Becky writes, “there is nothing within a traditional British upbringing that can prepare you for living with Chinese relatives.” If you’ve ever lived with Chinese family, this post is for you.
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When Disney taught me about happily ever after, they forgot to add in some additional clauses about cross-cultural relationships. In particular the challenges that accompany a AMWF (Asian Man, White Female relationship). Thus when I fell in love last summer to the sweetest, gentlest man I’d ever met, I never realised that the happy ever after I’d always longed for had inadvertently sent me on a cultural collision course. In fact, despite being in my mid-20’s, I assumed, as my good friends Cinderella and Pocahontas had once taught me, that love could, and would, solve everything.
As I’m rudely awoken on the other side of the planet a year or so later by my boyfriend’s mobile, I can’t help thinking I may have been a little naive. I pretend to be asleep despite knowing exactly what will happen next. Sure enough, within minutes the doorbell, which his mum has erected in his room, starts ringing. From this point I know that my cuddle time is very shortly to expire. As if on cue, I hear shouting in Mandarin coming progressively closer and, before I have time to move, his mum barges into the room and begins tidying around us.
It’s hours before I’d planned to get up. It’s Saturday. I want to cry.
I’d never planned to be in this position, but after my partner’s student visa had expired and following eight-months struggling with the many nuances of long-distance relationships, we’d decided that enough was enough and so, despite protests from my friends that I was crazy, I packed my bags and headed to live with my boyfriend, and his Chinese parents.
A month into the experience and I can say categorically that there is nothing within a traditional British upbringing that can prepare you for living with Chinese relatives.
In the UK, we are taught to strive for independence, in China children are taught to be deferent to their elders. In the UK we value personal space, in China the concept doesn’t really exist. In the UK we are reminded that it’s the taking part that counts, in China people are reminded that success (which is largely measured by the size of your bank balance) is what matters.
None of these things are right or wrong but the gulf between the two can, at times, seem unbridgeable.
Perhaps the hardest thing for a westerner trying to make AMWF’s work is that you have to completely redefine your concept of space. The fact that you are a grown adult and have been making your own life decisions for many years ultimately means very little. For example, you will be asked many times a day about your food; what you’ve had, when you had it and would you like anymore?
This is nothing more than an expression of love, and to be treated with such hospitality is something you’d be unlikely to find back at home. Nonetheless, when the first question you’re asked each morning is what are you having for breakfast, it can get a little grinding.
For all the times I want to scream (and there are many), there’s the time I get to spend with my best friend. The truth is that however hard it gets, being without the person you love would be far worse.
For those considering moving to the East to be with their loved one, you must be aware that the step you are trying to make is a huge one. You will feel nagged, claustrophobic and completely alien. If that sounds daunting, then it’s meant to. But if your partner is prepared to make you part of his family, and you’re prepared to sacrifice so much in moving to be with him, then it sounds like your awkwardly packaged happy ending might be something worth fighting for.
Becky is a self-confessed golf addict blogging about the world’s best, quirkiest and most obscure golf courses at The Nomadic Golfer.
Faina Chiang (nee Vahaleva) and Chiang Ching-kuo were one of the few AMWF couples known as a First Lady and President. But while researching this couple for the blog, I found myself continually drawn to the story of Faina herself, for reasons such as this quote from the Taipei Times:
Chiang Fang-liang lived her life with the weighty crown of first lady. While she never enjoyed the glamour associated with the title, she will be remembered for her stoicism.
Faina and Chiang met and married in the former Soviet Union in the 1930s. In 1937, Stalin permitted Chiang to return to China, so the couple moved there. As many of us in international and intercultural marriages know, it can be tough to settle in a foreign country. Yet as the Taipei Times noted, “the Russian bride followed her husband to China.” They added:
Perhaps Vahaleva had thought little of the different language, culture and traditions in China that would no doubt be a great barrier to her, or perhaps her love for her husband gave her all the courage needed.
Reminds me of how many Western women I’ve known have chosen to move to Asia to be with their boyfriends and husbands, despite the challenges.
Speaking of which, Faina encountered another one all too familiar to me – the parental objection, as described in the Taipei Times:
Chiang Kai-shek was reportedly at first dismayed to have a Communist Russian daughter-in-law. But after the two met, Vahaleva — who has been described as possessing the virtues of a traditional Chinese woman to a greater degree than a Chinese woman — soon won the approval of her father-in-law and was given the name Fang-liang.
She even learned Ningbo dialect and forged a good relationship with her mother-in-law, Mao Fumei (Chiang Ching-kuo’s mother and Chiang Kai-shek’s first wife).
She was used to doing all the household chores herself instead of employing servants. She would ask for her husband’s approval for everything. Private household expenses, such as water and electricity bills, as well as salaries for servants, were all paid directly by Fang-liang from Chiang Ching-kuo’s paycheck, instead of being deducted as public expenses.
…she often spoke Russian with her husband and preserved several traditions from her homeland.
“Faina regularly greeted her husband at the airport with a hug and a kiss, to the wonder and embarrassment of Chinese spectators,” Jay Taylor wrote in his biography of Chiang Ching-kuo, “The Generalissimo’s Son,” published in 2000.
She braved many tumultuous years in China with her husband, reflected in the fact that three of her four children were born in different cities in China.
She had no real friends and no descendants close to her. Her closest relatives all lived overseas and even after her death, her only daughter was unable to attend the funeral because she herself was seriously ill.
It’s amazing how the smallest decisions in our lives can change everything. A few years ago, American Anne stepped into a Western restaurant in Taiwan, never expecting that evening’s dinner would come with an introduction to her future husband.
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A little over two years ago, I exchanged rings, bows and hearts with my amazing Taiwanese husband. It’s incredible to think about all the changes and twists our lives have taken since our fateful meeting over three years ago in a small city in Taiwan.
I had been teaching English in Taiwan for about four months when one evening I decided I really wanted some western food from one of the only western restaurants/bars in the city. It was a 45 minute walk away. The only people I knew at the time were simply interested in going if we shared a taxi, and on that particular evening everyone opted to just stay home. Whatever. I was going to order a freaking quesadilla! I enjoyed a nice walk to the restaurant and as my dinner was delivered on my table by the foreign restaurant owner (also an American) he introduced himself and we exchanged pleasantries. Maybe because I was a random and uncommonly lone western girl outside Taipei or maybe because he was just that good at reading my character he called someone into the restaurant that was walking by the entry door. That person would someday become my husband. He just happened to live in the apartment complex above the restaurant and had slowly development a friendship with Ernie, the restaurant owner. Ernie made some introductions. I think we were both a bit hesitant with the introduction but we were secretly happy to have chance to meet someone, even if it was just a friend in a safe environment.
He was introduced as Aitch (like the letter H) and told me later he never would have talked to me that night if it wasn’t for the fact that a third party introduced us. He believed it would have been quite rude if he had just started talking to me while I was at the restaurant by myself in the middle of eating my dinner. I’ve had some uncomfortable or just awkward first meetings with Asian men in Asia (having also lived in South Korea for nearly two years) so we were both a bit grateful for some common ground to start off with. We are a strange and unique combination of traditional and independent in each of our separate cultural norms, so the blender of that night worked.
He was still in the military when we met so we decided to officially date after his retirement from the military. We soon realized we shared true feelings and connected with real morals and integrity. If we forgot, we took turns stepping up for our values showing we respect ourselves as individual people just as much as a couple. I think what really set us apart from a failed relationship was our wiliness to communicate and make compromises from our old lifestyles, and to feel that those changes could be positive and not just a necessary evil.
Almost exactly a year after we started dating we were back at our favorite restaurant where we met. He proposed to me just like in all the Hollywood movies by secretly placing a ring at the bottom of my glass. The night we met he ordered me a strawberry margarita, and I guess I should have thought something was up when I saw the same drink placed on our table because I don’t order it that often. In addition, I really had no clue this night would be special because I was developing a cold and we decided we would take a visit to the doctors after we finished dinner — so romantic. I’m a notoriously slow eater and I remember swishing the straw around because all the berries would quickly collect at the bottom. I’m sure watching that was pure torture for him. As I finished my drink I promptly stated “ok, let’s go” not realizing the important contents still in the glass. As I got up he quickly declared “wait, I think you forgot something” and he proceeded to pull the ring out himself and bend down on one knee.
We married at the Shilin court house in Taipei September 28th, 2013. We were both happy and thankful we had a small wedding as I’ve always dreaded the stress of the wedding day and the stress mountain of coordinating and planning for it. We were sure lucky our parents understood and supported a small wedding. Honestly, we decided four days before the date that that was the day to do it. Only enough time to get the witness registration paperwork ready. It was thankfully so relaxed we even took a nap after lunch when we got home!
I would say marriage to someone outside my cultural group was one of the hardest and one of the easiest things I’ve ever done. We’ve both learned so much about ourselves, the world, and what we find the hardest to accept about our past conditioning and what is truly important for our future. Communication is crucial, and it will always be a challenge- we have very different communication styles! I consider myself fairly indirect via American standards, but I’m utterly outspoken to him, and he’s ok with that.
We’ve often talked about how many subtle events had to line up in order for us to meet, and I feel so honored and lucky to have snagged this one. Had I not, I most definitely would have returned back to Michigan after completing my first year contract. He appreciates my personality, values and simplicity, while I in turn love his loyalty, drive and compassion. He makes me feel valued for who I am- not who I was or who I’ll be tomorrow. Though we don’t know where we will plant our feet in the future, we have very recently moved to Singapore and are in the process of learning more and more about ourselves and our relationship in a global community. Happy anniversary, I continue to look forward to walking this path with you!
When an intercultural relationship ends – a relationship that deeply impacted who you are – what does it mean for your identity?
Serina Huang (a fantastic writer, blogger, mother and frugalista many of us know as the Taiwanxifu) writes, “Now that I am no longer with my Taiwanese husband, I am beginning to rediscover and question who I am. Will I keep my Asian surname? Am I Asian? Am I Western?”
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“Is he Australian?” my friend Rose asked.
I knew what she meant, but still the question surprised me. I paused for a minute, before replying, “no, actually, he’s English.”
Her eyebrows went up slightly, and she gave a slight giggle. “Oh, Serina!”
For seventeen years I had shared my life with a Taiwanese man, with whom I bore two dual-cultural children. We were introduced while I was studying Mandarin Chinese at University: he had been my language partner, and – quite unexpectedly to all concerned, myself included – morphed into my partner with whom I hoped I would spend my life.
I have spent over twenty years being immersed in Chinese (and Taiwanese) culture. This isn’t something faddish, but rather something was essential in my role as a Taiwanese xifu or daughter-in-law. Before we were married, my Taiwanese mother-in-law told me that once I became a xifu I must become Taiwanese rather than a foreigner. (She also made it clear she expected to live with us and for me to care for her in her old age.) I laughed a little about this as it seemed absurd not to live like an Australian in my own country.
But somehow, bit by bit, I changed. I became an egg: outwardly white, yet inwardly Asian yellow. I would go to work and act out my work existence, but somehow felt different and apart, unsure about how to behave in the oddly open Australian office environment. I didn’t spend my evenings and weekends the way that other people seemed to; I rarely went out for after work drinks, rarely went to the movies, hardly ever watched commercial TV.
Instead I went home to cook for a house full of Asian people – for six years we had home-stay students and invariably they were Chinese, broken up occasionally by Japanese or Korean students. I bought rice in 10kg bags (only ever high-grade Japonica rice, which I cooked in a special Ta-tung electric cooker we had imported from Taiwan). I only purchased the proper brand of naturally brewed soy sauce. I learned through trial and error to cook meals that tasted the way a Chinese mother would have made them. I still remember the night my husband nodded with appreciation because I had stir-fried a simple meal of Hokkien chicken noodles just right “That tastes like it was cooked by someone Chinese, not like a lao wai,” he said, scooping up mouthfuls of the noodles with relish in his shiny metal chopsticks.
We were always saving money to invest in properties that would help build a better future for us and for the children I eventually produced. One of my work colleagues laughed at this and told me I was ‘so boring and so Chinese.’ Unlike him, I didn’t have cool or expensive hobbies, and we rarely travelled. When we were invited to noisy dinner gatherings with Chinese friends, invariably the discussion would drift to money and investing in property. Even people who were not working had investments. We were held up as models of the successful Taiwanese immigrant life. My husband was an investment guru and financial star and held court dispensing advice for those looking to emulate our experience.
We rarely dined out and instead spent evenings sitting on the sofa watching Japanese soap-operas with Chinese subtitles. My favourite mega-series, which I have watched at least four times, is called ‘Diamond Girl’. Kind of like a Japanese version of Legally Blonde, it follows the journey of a privileged and spoiled young woman (with her endless wardrobe of brand name clothing) who worked as a secretary in law firm in an impossible quest to win back her fiancé. In the beginning of the series she studies (or rather socializes) in Sydney, and I loved seeing my own country through the eyes of a Japanese fashion princess. I so wanted to be Diamond Girl: she was cute and sassy, and I aspired to wear her bright and sexy clothes.
Later, I became madly addicted to a Taiwanese soap Inborn Pair. It is an odd title, and a better translation is Love Looking for Trouble. I lusted over the clean-cut Burberry overcoat clad actor who played the lead in the series, Chris Wang. I discovered that he spent his early years studying/working in Australia, and I used to daydream about meeting him and casually asking about his experiences Downunder. I imagined him as a younger and more romantic version of my husband. In my dreams I was transported back to an idealized vision of when we first met, before xifu responsibilities and cross-cultural misunderstandings got in the way.
Of course these were hardly tales that you could talk about in the kitchenette at work while filling up my thermos to make a cup of Taiwanese gaoshan high mountain green tea.
“You know, last night I cooked Chinese kongxincai greens with fermented beancurd, stewed fatty pork belly with star anise and hard boiled eggs, and served it over perfectly steamed rice. And then I watched Diamond Girl pretend to be a hostess in a bar in order to win back a client whom she accidentally insulted at the law firm she worked at. Oh, and her boss really likes the tea that she makes for him – you can tell because he grunted.” This wasn’t something most ‘Aussies’ could relate to.
Now that I am no longer with my Taiwanese husband, I am beginning to rediscover and question who I am. Will I keep my Asian surname? Am I Asian? Am I Western? What does the ‘West’ even mean? What bits of my ‘egg’ identity to I want to keep? Are there bits that I want to separate out, like a yolk being separated from the whites?
Above all, how to explain to New Man, whom I started dating in a strange yuan fen coincidence of destiny that only Chinese people could fully understand, that I might look like outwardly a plump middle-aged Anglo-Saxon mother, but my head and my heart operate quite differently.
Some things are easy: I tell him my favourite band is the Taiwanese rock group Mayday (aka wu yue tian), and I love singing karaoke classics by Teresa Teng and Ah-mei, and more recent songs by the lovely Della Ting and breathless Jia Jia. He nods but I know that Mando-pop will probably never appeal. At least my Taiwanese-Australian girlfriend gets it; over Easter we spend an afternoon belting out karaoke classics on my computer while my kids are with their father. She introduces me to Leehom and Kimberly; I fall in love with Leehom youtube videos and he becomes my new Asian pin-up model.
I talk about my student days in Beijing, with toilets that stank so much I could smell them from my room down the hallway. About my first frightened night in student accommodation and the drunken Kazakhstanis who kick-boxed down the door opposite mine in a quest for beer from the xiaomaibu store. Surviving that to spend a year partying and flirting with abandon. Naively backpacking through China. About living in Taiwan, about the dumplings, vegetarian buffets with fake meat and vegetables grown in the mountains, hidden hipster cafes in the back laneways and how sad I was to say goodbye to the royal blue LED-lit tiers of Taipei 101 as our chauffeured car swung past it in the light winter rain. I joke about travelling back to Taiwan with my mother-in-law on my honeymoon, and (having left her in Taipei) reminisce about clutching my new husband on a scooter while we travelled along the fiercely beautiful coastal region near Taitung. I tell New Man that Taiwan is a clean, green city in Asia, that the subways (jieyun) and High Speed Rail (gaotie) are amazing. I get excited about the emerging art scene in Taiwan, the way that ancient and modern cultures are converging to form a new identity.
He has been to Hong Kong but never really travelled through Asia; Asia to him is a night at a Thai restaurant eating laksa. (That prompted a whole explanation of Singapore’s nyonya cuisine, and regional differences in Chinese cuisines, which I think again went over his head.)
I tell him I can speak Mandarin. “You clever thing,” he says. He starts sending me sexy messages on Facebook messenger with the help of Google Translate. They make me laugh.
But it is difficult to explain that my brain doesn’t just translate from English into Mandarin, like a tap that I can turn on and off. I might not be a native speaker, but I think, I live, I dream in Chinese. I am often at my happiest prattling on in imperfect Mandarin, so happy to meet Taiwanese Mums on a playdate and to bitch light-heartedly about the frustrations of navigating the Australian dream – many are married to Australian men and experience what I did in reverse. My children’s English is littered with Chinglish phrases. “Mummy, bao bao,” my toddler pleads when he wants a cuddle. My preschooler, who seems to perpetually have his hands in his undies, refers to his genitalia as ‘xiao niaoniao’ and this seems an easier term to use when chiding him about it in public.
In the early days of dating, I had to stop myself from speaking to New Man in Chinese. “Ni xian shuo ba! – you speak first,” I have nearly said on the phone countless times. Chinese was the secret language of courtship and intimacy with my husband, a language I intuitively retreat to when thinking emotively. “Talking about love – tan lian ai’ , is how they refer to this stage of dating someone in Chinese.
I argue best in Chinese. It is only in Mandarin that I feel that I can truly express my anger, my indignation about things, especially injustices right or wrong in my marriage. When I get truly worked up, I make my point more shrilly and cruelly than in English. Perhaps it is best that I am not able to tap into this, as it would probably tear New Man’s soft vulnerability to shreds.
I explain to New Man that I feel uncomfortable when people split bills. (Thankfully that has never come up on a date.) I talk a bit about the importance of face (mianzi), and gloss over the importance of cultivating networks or guanxi. I explain about how I plan to help my kids maintain their Chinese language skills. We take our children out together to a Chinese lantern festival. He likes the lion dance and tells me it is fun but that he doesn’t like yum cha (yuk cha, he calls it).
How to explain the deep yearning within me to return to Asia, how I constantly miss living in Taiwan? How a part of me feels this quest to explore, to discover, to connect with Chinese culture as if I was born into it in a past life? That despite my Caucasian appearance, that I feel a sense of belonging and normalcy when I glance out the taxi window and read glaring neon signs in Chinese? That sometimes I feel lost and lonely just being normal in suburban Canberra? How I am a temple junkie, and pray with unadvisable regularity to Guanyin for relationships, Matsu for safe passage, Guan Gong for courage and wisdom, Cai Shen for money and Wen Chang for a promotion in my public service career? What it truly means to express gan en – appreciation – when you receive your hearts desire? How feng shui matters to my life and defines where and how I live? How my children’s Chinese names were chosen by a fortune teller, and mine has layers of meaning that takes five minutes to explain?
“But you are not even Chinese,” I tell New Man on a picnic date shortly after meeting him, as we discuss how inexplicable that it was that we should have hooked up.
With his blond hair and blue eyes, this is fairly obvious. Nor do I wish he was anything other than what he is. The attraction took me by surprise, powerful and unexpected, making me as giddy as a teenager. He is unaware how very English he is. I went to Beijing rather than do the usual pulling a beer in a pub gap year that many Aussies do and so I know nothing about England, nothing about his culture or the landscape that shaped him. To me, being with him is the new foreign, the new exotic.
And through it I am inventing my new life as a mixed-up scrambled egg, choosing how I want to flavour my omelette.
Serina Huang is a writer, blogger, mother and frugalista. She blogs about Taiwanese culture and food at www.taiwanxifu.com, and about parenting and being frugal at www.weekendparent.co. She is currently working on a book about her experiences of doing Chinese postpartum confinement (zuo yuezi).
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Sometimes, when I think about how I grew up in a very average, very white, very Midwestern suburb in the US, never dreaming that I would eventually find my future husband and a totally new life in China, it blows my mind that here I am in Hangzhou. And yet, at the same time I firmly believe (like many of my husband’s friends) that destiny had a role — that somehow, this was all meant to be.
That’s why I love this guest post from Constance, who blogs at Foreign Sanctuary and writes today about how her unlikely journey to Taiwan (where she met her Taiwanese husband) was anything but an accident. (Enjoy the striking photos as well, a delightful sampling of Constance’s own photography.)
If someone had to tell me twenty years ago that I would be living in Taiwan and married to a Taiwanese man, I would have laughed in their face and then, well, I would have probably grabbed my atlas, turned to Asia, and then tried to find the location of where most of my childhood toys were made. Yes, that was probably the extent of my knowledge of Taiwan when I was little – a far away place where people hammered and sewed and assembled the toys that I played with and then stamped ‘Made in Taiwan’ somewhere on the box or toy.
Fast forward to now and I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. If it wasn’t for that casual conversation with friends over a glass (or two) of wine one cold night in January of 1999, I would have never considered teaching in Asia.The thought never, ever crossed my mind until that point in time.
My fortitude and tenacity was tested to the max when it took me nearly an entire week to get to Taiwan, a nightmare that I recently relived while writing my book. I thought about giving up on my dream to move to Asia so many times that week and if it wasn’t for my recruiter, who gave me the extra reassurance that everything was going to be OK, I probably would be in living and working somewhere in Canada right now.
My thirst for adventure and for experiencing new things led me to sign a third contract at the school where I worked at, which extended my time in Taiwan for one more year. And if it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have been out celebrating with a group of friends the night my husband literally danced into my life. However, if it wasn’t for his quick thinking and cleverness, he would have not gotten my number that night and we would not be together right now.
Four years later, my husband and I decided to get married. I always knew he was one (nearly) right from the beginning. We shared the same interests such as travel, we had so much fun together, and he always gave me ‘that feeling’ which never dwindled with time. When the newness of the relationship wore off, the feeling of ‘puppy love’ was still there. I was and still am a better person because of him. He is an optimist who dares me to take chances and to dream bigger. I am a realist who keeps him grounded (with regards to certain things). We complement each other. We are better people because of our relationship and each other. We may have grown up on different sides of the world but that makes life interesting.
On June 10, 2005, four years to the exact date that we met, we got married at the court.According to the lunar calendar, it was a perfect day. Probably too perfect! It was definitely a wedding to remember, all for the wrong reasons. Luckily, we had our Canadian church wedding and reception a few months later which was perfect – well, except for me putting the ring on the wrong finger. Plus, we had our reception in Taiwan where we celebrated with our closest friends.
Then, we come to the house which we actually purchased three months prior to completion. If it wasn’t for a series of events, this house that we bought over five year ago wouldn’t have been ours. It was the first house we looked at. My husband knew it was the one but I wanted to look at more. It was actually purchased by our neighbor who opted to buy another one. And if it wasn’t been for the poor state of the economy at the time, it would have been sold immediately at a higher price. The house was meant to be ours.
Which brings me to now! If it wasn’t for that heartbreaking news that shook me to the core and tested my hope and strength two years ago this month, but had a happy ending, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. That incident reminds me each and every day of all the good in my life and to appreciate the now, the present!
That is why I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason.
Constance is a Canadian expat who currently calls Taiwan home. She blogs about her travel experiences as well as her personal reflections about expat and married life on her blog, Foreign Sanctuary. Photography is one of her passions and she shares photos from her [Photographing 2015] project daily on her Facebook page. She is also an aspiring writer with a memoir in the works.
I just had another piece published in Matador, for their “Love in the Time of Matador” series. Stuck Between Taiwan and Jun (yes, “Jun” is my husband’s real Chinese name — long story why I use “John” instead. Ask me later. 😉 ) chronicles some of the hardships we experienced as an international couple:
It was a rainy Tuesday in a Taiwanese cafe in Shanghai, and Jun and I were having fried rice with a generous side of tears. To the patrons around us, the whole scene had “breakup” written all over it. But it wasn’t that kind of breakup. Leaving melodrama aside, this was the US government breaking up our trip back to my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.
To me, Jun was the guy who first kissed me to the tune of cicadas, next to Hangzhou’s West Lake. The man who loved to pick me up from the metro station late at night, and ferry me home on the back of his bicycle. But to the visa officer at the US Consulate in Shanghai, Jun was just another immigration risk from China with no apartment or car, let alone a wife or children. “You’re too young,” the officer declared in Mandarin, stamping a denial in permanent red ink into the passport.
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