I flew back into Chengdu from Malaysia for a second visit (transiting via Hong Kong). It had been a long day. It was late when I arrived (and by which point I was pretty shattered).
On this visit, I was re-entering China without a visa on the basis of a 24 hour exemption.
After a long queue, I approached the immigration desk handing over my passport and arrival card. After a quick flick through my passport and a few cursory glances, the immigration officer looks quizzically at me and asks where my visa is. I explain the 24 hour stop over exemption and she retreats to speak to her supervisor. Cue a few huddled conversations with said supervisor, and various pointing and glancing in my general direction.
Said supervisor approaches and asks me to follow him to a separate desk. He’s pretty sharp and looks like he means business. I follow him wondering what’s going on (frantically trying to remember if I’ve made some stupid political comments about China on social media).
Picking up my passport he slowly leafs through the pages stopping at my photograph. He takes a long look at the picture. He brings the passport closer to his face studying the image (all the while making furtive, suspicious, glances in my direction). I’m not sure what to do so I smile. He glares. I stop smiling. This goes on for an age. He bangs the passport down and announces that the picture doesn’t look like me: ‘It’s not you’ he says.
Great, I’m thinking. ‘It’s me’ I tell him. ‘Your hair’s different’ he says. ‘Yes, it’s lighter now’ I explain.
Various sighing and head shaking follow. He retreats to an office re-emerging ten minutes later. He continues to rifle through the passport pages. He stops at a previous Indian visa and considers the photograph. Who is this in this picture he says. Again, I explain that it’s me but that my hair is maybe a little darker than it is now. ‘You look different’ he barks at me. ‘I don’t think this is you’ he again says. I explain it is me.
It’s 11.30pm, I’m tired, have very little make-up on, and my hair has expanded (probably) a good ten inches with frizz. I probably did look a bit different in the picture to the hobo look I was rocking at that moment. I try to make a bit of a joke about this. This didn’t go down well. I stop talking.
I’m starting to wonder what’s actually going on and what’s going to happen. Am I going to be deported back to HK (not so bad)?!? Am I going to be carted off to a Chinese detention centre (bad)?!? When you’re half way around the world it’s very difficult to prove that you are who you say you are.
Aha – I pull out my UK drivers licence. ‘Look, it’s me’ I say. He whips this from my hand and then shakes his head. ‘This is not you’ he says. FFS I’m thinking at this point. I explain that although the picture was taken some 15 years ago it’s me. He continues to shake his head and glares.
‘Ask me anything, I can tell you anything about me’ I say. I start to reel off my address, what I’ve been doing, how many times I’ve been to China etc….He just stares back at me continuing to glare.
He tells me to wait there. He returns with another immigration officer. Lots more glares. More compares of the passport picture against my face. More shakes of the head.
Finally, after what feels like an eternity he stamps 24 hour entry into my passport and sends me on my way. Just like that. No further comments.
I return 5 minutes later from the luggage hall. ‘My bag’s not there’ I say. More glares.
Maybe I’ll update my passport picture…