A Fiasco of Olympic Proportions

pig parts in Beijing

A man sleeps on the job at his open-air meat stall. My husband took this picture in China, but the country wouldn’t let me in.

I admit I’m a bit sad watching all those misty-eyed scenes of Beijing (or is it “smog-filled eyes”?) from afar, knowing I was not allowed to participate in this One World One Dream. I tried. I really, really tried. I had my own dream, of telling you all about the Olympics, about the food and the meals that great athletes eat. But the Chinese wouldn’t let me in.

It began last fall when I downloaded the 273-page Beijing 2008 Service Guide for Foreign Media Coverage, weeded through the blather, and deciphered the requirements: a copy of my passport, an outline of my coverage plan (food and nothing but food), and a letter signed by the Editor-in-Chief Ruth Reichl detailing who I was and what I would do for Gourmet. Off it all went, via email. Beijing’s response: “It is too early for you to apply for visa about the coverage of 2008 Olympic Games. Please send your application to Non-Accredited Media Centre around April or May next year.”

Come April, I tried again. The answer: “Dear Sir/Madam, The online registration will start during the second half of this month where the procedure will be released in advance.”

By the second half of April, the rules had changed. We journalists were instructed to register online, upload a passport photo, wait for online approval, and then mail the bundle of paperwork to the nearest consulate. I quickly registered and received a perky little message, “Sign in successfully!” This time, I FedEx’ed a copy of my passport and a letter from Gourmet’s travel editor (who had imprinted his signature with an editorial copy-routing stamp to make it look official—Chinese bureaucrats love that) to the Chinese Consulate in L.A. For weeks thereafter when I checked my status online, I got this message: “Your application has been submitted; please wait for confirmation.”

I waited through May and June. I waited with my husband, a photographer who had applied at the same time. Finally, he started calling the consulate. There was a small window of time each morning during which the consulate would address visa matters. Yet every phone call led to a recording that asked him to press “2” for help in English, which ended with: “Thank you for calling. Goodbye.”

This continued for weeks—phone calls and faxes to L.A. and Beijing, always into the void. In July, my Beijing buddy (an American journalist who has spent more than seven years in China) offered to help. (She must be doing a good job because she recently discovered a mysterious electronic device hidden in her office doorbell.) Upon checking into the matter, her Chinese assistant learned that my husband had an invitation letter waiting for him; he just had to pick it up in L.A. (Too bad we live in New Mexico.) But Beijing had no record of me or my application, which my friend’s assistant said was a clear rejection. That’s how the Chinese government says “no.” You don’t exist.

On July 18, my husband finally received a message instructing him to retrieve his letter in L.A., apply for a visa, and register his photo gear with the Chinese government. Any questions? Call the consulate. (He did, repeatedly, and no one answered.)

Was it something I said? About Tibet, for a newspaper eight years ago? Or, more recently, comments on my personal blog? Or could it have been the post on food safety I did for gourmet.com? Who knows? Not me. And the Chinese won’t tell me.

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