Saturday, September 06, 2008

My papers

After a much-needed break, I'm back at printculture on Fridays (that is, if I can get my act together).

Post from:
Or: What I did on my printculture vacation.

I spent my printculture vacation moving from Seoul to Shanghai. Moving on a tight budget requires a paring down process -- we ended up giving or throwing away a good portion of our belongings and all of our furniture and were still left with about a ton of stuff to transport to our new home. But the logistics of transporting stuff turned out to be a lot less complicated and interesting than the logistics of transporting our identities from one country to another. And that process, it turns out, is one of accumulation -- of documents, stamps, and allegiances sworn and committed.

I thought of H Saussy’s post “Your Papers” many times over the past few months as I tried to get our visas straightened out. H asks, “One project for those who really want to enumerate the brass tacks of nationality and nationalism would be to study the emergence of these famous “papers.” Who got the idea first? How did the practices of “keeping tabs” grow and change?” “What was the nature of the links between the document carried by the citizen in his or her pocket and the files against which it would be verified or supplemented?”

I wasn’t out to investigate nationality, systems of accountability, or systems of verification, but I kept subbing my toes on the corners of these topics. [And having taken a month off from writing I will approach them with baby steps.] All I was trying to do was document the family relationships between my husband, me, and our kids so that we could get the appropriate visas to reside in China. This process was complicated by the fact that my husband and I are citizens of different countries and our children our dual citizens; it was also complicated by the more stringent visa regulations the Chinese government had implemented in preparation for the Olympics.

Korea is one of those relatively panoptic nations — each citizen has a resident’s number, needed for everything from opening a bank account, reserving a movie ticket online, and visiting the doctor. On a practical level this makes Income taxes pretty simple because everything you do is recorded under your number. There are no joint bank accounts. Even foreigners holding a “resident foreigner” number have trouble in Korea: we can’t get credit cards, have trouble getting a cell phone (also registered under one’s number), and run into problems ordering things online. I wouldn’t want to be a criminal in Korea, but for the purposes of establishing identity my job was easier. From the Korea side all I needed was one document — the 가족관계증명서 (family relationship document) from any neighborhood office (동사무서). We had to have it translated and authenticated by the Chinese embassy in Seoul. This document in itself is relatively new, a stripped down version of the all-important Family Register (호적등본). It shows that our children are indeed our children and that my husband and I are married, but my kids are listed (of course) under their Korean names and my name is written into the document in Korean and with no other identifying numbers. Would the Chinese officials recognize “이제니퍼” as “Jennifer Lee”? National documentation is self-referencing and doesn’t include many options for people who don’t belong to the same national system. If we ended up using the kids’ American passports would we have problem with their name inconsistencies? With all those potential problems we thought it best to cover all our bases and go through the steps of processing the American documentation.

On the American side things were considerably more complicated. Documents like birth and marriage certificates are issued by states (and counties within states) and therefore need to go through several layers of authentication. I was married in Northern California, my older son was born in Michigan, and my youngest was born abroad; therefore I needed to request documents from three different places, have each signed by a notary, and then have each certified by the secretary of state which has jurisdiction over that location. Then each document needed to be sent to the Chinese consulate or embassy for that location: the marriage certificate sent to San Francisco (not Los Angeles -- it was returned to me), one birth certificate to Chicago, one to the embassy in Washington, D.C. Since I was doing all this from Korea with help from my mother in San Diego, you can imagine the cost and time involved. Getting consulate certification of the SOS-certified marriage certificate alone took about a month.

In the end it turns out we didn’t use any of the American documents; it took too long to acquire them and since visas for Korean citizens are cheaper than those for American citizens we ended up sending the kids to China on their Korean passports. (The new regulations also means we received six month single-entry visas instead of year long multiple-entry ones. Guess we won’t be leaving the country for six months.)

While I was doing the groundwork to establish an identity in China (an identity bound to my husband and children) I still had to maintain my identity in Korea. I was living in Korea on a two-year family visa (my ability to stay in the country again dependent on my relationship to my husband) but my visa was going to expire a month before our move. I could have stayed in Korea for 90 days without a visa but then I would have to give up my resident’s card and the aforementioned resident foreigner number, making it difficult to do anything.
Family visa holders are really only supposed to receive one year but depending upon the mood of the processing officer and how well you can mimic desperation or trustfulness you can receive more time, as I did — my last visa had been for two years. But in those two years I had forgotten which documents I needed and the immigration office website and online reservation system had changed. I spent a good deal of time trying phone numbers trying to figure out which documentation I needed before making the trip out to the immigration office, only to find out upon arrival that I had made the reservation incorrectly. I must have the look of desperation down, because the officer in the reservation-only line took pity on me (the non-reservation line was at least 70 people long) and served me, but asked me why I hadn’t applied for the equivalent of a green card. We hadn’t even known such a thing existed, and it turns out I had been eligible to apply for one for the last two years. If only we had known! That would have saved us a lot of money and time, and would have enabled me to come and go from Korea with such ease. But it was too late; I didn’t have two months to go through the application process. Laws and procedures in the Immigration Office are purposefully opaque.

The state has a little trouble with people who don’t fit into strict citizen/foreigner categories (of which there are increasingly many). For the Korean visa one of the documents I needed to bring was my husband’s 주민등록등번, a document which shows his resident’s number. The problem is that he doesn’t have one because he himself is a green card holder in the U.S., he has to use the 국내거소신고사실증면 (Certification of Domestic Residence Report) instead. He is a citizen without a citizen’s number, ineligible to vote or apply for a credit card. Our children had to be registered under their grandfather’s name in the Family Register in order to be eligible to attend public school.

We finally arrived in China and promptly (within 24 hours) reported to the local police station to receive the “Registration form of Temporary Residence,” which we needed to convert our visas. Given our experience in Korea and the complication of applying for visas I was surprised how easy it was to apply for a credit card — all I needed was a passport, a contact in China who would vouch for me, and a hunk of cash. I didn’t need to make myself a stamp/chop for banking the way I did in Korea, although the tellers use them frequently. I still have a collection of stamp/chops (도장) from Korea: the 인감도장, registered with the government, is used for very important legal documents, while other stamps/chops are used for bank accounts and less important documents.

So here I am with a folder full of papers from three countries creating a web of verification and cross checks, cobbling us together as a family unit despite the multiple passports and names. I closed two bank accounts when I left Korea (leaving two behind) and opened three more here. I have a drawer full of stamps/chops, cards, and OCTPs so that I can move my money around. I have a new “parent card” that authorizes me to be the one to pick up my child when he arrives on the school bus. I have a new access card to enter my apartment building. “Show me your papers,” in retrospect, seems like such a simple request. Now it is more like, “Show me your passport, your ID cards, your fingerprint, your 6-digit PIN, and bring someone who can vouch for you.” This is no longer just a question of the government keeping tabs over its own citizens, but of, on the micro level, needing to provide proof of identity for small, daily level tasks, and on the macro level, finding ways to check identities across borders as international travel and exchange increase in frequency and volume. To go back to H’s questions, I too am curious: “How did the practices of “keeping tabs” grow and change?” “What was the nature of the links between the document carried by the citizen in his or her pocket and the files against which it would be verified or supplemented?”


P.S. Because of GreatFirewall issues, I can't hit livejournal, wordpress, etc. sites. Blogger's ok. I try to read things through google reader, but I can only do that if the full feed is available... vTunnel is ok but slow for some reason. So my plea is: make the full feed available! Thanks!

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