The Unglamorous Reality of Citizenship in Chinese-Foreign Marriages

“So, do you have Chinese citizenship?”

As a foreigner living in China and married to a Chinese citizen, it’s a question I’m intimately familiar with, especially from friends and family back home in America. Even I used to think the same thing growing up in the US — that international marriage automatically meant getting another passport. Wouldn’t it make sense that, in the most intimate of all bonds, loved ones could also share their own citizenship?

How I wish it were that easy. That somehow saying “I do” with someone from another country would magically make another passport pop out of thin air, with your name on it.

Invariably, I have to let everyone who asks this question down, dispelling those fantasies with a cold, hard answer: “No, I don’t have Chinese citizenship.” And sometimes, I might strangle any remaining hopes by adding the disappointing details of how it’s very difficult to gain Chinese citizenship, and that China doesn’t even allow dual citizenship, so I would have to renounce my US citizenship (something I would never want to do).

I’m reminded of how, years ago, people in China would ask my husband, after we had just tied the knot, “So, are you an American now?” And then we’d be forced to divulge the far more complicated reality — that first he would have to apply for a green card (which isn’t guaranteed), and then later he would be eligible to apply for US citizenship (which also isn’t a sure thing and requires taking an exam many Americans can’t even pass). And even if he received US citizenship, he would still have to surrender his Chinese citizenship. It’s a strangely dispossessing situation that he has never wanted to face, preferring to remain a citizen of China.

The clunky reality of how citizenship actually works — especially when Chinese and foreigners wed — is nothing like all of those gossamer hopes and dreams you might have had about international marriages. And I haven’t even gotten into the issues involving kids in a Chinese-foreign marriage (which my fellow blogger Susie writes about at WWAM BAM in a post that deals with citizenship issues). And if you really want to make your head spin, read about how kids and citizenship issues and the like left Ember Swift, who was married to a Chinese man, grounded in a Toronto airport.

Some people do get lucky in their international marriages, though. For example, Monica, an American woman married to a Korean man, could actually gain South Korean citizenship and still keep her US citizenship at the same time.

But what I know is this — as much as I would love for things to change, I cannot possibly measure the value of my marriage by whether it grants me an additional passport or dual citizenship. I care far more about the “dual” things that really matter in the passport pages of our life: love, respect and support. Jun and I have all of these and so much more in our marriage, which continues to bring us both boundless happiness. That’s something no passport could ever guarantee.