I am so far behind on my Christmas preparations, so I’m running another classic entry week, from the original Speaking of China. This is also pretty dark (am I dreaming of a “dark Christmas”?). After living with John for more than two years in Shanghai — and marrying him — I experienced the difficulties of an average Chinese through him. I was shocked. And so, I wrote this article. Enjoy!
They say the grass is greener on the other side. Or sometimes, on the other side of “the pond.” An odd repulsion to the familiar moves us to board planes for hours and battle fierce jetlag, all to experience a life different from our upbringing.
For some of us, it’s more than an occasional “flirt” with another country. We’re not interested in a one-night or one-week stand — we want the whole relationship. We want to dig deeper. We want to get to know what’s really under those covers.
That’s why I returned to China in 2001 — to get cozy with this ancient land across the Pacific. I learned from my many Chinese friends. I became fluent in Chinese.
Most of all, I fell in love and married a Chinese man — which made me closer to this country than I ever imagined. But with closeness comes a new understanding — one that made the greenery on this side of the pond start to wilt.
I’m not sure when China lost that luster for me. Perhaps it was September 9, 2003, the day the US Consulate denied John a nonimmigrant visa, forcing me to vacation in the US alone. Before then, I never saw John as someone so different. But after, all I could see was the freedom I had, and the freedom he didn’t.
This feeling worsened over time. On December 30, 2009, I left John behind to spend several months at the company’s Taiwan service center. I declined a promotion to stay there, knowing John never could have visited me. In May and October 2004, John and I planned trips to Thailand and Indonesia. I could get a visa-on-arrival in both countries; John had to wade through layers of bureaucracy and paperwork just to enter.
Then came the green card. That was when we discovered the dang’an disaster. In the process of gathering together interview evidence, I learned that John’s undergraduate university had sent his personal dossier or dang’an — a Chinese citizen’s permanent record — from Hangzhou back to Tonglu (his hometown) after graduation, in order to coerce John into working for the Tonglu Education Bureau. No begging, pleading or reasoning with the officials in Tonglu — by John, John’s father or even John’s oldest brother — would release the records so John could work in Hangzhou. John still worked in Hangzhou anyway, at private companies that never asked for his permanent record. But that meant none of his work experience in Hangzhou was recorded in his permanent record — work experience I’d reported to the US Consulate, that needed to be verified to get a police certificate for his green card. He couldn’t ask to change his own dossier — it’s just not done. I’d never felt such anxiety in my life, as if I was a criminal. As it turns out, the police certificate never listed his work experience. Yet we spent days deliberating over this omission.
Just the other day, I watched my husband’s university nearly revoke his Shanghai residency and send his ID card and associated information back to his hometown. According to the school, if you’ve graduated, not originally a Shanghai resident, and have no job, you have relinquished your right to residency. And if you’re not a resident, you can’t get paperwork done here — including vital certificates for his green card. I still have a hard time understanding it.
I’ve waded deep into China’s greenery for years now. I still love China. But now, more than anything else, I want my husband to know what the grass is like on my side. It’s something I once took for granted long ago when I first boarded a plane for China.
How did you feel when you discovered the challenges Chinese citizens face?