The Grass is Greener?: when the romance ends, and China’s reality begins

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?

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9 Replies to “The Grass is Greener?: when the romance ends, and China’s reality begins”

  1. As soon as the whirlwind romance turned into a steady relationship, I began noticing all the hurdles that my minority boyfriend and I would have to face. Of course, some of the obstacles were expected, but dealing with the convoluted bureaucracy has been more trying than I would have imagined. After a year of working on it, we still have our fingers crossed that he’ll get a passport within the next six months (and he’s an educated, law-abiding citizen!). And that’s only been the least of our troubles.

  2. It is just too bad that the China you love was in the past. It is not the China you live in now. Good luck with the green card.

    1. @Karla,

      Thanks for stopping by! You’re welcome to join the conversation anytime… 🙂

      @Han Hu,

      Wish you the best of luck with getting through those hurdles! It can be tough, and alienating, but hang in there — it gets better.

      @Bill Rich,

      Thanks for the comment. This article is actually an older one, one that I wrote back in spring 2005. It was a dark time in my life, as I mention in the intro. I wouldn’t say I didn’t love China then. I was just dealing with problems from many sides — the uncertainty of navigating the immigrations process to get my husband’s green card; being trapped in a job I didn’t enjoy after a while, but being unable to leave because the green card process required me to have proof of ability to support my husband; issues with my husband’s school bureaucracy that didn’t seem fair (such as the example I mentioned above).

      But now that things are much more settled for my husband (he is in a good psychology PhD program here in the US), we are much happier. We plan to return to China after he graduates, and I look forward to that time, because I still love the country.

  3. Hi Jocelyn!
    Your writing is so relatable! Like you, I’m married to a Chinese man.
    This post sounds familiar…
    It’s just very sad that not everybody has the same amount of freedom in this world… To travel, to get married, to invite your parents to visit you on the other side of the world…it takes a lot of bureaucracy (bureaucrazy I’d say!), patience, and depending on the goodwill of others…
    My husband wants to keep his Chinese passport, cause he’s proud of his nationality, and I totally support him, but sometimes I can’t help but thinking how much more convenient an other nationality would be! A pity that the Chinese government doesn’t allow double nationalities….
    Thanks for sharing your experiences, they’re great reads!
    Oh, and ps: my Chinese mother in law calls me Ailing, quite similar to your alter ego 🙂
    Greetings from Antwerp, Belgium,

  4. It sure is instructive to witness how a country’s history, internal culture and status in the world makes life for its citizens difficult — or for people from superpower or favored nations (Singapore is the ‘most welcome’ passport in the world I’ve heard), easy as the case may be…

  5. My Chinese hubby wants to keep his Chinese passport too and I love that about him. For better or for worse he loves his country, and I love it too.

    And FWIW, I don’t think this piece is especially dark. I didn’t think that about the renovation piece either. Please keep the great posts coming.

  6. Yeah unfortunately, the US don’t hand out green cards like candy. My cousin, who has a green card, is in the process of getting his wife a green card in China. Unfortunately, he works in a job that pays under the table and has to get my brother’s pay stubs to prove that my cousin can financially take care of himself.

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