. You can talk to our visa specialist if you have any questions.’ So I cued up, well, mauled up with the throng of others who were trying to figure out what the hell was going on. After a moment, I was told that my ‘visitor’ visa, needed to have a note saying that I was allowed to study. That’s funny: that was what I was told not to do when I got the visa in the first place.

Oh well, so I went up to the ‘visa specialist’ and asked him how to get the little note.

“I’m very sorry,” he apologized, bowing his head, “but you must leave Taiwan and apply for another visa.” “Sorry,” he said again, “so many students are in this same situation.” Also, I was told that the ‘four months’ mentioned on the university website, would not start until I had the little note on my visitor’s visa. A visitor’s student visa, who woulda thunk it? It took a minute before the logic kicked in… how could the university let me walk in and register without the proper visa? I mean, I wasn’t even told until this point… were they just going to let me study there without a proper visa?

“So you let me enroll here illegally?” I asked him. He didn’t seem to like the tone of my question and that was the end of our conversation. So there I was, an illegal student in Taiwan. The concept of illegal student seemed so funny to me. Like if I was caught at an intersection with a dictionary or Chinese book, the policeman upon examining my passport would yell out, “you can’t be learning here! You’re not allowed!” Anyhow, yup, there I was, LWB, the illegal student.

The rest of the orientation was a blur. The good thing was I was allowed to miss 10 hours of class a month, and since classes were two hours long, I could probably take a week and go to Hong Kong and renew. Considerable expense, that: preparing a whole new application and then buying a ticket, hotel, etc. not to mention missing class.

Anyhow, I figured, since I was illegal, but enrolled, I would take a few weeks and then escape to Hong Kong to become a bona fide, legal student. You don’t want to skip the first week of class, right?

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, er, university, I realized I had been assigned classes that started at 8:10 in the morning. My heart sunk thinking of the one hour or so commute plus the bus schedule. I was going to have to be getting up at 5:30 in order to avoid rush hour and get to class on time. Grueling.

‘Classes cannot be changed without a valid reason. Work schedules are not a valid reason’ said the sheet. I supposed commute times and busses wouldn’t be either. Anyway after a few classes, I kind of liked my teacher and the small class (no one comes that early) so I decided to stick with it.

After about a week of being packed at the break of dawn into an over-crowded, unsafe bus that was standing room only, it was much easier to start driving illegally. Hey, I was an illegal student, so why shouldn’t I be an illegal driver? So I bought a scooter registered to someone who had already left Taiwan and started driving to work. All perfectly normal, I was assured by the folks here.

After about a week driving downtown, I was much more rested and could actually form words in class, but the polluted air was beginning to take its toll. No longer was I just sitting in class tasting exhaust fumes, but I was starting to cough too. I started driving the scooter to the nearest subway (MRT) station instead. Less polluted, way less dangerous, and hey, between driving illegally and attending class illegally, I don’t think I was violating any law taking the subway.

Anyhow, the week after I bought the scooter, the friend I live with had an accident. He was pretty wrecked up so I stayed home to help him that (Monday) morning and ended up going in to teach his class as well. So that was two hours off my ten. Oh well, I had holidays coming up so I could use those to go to HK and get a ticket.

The next day, however, after six hours of teaching in a small sauna, I was so washed out that I missed another class. I was just totally exhausted. On Wednesday I made it in to class but really didn’t do too well because my voice was too deep to understand. Thursday, I woke up with a fever and trouble breathing. Friday I knew I had bronchitis.

Next Monday, I missed class because the bronchitis had turned into rales (pronounced rawls, I’m told). This is when your lungs fill up with putrid sputum and you get that bubbling effect. It’s kind of like breathing through a hookah or a sponge. I had this problem once before when I had viral pneumonia. I knew this was not good, because only severe bronchitis has this kind of problem. Anyhow the rest of the week was spent going to doctors, taking antibiotics and just generally feeling like crap. I didn’t lose the fever that weekend. Twenty hours of class missed.

The third week of this lung infection was my holidays and brings us to the present. In case you are wondering, how this related to my illegal problems, I woke up this Tuesday to realize that I had already stayed in Taiwan 60 days as a visitor and had to renew my visa before it was too late (you must check in at the police station every 60 days).

Meanwhile, I was faced with the fact that since I had already missed 20 hours of school, I couldn’t present the requisite attendance record and I was likely to be denied an extension. Luckily playing stupid at the police station got me the ‘we’ll do it this once but never again without the proper records’ treatment and I am renewed for another 60 days. However, since I have missed over 10 hours under ‘Ministry of Education’ stipulations, I should be booted out of school and never allowed to re-enrol. Also, my marks aren’t that hot either so I don’t have much to stand on.

So I don’t know whether to hop on my illegal scooter and illegally drive to school tomorrow and illegally attend class or just stay home and rest my lungs and wish I never, ever, even formed the thought of coming to Taiwan to try and live or study.

I’ll keep you posted.


No comments:

Post a Comment