Two weeks ago, I flew from Urumqi, Xinjiang, China to Almaty, Kazakhstan. The flight itself was totally uneventful. Then THE HOUR began… I took all my forms, letter of invitation, copies of passport, visa application, photos, and stood in line with four others, who also had all the same forms. Stamp, stamp, stamp, stamp, “Nyet! Deport!” The other four got their visa stamps, but I didn’t! I couldn’t believe this! So much planning and anticipation had gone into this trip. The purpose was to see my little patient, who was turning 18. Nearly nine years ago, I helped get her to America for surgery on her back. And this is how I was welcomed back to Kaz? “Nyet! Deport!!!” That is all the customs agent would say. I tried to explain to him why I was there. “Nyet! Deport!!!” He wouldn’t listen. No matter what I said or did, nothing worked, not even tears.
So I was escorted by the MILITARY out to the plane. The route was through the departure hall. I asked for my plane tickets. The military guy had to go and find my ticket. I asked about my suitcase. The military guy had to go and find someone to find my suitcase. I asked about my passport. The military guy had to go and find who still had my passport. As I was being escorted to the plane I had arrived on, tears were non-stop and very much overflowing, and I told them that I hadn’t even had a chance to tell my friends where I was. By this time, there are some Chinese people in the picture. They were very sensitive to my tears. One Chinese man working for the airline even gave me his cell phone. I couldn’t read the numbers through my tears, so he called my friends for me. This delayed the flight a bit (she writes with a smirk on her face). But then, they had to move the plane. Since I was now labeled a “criminal”, being deported I was put in a front seat, but not a First Class front seat. And a sky marshall was seated next to me. At least they spared me the handcuffs. I didn’t want to eat or drink on the flight, except for water – partly because of my tears, but also I didn’t want anything. The airline folks gave me customs forms to fill out, but wouldn’t give me my passport to do so. And, the forms were in Russian and Chinese – no English! The sky marshall was probably the rudest man I have ever met. And, he never even fastened his seat belt for takeoff or landing! When planes land in China, everyone always stands up before the plane comes to a complete stop. So I stood up with everyone else. The marshall glared at me and shouted at me to sit down! I asked him, “Wei shenme?” (why?) He told me again to sit down. In fact, three times he told me to sit down. Since I didn’t officially know who he was, I ignored him. Then the Chinese military showed up and escorted me off the plane first. When I got inside the terminal, another Chinese military man took over. He was sooooo nice. He gave me a form to fill out, and when I told him I didn’t know my visa or passport number, he read them to me. And the form was only in Chinese and Russian, so he went and found me one that was in English. But wouldn’t give me my passport. I didn’t actually get my passport back until after I had cleared customs and was stamped back into the country!
This HOUR was seemingly days long, though in actuality was less than two hours total. Two days later, I crossed the border on a 30-hour sleeper bus ride, with no problems at customs. I arrived with one hour left of my little patient’s Birthday. I told her that she should never doubt that she is well-loved – look how hard I worked to try and see her. And only one hour left of the American holiday of Thanksgiving. On the bus, I had the opportunity to reflect on the different things I was thankful for, and indeed, I was very thankful for finally gaining access to the country where I once worked.
Why was I deported? At first, the best I could imagine was that I was the only American trying to get my visa at the Almaty airport. This was very plausible. Americans aren’t liked throughout the world. I found out later that my host family actually talked with the man who had made the final decision to deport me. At first he said it was a “law”. When asked about which law in particular, he said it was a “rule”. When questioned about this, he said it came down to an arbitrary decision. There had been many foreigners crossing the border back and forth earlier in the month, and he wanted to stop the border crossings. And, I was American. My hour, my nightmare, was his control issue. The story isn’t finished, as the head of my host family works for a local, and highly respected, law firm…
For more "Hour" adventures, go here.