A couple of Saturdays ago, when we were driving through the city from Hayes Valley to the Golden Gate Bridge, we happened to go past the Chinese Consulate on Laguna Street. I was pretty excited – not quite as excited as when we were driving through San Francisco and I saw a naked guy (except for cowboy boots) walking along Market Street – but excited nonetheless to have accidentally found the Consulate.

You see, visiting the Chinese Consulate has loomed large in our summer plans. Our daughter Jennifer Lynn will be studying abroad in Shanghai next year which requires a student Visa. She can only get her Visa by taking her passport and university documents to the Chinese Consulate for processing. It’s a little like going before the All Powerful Oz to find out if you can be admitted into the Emerald City of the Peoples Republic.

Finding the location of the Consulate was perfect timing because when we got home that afternoon, the paperwork for Jennifer’s Visa application was waiting in the mailbox. So Jennifer and I made plans for taking a day off work and heading back into San Francisco.

I’ve never traveled outside of the country so I had no idea what the process for getting a Visa would be like. But visiting a Consulate conjured up images of diplomats and protocol. I pictured Jennifer and me entering through the stately double doors into a sedately carpeted room where a beautiful Asian woman sits behind a mahogany desk greeting visitors and directing them to the appropriate office for Visa processing. People speak in hushed tones because important diplomatic work is going on.

So on Wednesday when we arrived at the Consulate, the sign on the door said that to get to the Visa office, we needed to walk up to Geary Street and turn right.

Okay, no problem. I was a little disappointed we weren’t going to enter the Consulate through the impressive entrance with the red Chinese emblem but at least we were within walking distance of where we need to be. When we got to the entrance, there were about 15 people waiting for security to check the contents of their bags and backpacks.

Once we were inside, my brain couldn’t make sense of what I saw. It was a noisy, crowed room with linoleum floors, metal chairs and white cinderblock walls punctuated with the sound of screaming kids. Where are the plush Oriental rugs, lacquered screens, carved Chinese dragons, and tea ceremonies? I kept blinking but nothing changed.

Then it hit me. Oh my gosh – the Consulate is the Chinese DMV! I was so disappointed. “Now serving 104 at Window 8” scrolled across the digital board in both English and Chinese characters. Jennifer had number 186.

Jennifer was totally amused at my naiveté. “You know, Mom, I’m just not that special.” I suppose that just because travelling to China is totally outside my realm of experience doesn’t mean that it is for lots of other people – especially in the Bay Area.

Visiting the Consulate wasn’t the experience I was expecting but it still was a memorable experience. Great people watching and good bonding time with Jennifer during the two hours that we waited until her number was called. And the good news?  We get to do it all again in a week when we go to pick up her Visa.