Getting a Visa

The first step of getting to China was to get a valid visa. I already had a 10-year multi-entry visa but that was only valid for 60-days at a time and on top of that China had revoked all outstanding visas in 2020 because of COVID. Fortunately, the Microsoft China visa office was there to help me although they were very confused about the whole situation. Their first suggestion was to get a PU-letter but then they concluded that it wouldn’t last long enough. Their next suggestion was to get an R-visa which allowed a 180-day stay but was harder to get.

In case you are wondering, I didn’t want to go for the full expat arrangement for just a few months trip. That would have required me to move companies, China is a different legal entity, and make my tax situation even more complicated than it already is. 

I had never heard about an R-visa before, so I started investigating it. An R-visa is issued to those who are high-level talents or whose skills are urgently needed in China. The qualification examples I read were of Nobel prize winners and I’m clearly not in that league, but it got me worried enough that I brushed off my CV and used Google scholar to find all my publications and citations. In retrospect that was overkill. All you need for an R-visa is to be a professor at a well known university or an executive at a fortune 500 company. I don’t think they even used my CV in the end, just the form I filled out with my last 3 jobs, companies and titles.

When I had assembled all the information, it took me about 4 weeks, my company’s China visa office had changed their mind. They told me they were going for a PU letter because it was easier. I blew up and asked them why they had just wasted my time. Taken aback, they decided to still file for an R-visa certification letter but told me it was very risky. Right before filing the request, the china team asked me to write an introduction letter to go with my application. They would adapt and translate it for me. As you can imagine, I wrote a glowing recommendation letter about my work and the unique opportunity for MSRA and China to host me. That worked. Three days(!) after filing the request I received the much-coveted R-visa certification letter.

The next step was to apply for the actual visa at a Chinese consulate/embassy in the USA and this is where things got interesting, and I got very lucky. 

The China visa application is not for the faint of heart. Its application is an extensive list of questions about yourself, your spouse, your kids and even your parents. It took me a few hours to fill this out, find all the other requested information (driver’s license copy, passport, credit card authorization, photo of previous visa, actual photo, etc.) and figure out how to send this to the Chinese consulate. You need to send it with USPS priority mail express and include a paid-for self-addressed priority express return envelope as well.

I had sent all of it off on Friday to the Chinese consulate in LA. Relieved I was finally done with the whole process, it had taken many months, I enjoyed the weekend with my family. I was anxiously waiting for my visa to come back. On Monday evening 6pm I noticed that I had two calls from the LA Chinese consulate that I missed because they aren’t listed in my address book. I don’t accept unknown calls. Worried, I called back the number, but I got a fax machine instead. 

Tuesday, I got an email from the LA consulate asking me for proof that I live in their jurisdiction. Jurisdiction? Unbeknownst to me, it turns out that the LA consulate doesn’t service Texas. The consulate that does service Texas is in Houston but that was shutdown months earlier. Apparently I should have sent everything to the Washington DC Embassy. Discouraged that I had to start all over again, I sent an apology email to the LA consulate explaining my confusion and asking them to return my passport so I can reapply.

I didn’t hear anything back from the LA consulate for a week. No email, no call, no returned passport. The next week I went on a business trip to Redmond, WA and halfway through my wife texts me a picture of my passport and the text this should make you happy:  My passport had a 10-year 180-day per visit R-visa stamp in it.

Some of you will probably point out that I should have used a visa service to help me. I tried and called two of them, but they were utterly clueless and had no idea about R-visas and its process.

So, this is how I got the Chinese visa I wanted from the wrong consulate.

Hatching the plan

Why go to China in the middle of a pandemic? That’s the first question people asked me when I told them about my plans to go to China for the summer. 

China has always fascinated me since I first travelled there in 2011 when I was still working for AMD. One of my responsibilities at AMD was to be the executive sponsor for our Fellow and Senior Principal engineering training programs and as a result I had a lot of interaction with our engineers. Obviously, I spent a lot of time with the US/CA engineers but every time I visited India and China, it struck me that these engineers were just as smart and perhaps even more motivated but lacked experience. To me, that was the big difference between US engineers and China engineers.  Of course, experience is just a matter time and interesting projects to work on. Over the last 10 years I’ve seen China develop rapidly to a point where they are leading in more and more technology areas ranging from their traditional strength in manufacturing to very advanced machine learning technologies. 

While I have travelled often to China, probably close to 40-50 times, I have never had the chance to actually live there and experience China up and close. I wanted to change that and during the summer of 2020 I put together a plan to experience that.

I’m fortunate that I work as a technical executive in the Azure, Microsoft organization and that Microsoft has a strong presence in China. Especially, Microsoft has a Research Lab (MSRA) in Beijing that has a rich culture of inviting visitors to collaborate with them.

Career wise, I was at a good point for a disruption. I had been operationalizing a major project that I had incubated and built from the ground up for 5+ years and I needed to revitalize myself, learn new things, and expose myself to new experiences. This is why I didn’t want to wait until COVID19 was over and miss this opportunity.

With that in mind I formulated a plan about spending a couple of months at MSRA, why this was a good thing for my company and myself. I discussed this with my manager and what I expected to be a difficult conversation was the easiest thing in the world. After a brief explanation of what I wanted to do, why I wanted to do it and what I wanted to accomplish my manager was all in. He even encouraged me to go longer (6 month) than I had originally planned (3 month) because he immediately saw the value of cross pollination. I then reached out to the MSRA lab director who was equally thrilled. That’s why I’m now in a Shanghai quarantine hotel overlooking the downtown Pudong area.

While I won’t go into all the details for the objectives I have for this trip, here is a list of things I’m planning to do these next few months:

  • WfH: Manage my teams back in the US. I can’t shed all my responsibilities back home,
  • Think: How I would build a Cloud infrastructure if I could start from scratch,
  • Learn: MSRA is a hotbed for machine learning, and I’d like to get more hands on with that,
  • Grow: I want to build out my business and technical network in China and get a much better idea of what makes it tick,
  • Language: One of my requirements was a daily Chinese tutor. I want to learn more than just 我要一杯啤酒 (I want one glass of beer).

This blog

Last September I got the idea to spend some time in China. I’ve travelled to China many times before, but I had never actually lived there, and I wanted to experience first-hand how quickly things are changing in that part of the world. Of course, my timing wasn’t optimal. China had effectively shut down its borders because of COVID19 and the rest of the world wasn’t in a much better shape. Still, I forged ahead and as a result I’m now quarantining in Shanghai and I’ll spend the whole summer in Beijing.

While I was preparing for this trip and telling folks about all the hoops I had to get through, a friend of mine suggested that I should start a blog about my experiences. My wife and family immediately latched onto this idea and they’ve been pestering me about it for the last 3+ months.

I’m not much of a blog writer. I once tried to keep a journal as a teenager but got bored with it after a week and never tried it again. So, the idea of keeping a regular blog was kind of daunting to me. Do I have the time, do I have enough entertaining material, should I open the blog for comments and spend hours and hours answering comments? I still don’t have an answer to all of these questions, but I decided to take the plunge and I’ll see where it ends.

Rather than a collection of funny stories, and trust me there will be many of those, I also want to make this blog practical and include links to items I brought, forms I had to fill out that I wasn’t aware of, and lessons learned of what I could have done better. Even though the China immigration situation continues to stay fluid, there is hopefully enough practical information in here in case you want to repeat what I did.