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“Number C351, please proceed to Counter 2.”
The electronic voice echoed through the waiting room as the officer turned his attention back to his computer screen, aware that someone was hurrying towards his counter and sliding into the seat behind the glass.
“Papers, please.” He tapped his finger on the edge of the metal trough under the window.
When he heard the papers scraping against the edge he reached over and picked them up, his eyes still glued to the screen. He moved the stack to the front of his keyboard and finally shifted his gaze to the passport on top. “What are you applying for?” he asked, flipping the passport open to the first page.
“I want to go home.” The voice was quiet and timid, hiding behind its own sound.
He looked up for the first time, noting the young woman seated there, her shoulders hunched protectively around her. Glancing from her bowed head to the grave portrait in her passport he raised his eyebrows. “Going home for the New Year holiday?”
She kept her gaze low, fidgeting with the tassels on her purple scarf. “I haven’t been back in awhile,” she mumbled.
“You were born in Japan?” he asked, staring at the front page of the passport.
“Yes. But I don’t have Japanese citizenship,” she added hastily, preempting the familiar question on his lips. “My family moved back to Taiwan when I was a baby—like, eight months old.”
“So you grew up in Taiwan? And how long have you been in Shanghai?” he continued as his hands dashed over the keyboard, filing out the form with numbers and information.
“Three—almost four years.”
“You like it here?”
“Yes.” He saw her face brightening. “It’s convenient here, easy to find work. And it’s pretty similar to Taiwan, so it’s kinda like–”.
“Home? Is that where you’re going now?” He scrolled the mouse up and down the screen. “You still have relatives there?”
“My Mom is from there actually. And my parents still live there.” She leaned back, her shoulders uncurling a little. “And my sisters. Also the weather is much nicer there.” She hugged her arms. “It’s too cold here.”
“You can get a ninety-day visa for Taiwan but after that you have to leave the country again.” He turned back to face her. “How come you don’t have citizenship why is your nationality…” he turned the passport over. “Austria? Where’s Austria?”
“Europe.” She grinned at his blank expression. “Next to Germany.”
“It’s in Europe, you know England, France…” she laughed. “Vienna is the capital of Austria. Mozart.”
“Oh!” he nodded. “I have a cousin who went to Vienna last winter, he went skiing.” He pressed a button on the printer beside him. “So you’re going back to live there?”
She shook her head. “I’ve never lived there. I mean, I visited it once last summer. It wasn’t that great. Too expensive and I don’t even speak German. I would actually rather live here.”
He beamed at the last sentence. “Really? Why don’t you then?” he asked, picking up the forms she had filled out.
“I can’t. It’s too—it’s not home, I can’t stay here long-term.” She pointed at her passport. “Look, I have to renew my visa every six months, it’s ridiculous. Twice a year I have to hassle with paperwork and wait in line here.”
He swirled his chair around, putting her passport into the photocopying machine. “But you’re young. I’m old already and I’ve never been abroad, but you can go anywhere. You can go wherever you want in the world.”
“Why would I want to travel the world?” she sighed. “Why does everyone say that? I just want to go home.”
“Where’s that?” he repeated. “You need to tell me or I can’t help you.” He shoved the passport back under the window. “You need to show me a plane ticket and address of resident or I can’t even start to issue you a visa.”
“I don’t need a visa if I’m going home,” she begged. “Nobody else does. And everyone else has gone back for the holiday, I want to go, too.”
“Okay.” He ran his eyes over the computer screen again, catching a glimpse of her red eyes and pinched face in the reflection of the glass. “Well, my hometown is Anhui. It’s a lot colder there than here. What about you? What’s your home like?”
“It’s a warm place.” Her eyes wandered, filling with visions of a distant, forgotten place. “And because it’s home I don’t need to apply for a visa when I buy my plane ticket, and when I land at the airport the taxi drivers and street signs all speak my native language.” She tucked her hands in her pockets, leaning back. “And I can stay there as long as I want without ever having to fill out a form or visa application. I can wander from job to job and not only work at places that will give me a visa. I can study whatever I want in my own language without only applying to schools that will give me a visa. And my family is there, of course, or at least some of them because I have a very big family.”
He wheeled the chair around, about to say something when he saw the smile dancing on her face. “And I know the street where I grew up, you know,” she continued blithely, “and there are childhood friends in town that I can catch up with. Maybe I have a favorite hometown food or sports team, and when I bring it up in conversation I meet other people from the same place. And there are boxes of my old stuff in the house where I grew up, notebooks with stories I wrote when I was in fourth grade.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “They’re not very good stories, but they’re still there.”
Taking a deep breath he moved a little closer to the glass between them. “I’m sorry. You can’t.”
“Why?” she sniffled.
“You don’t have a home.”
He paused and then stuffed her passport and papers back under the window. Turning around he pressed the green button on the dial beside his desk.
“Number C352, please proceed to Counter 2.”
Elena Sichrovsky is 24 years old and currently living in Shanghai, China. She’s at student at SUES there and a member of The Shanghai Writing Workshop. She’s been writing since she was fifteen and is currently working on finishing her first novel.