危妇:Dangerous Woman of America

By Wang Ping




“Hey Ping, here’s a Walgreens. Wanna try your luck here, for your passport photo?”

We’re passing Lake City, a beautiful town along the Mississippi, along the Great River Road, known for its invention of “water ski.” Will it have a passport photo service? Before I can say something, he drives the car into the parking lot.

I grunt but get out of the car anyway. The giant, well-lit drug store seems to have everything a country man needs, food, drinks, clothes.

“Where’s the photo service?” I ask. “I see no photo service.”

︎

My passport expired six months ago, which renders me stateless, stuck in a country that shows little mercy on people like me. I’ve been frantically trying to renew my passport. But the consulates have stopped their service since November 2019. After about 30 pleading emails to Chicago consulate, they finally let me apply for the humanitarian reason: my mother is having a hip replacement, and I needed to have a valid passport for emergency. She’s 89 years old, with heart palpitations.

Taking passport photos used to be easy. I remember my first passport photo. My friend brushed my hair, trimmed my eyebrows, put lip gloss on my lips, and voilà, I could barely recognize myself. I actually didn’t look too bad. I even liked my face, kind of, for the first time in my life. That was 1986, and few Chinese had a chance to leave the country, and there was no rule how we took our photos for passports.

I have renewed my passport three times after that. Never had a single problem with photos.

But this time, the consulate sent me a three-page instruction to prepare the documents, including how to take my photo, with the exact size, height and colors for face, head, neck, ear, hair, collar… “Make sure you go to a professional service!”

I went to the local Walgreens. I waited for half an hour, rang the bell a dozen times. The photo man appeared from his hiding place. He told me he didn’t have the screen for the background.

I drove to the second Walgreens. The Hmong clerk was helpful, but he had no idea how to take photos. I gave him a crash course, then he confessed he was clueless on photoshop. His boss came out to help. He retook my photo, then found the photo requirement from China. On the screen, I saw Japan, Germany, Turkey, Pakistan…

“Wow, it’s complicated!” I exclaimed.

The clerk shook his head. “It’s becoming impossible. I hope I’m getting yours right.”

“But why so difficult? Just a damn photo!” I said.

“I have no idea. I’m losing money for every photo I take, because it’s taking so much time to figure it out. I wish I could get rid of this junk!”

I remember the other Walgreens without the screen. Did they take it down on purpose?

“I’m grateful,” I said, then asked him to print six extra photos for me, just in case.

At the register, I was charged $80 for the tiny photos.

“What?”

“It’s $18.99 for each set, plus tax.”

I wanted to argue, but remembered how hard he had worked on my photo. I wanted him to keep that white screen for others who need passport photos. So I paid, went home, spent a whole week to gather the materials for the consulate, including a photo of me holding a local newspaper. That alone took me a full day to find. Who is still reading news from paper nowadays? I went from store to store, from Minneapolis to St. Paul, until my son found one on my doorstep, the bi-weekly Highland Bugle

Instead of mailing the papers to the consulate, I was told to mail the digital copies first. That makes sense, considering the mailing fees, the complexity of documents. If something went wrong, I’d have to redo everything and re-send it. So I bought myself a printer, digitized the documents, and sent them out.

It was returned in three days. “You didn’t pass!” it said, for the following reasons:

1.     Your ears didn’t show on the photo;
2.     Your collar covered your neck;
3.     Your face is too dim;
4.     The background is not white enough;
5.     The local newspaper is bi-weekly. It has to be daily;
6.     The paper’s date has to match your application forms. Your application has 4 different dates;
7.     Your father and mother’s address and phone number, please.

I started hunting for the newspaper again, and finally found it at Lund’s. Then I took hundreds of selfies, trying to match the requirements. I picked one file and took it to a new Walgreens. They refused to print it for me in the beginning, but I said I’d pay the same amount just for the prints. He agreed, after I reminded him he couldn’t take photos for me anyway, because they’d taken down the screen.

I asked for another six sets of photos, just in case. When he brought me the prints, I jumped.

“This won’t pass the inspection, you know it, right? The photo is bigger than a passport.”

He shrugged. “What am I supposed to do? You gave me the size, I punched it in, and this is what I got. Take it or leave it.”

I stood still. He sighed. “I’ll try again. Perhaps I should have used the passport app.”

Oh, that’s why, you idiot! But I kept my mouth shut. He adjusted my photos and was ready to print again.

“How much does it cost?” I asked.

“$48 for each set.”

“Wait a minute! The other Walgreens charged me $18.99! Aren’t you supposed to be a chain?”

He said nothing. I sighed. “Just one set then, please.”

The print came out dimmer than the last one, and I knew immediately it would not pass. I pulled out my credit card, to pay for something useless, at a ridiculous price--$48.

He handed me the photos, including the useless giant faces. “You know what, I’m not even going to charge you. The other Walgreens failed you, so it’s on us.”

I thanked him and took the photos home. I looked at them. They would not pass. The background is too dim, and my face is too bright. He had burnt my forehead with photoshop.

I sighed. Where could I go now? I’d tried the UPS service, post office, CVS. Each told me to go to another place for better services. None seemed to be keen on taking passport photo services.

︎

The Walgreens in the Heartland is surprisingly clean and tidy. It is empty, except for a woman behind the counter. I scan the store and whisper:

“Let’s go. No photo service.”

“Yes, there’s one,” my friend points to the corner, the usual Walgreens’ photo section.

He’s right. But where’s the photo man, where’s the screen for photos?

“There’s no way this place offers passport photo service,” I announce.

“Yes we do,” says a woman, coming out of a service door. She closes the door behind her and pulls down the screen.

“Tada,” she sings, hands open like a drama queen, the flesh jiggling like jelly along her arms.

We laugh. I’m impressed, though still doubtful. She’s overweight, obese actually. Her neck is tattooed with characters: 危妇—dangerous woman, woman in danger, woman in crisis. Which one is she? Can she take the right photos for me, better than the men from the city Walgreens?

“For China, right?” she asks.

Now I’m impressed. Few white people, even the intellectuals, can tell the difference between Chinese, Japanese, Korean…I don’t blame them. The difference is subtle, mostly shown in expressions, heights, manners, accents and attitude.

“You got the app that gives you the size of the head, the color of the photo, its brightness, clothes and many others?”

“You betcha! I know how fussy this monkey business is. Yesterday I took a photo for a gentleman. He got long ears, longer than normal, and he couldn’t get through the app, couldn’t get it printed, and the poor man couldn’t visit his family in Greece. He’s devastated. I wish I could help him, but the machine won’t print without the app approval. It used to be easy. It used to be a business that makes some money and makes people happy. Not anymore!”

I wanted to say a man with such long ears could be an incarnation of an emperor or a pig, according to the Chinese physiognomy. But I checked myself.

“Why such a fuss?” I ask, taking off my jacket, mask, hair, getting ready for the photo.

“Facial recognition.”

What? I pause, then everything starts to make sense. No wonder the strict requirements: no jewelry, no makeup, no collar,  no smile, no laughter, no hair over ears…so the machine can tell who I am, what I am.

The technology was invented in 1960s, at Stanford, by three American computer scientists, led by Woody Bledsoe, father of AI. Now facial recognition is a spiderweb that nobody can escape, from Facebook tagging to security checking, from hospital to prison. I heard it’s extremely safe in Singapore and China nowadays. Nobody commits crimes, because they know they can’t get away. If they break the law by passion or accidents, they either report themselves or enjoy their last days of freedom while waiting for the cops. I smile, not knowing if I should feel happy or sad. If it works in Asia, why doesn’t it work in America, the origin of AI and facial recognition? Why does violence seem to rise by day, by minutes, at larger and larger scales?

Or are we just reacting, by instinct, that we’re no longer free in the land of the free?

“Ready?” 危妇, the Dangerous Woman, raises her camera.

I smile, then remember I must keep my mouth closed. I pucker my lips, then remember I should relax my face. I open my eyes wide, then remember “you must look natural.”

“Can you keep your face still?” shouts the Dangerous Woman.

I laugh. “I don’t know how to pose any more!”

She snaps two pictures and shows them to me.

“The ears are not showing.” I point out sadly.

“I don’t understand. You don’t have a fat face like mine, which blocks the ears for sure. You don’t have deformed ears like the Greek gentleman.”

The clerk behind the counter comes out to help. She plugs in the camera and shows the image on the screen. The app marks the ear with a red x.

“Yeah, you need to show your ears, somehow, or it won’t allow us to print,” she says.

“I got an idea,” says the Dangerous Woman. “Cotton balls!” She runs into her storage room.

“She’s nice, despite her tattoo,”  I whisper to my friend.

“Oh, you should see her when she was a kid. She was DANGEROUS!!!”

“How do you know? It’s hard to imagine…”

“How do I know? She’s my baby sister!” She laughs. “That’s why she got the tattoo, to tell people to fuck off, maybe tell herself to fuck off? The tattoo did calm her down. A lot!”

Maybe it was her cry for help? 危妇:dangerous woman, woman in danger. Maybe she just couldn’t control her internal storms? Maybe her temper was the loss of balance from too much water in her body, like a blocked dam, from junk food and stress? Maybe it’s related to the unstoppable rise of anger and violence throughout the country? But of course I can’t say. The clerk is just as heavy as her dangerous sister. How did she mitigate her angry water?

“I’m lucky I found the love of my life. She keeps me calm,” she says.

I stare at her. Is it for real? She’s telling me she’s a lesbian! We’re in America’s heartland, where 99.5% people voted for Trump.

“Nobody cares anymore, lesbian or gay.” She reads my mind. “We’ve been together openly.”

“You got kids?”

“NO! Not with my kind of lifestyle!” she says, horror in her blue eyes. Then she waves her hand. “I let my sisters have all the fun. I’m happy to play with my five nieces.”

The Dangerous Woman runs out with cotton balls and Scotch tape. “Pull back your hair,” she orders.

We laugh like crazy as the sisters help me with the “cosmetic makeover”: stuffing my ears with cotton balls and taping them. We’re having a ball.

They take a few photos. We study them together on the computer. The ears still don’t appear, except for one photo: a sliver of yellow skin that could hint ear.

“This will do,” the Dangerous Woman announces, ready to press the print button.

“No, the cotton is sticking out,” I shout.

Indeed, the cotton ball peeks out of my black hair, above the ear, like a clown.

“I will not allow this on my passport. I’ll not carry a cotton ball above my ear for the next ten years!” I shout, stamping my foot.

The sisters almost fall on the floor from laughing. I start laughing with them. This is better than a comedy show.

They re-arrange my hair, pull my ears, re-tape the cotton, take another round of photos.

“This is it! I’m not taking another damn photo of your earless face,” says the Dangerous Woman.

We laugh and load up the photos. Shockingly, the app greenlights us, and the machine starts churning.

She hands me the photo. I look disheveled, haggard, defeated, and almost naked with my lowcut shirt. My mouth seems crooked, and my right shoulder higher than the left.

“Yikes,” I say.

“Beautiful,” the sisters say.

We laugh. Somehow I know the ugly photo will pass the consulate in Chicago.

“How much do I owe you?” I ask, afraid. They spent at least over an hour on me, plus the Scotch tape and cotton.

“We’re not going to charge you,” says the Dangerous Woman. “You’ve suffered enough, and we’ve had some fun. But don’t tell the boss.”

I’m speechless. Finally I find my words. “I thought you are the boss!”

They laugh. “Yes, but only for the weekend. The real boss comes during the weekdays.”

“The real shoppers come during the weekends,” I say.

“True, true. But we’re both replaceable, when everything becomes automated. No need for the cashier, for the stocking, for the manager. Walgreens will be run by machines.”

The Dangerous Woman smiles, but I can feel the despair in her voice. My heart hurts. “What other jobs can you do, or you can just claim unemployment?”

Her face drops, her eyes distant, blank, red, wet. I wish I hadn’t said such stupid words, such condescending, insensitive words.

“She likes to work. We like to work,” the sister says.

The place gets quiet, very quiet. I feel I’m touching the root of the American anger, the anger of the “rednecks, the deplorable, the uneducated, the ignorant.” They’re the workers of America. Their parents ploughed this purple prairie on their hands and knees. All they want is to work, to live by working, not by unemployment checks. The heartland is made with their sweat, yet they’re being replaced, face by face, hand by hand. Their despair and anger is building like a reservoir, making them obese, angry…and yet, they treat me with such kindness and grace, a Chinese woman with a funny accent, a stranger from far away.

It occurs to me that all the pain and torture I encountered came from the intellectuals, the educated, the elites: the sexual assaults, defamations, name callings, banning, trapping, lawsuits, blocking my publications and awards, threatening to send me to mental facilities when I disagree...all done in the name of justice, diversity, democracy.

Not a single “redneck” or “deplorable” has ever insulted me, let alone going out of their way to break my spirits.

I’m speechless with the realization. I start to shiver. I feel sick. The ground is shifting, the belief, the paradigm, the words and deeds...

“Are you ok?” asks the Dangerous Woman, placing her hand on my shoulder.  

I nod. I try not to weep in the nook of her arm, so warm, moist and musky, like Mother Earth. Would she still place her hand on me if she saw me resting on the cold classroom floor, between my teachings? The provost banned me from the campus, because a white student I’d never met complained I made her feel unsafe. The provost ordered me to finish my teaching, because she had a business to run. So I entered the classrooms through the backdoors, taught as a pariah, an untouchable, at an elite liberal arts college known for social justice and internationalism.

“Why are you so kind? I’m just a Chinese immigrant,” I say.

“I don’t care where you’re from, how much education you got. I can tell you’ve traveled, read many books, probably a professor somewhere. But all the titles mean nothing to me, unless your heart sits here, in the right place,” she pounds her chest.

She looks like Bodhisattva. She speaks like Dalai Lama. Yes, his Holiness has said the exact same words: Tend the heart.

“And if anyone treats you bad, tell them to come and talk to the Dangerous Woman!” she raises her arm. Now she looks like a War Goddess guarding the Tibetan monasteries.

We laugh, the four of us.

“How do you say the words?” she points to her neck.

“Can I have a pen and a piece of paper? I’ll write down the pinyin, so you’ll have it.”

She finds a pen, but can’t find paper. She hands me a book of coupons.

危妇:weifu, dangerous woman, I write.

I want to tell her it also means woman in danger, but it no longer applies to her.

“Repeat after me, please, wei-fu.” I hand her the coupon book.

She laughs. “Oh shush, it’s too hard. Nobody can say Chinese except for the Chinese.”

“You sing, right?”

“Yes, at church.”

“Then you can sing Chinese. Just repeat: wei—forward and smooth like a gliding dragonfly; fu—down and forceful, like chopping wood.” I demonstrate with my hand.

She says the words. No, she sings them, left hand gliding, right hand chopping. It sounds beautiful. It feels powerful. As she sings, she overcomes her weight and anger, chipping away the stigma heaped upon her and her people over the years.

She becomes who she is: a woman warrior.

She laughs, her head high, her hand on my shoulder. Her sister places hers on my other shoulder.

We laugh, without doubt or mask, like children.

No AI would recognize us, the three laughing women. But who gives a damn!

We are 危妇, dangerous women of America.

Note:
The photo taken by the Dangerous Woman was approved by the consulate. Soon I’ll have my passport renewed, for ten years. I’ll go home, carrying the spirit of America’s most Dangerous Women.



Born in Shanghai, Wang Ping is a Chinese-American poet, fiction writer, translator and activist. She is the author of several collections of short stories and poetry, the latest of which are My Name Is Immigrant (Hanging Loose Press, 2020) and Song of King Salmon (Vinal Publishing Inc, 2021). She is the founder of the Kinship of Rivers, a community-building project for people who live along the Mississippi and Yangtze Rivers through the exchange of art and prayer flags. She is based in Saint Paul, Minnesota.



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