I’m on the Caltrain from San Francisco to Palo Alto. I spent the day here getting a visa to go to China at the end of the month. I’m planning to be there for about a week, mainly in Beijing.

The Chinese consulate is located on the edge of Japantown. Today it had police barricades and several fairly bored-looking cops, and a couple Falun Gong demonstrators. I don’t know if this is normal (I suspect the demonstrators kind of come with the place), or whether the police are here because of the Tibetan anniversary; however, the only excitement was inside, and caused by a few irate people yelling about their service. I got there at about 10:45, and joined a long line of people; initially I was seriously worried about whether I’d be able to get a visa today, but quickly realized that the line was moving relatively quickly.

Once inside I was struck by something else: that while my first impression was that it was pretty chaotic– lots of people, several very long lines, a certain number of raised voices, an intercom that didn’t work THAT well– after a few minutes I could see that it was, in its way, pretty speedy. There were hundreds of people there, and all things considered, everything moved rather fast. Whatever social cues I follow that tell me that things are going well or poorly didn’t quite apply here.

It put me in mind of Harry Collins’ description of tacit knowledge. As he explains it, there’s contingent tacit knowledge, which is stuff we don’t talk about for various reasons but could. Somatic tacit knowledge, in contrast, is physical: putting on clothes is a good example (if you watch young children, they’re figuring out how to interpret various kinds of resistance, and figure out that THIS means the sleeve is turned inside-out, THAT means the collar is just to the left, etc.). Finally, there’s collective tacit knowledge, which you can only get by immersing yourself in a society. Riding a bike requires somatic tacit knowledge; riding a bike in traffic requires collective tacit knowledge; riding a bike in Copenhagen, Davis CA, and Mumbai requires the same somatic knowledge, but verrry different collective knowledge.

There are social signs we learn that tell us whether a place or situation is safe or unsafe, chaotic or orderly, quiet or tense: how people stand, how they speak, how frustrated or angry they act, whether there are kids or old people present, how friendly the guards or soldiers are, etc. etc. ad infinitum. The ability to read those signs is one thing that distinguishes insiders from outsiders, because they vary from culture to culture. (Not knowing them is one of the things that can get you into trouble in a strange place; and their comforting presence is one of the things that you pay for when you stay in places like business hotels.) Making sense of the consulate, I realized, required a slightly different body of collective knowledge than I apply when I’m in downtown Palo Alto. Once I got that, I was able to see that it was actually a smoother operation than I’d first realized, the presence of loudly angry aged Chinese women aside.

And indeed, I got in right under the wire: I was the last visa applicant they took before breaking for lunch. The whole process took about 45 seconds: I handed in my paperwork, picture, and passport, had a brief discussion about whether I wanted rush service (I did), and was told to come back in a few hours. Sure enough, that afternoon (after lunch in Japantown, which seems now to largely consist of Korean restaurants, and some work at Cafe Murano, a very cool little place on Steiner) they had it ready.

The visa takes up a full page in my passport, for some reason. Whenever I got to the EU, I’m lucky to get stamped; Singapore and Malaysia have nice-looking entry and exit stamps; but China and South Africa take up whole pages in my passport. There’s probably some contingent social knowledge that explains why this is.