As foreigners living in China with kids, none of us are strangers to paperwork. However, nothing could have prepared me for the circus that awaited us at the airport in Toronto on our scheduled date of return to Beijing as a family of four.
My husband and I just had our second child in Canada in December 2013. Even after completing my postpartum yuezi period, we managed to process the birth certificate, passport, and Chinese visa – in that order – for our newborn son on time.
The drama surrounded our 2-year old daughter, Echo. Because of her in-between status as a half-Chinese child born in Beijing and a Canadian passport holder, we have to process a “single use entry/exit visa” for her every time we leave China. The problem with these little booklets is that they aren’t issued for longer than three months. In other words, they expire.
For our son’s birth, we stayed in Canada for nearly four months. Knowing this schedule, I inquired at the Public Security Bureau before leaving China and was told that, as long as I left during the three-month window, I’d be fine to return anytime. They explained that unlike my son and I, who need a visa to enter China, my daughter only needs one to leave.
Fast forward to our scheduled departure from Canada. Imagine our luggage stacked high on the cart threatening to tumble over, our carry-on bags carefully ordered for a 13-hour flight, and two babies squirming between my husband and I, only to be told by Air Canada that my daughter was not permitted to fly. I could have filled another suitcase with my anxiety. The airline re-booked our flights for two days later and sent us away. We were grounded.
Unfortunately, the Chinese consulate in Toronto was only open in the mornings. Like airport refugees, we were rescued by friends who generously provided a place to stay, car seats, and a portable crib. We munched on airplane snacks in a grateful but stunned state. The next morning, we awoke hopeful.
The Chinese consulate is a cold, grey building in which unbuttoning one’s winter jacket is not advised. When it was our turn, the clerk advised us to process a document that would enable my daughter to travel in and out of China for the next two years. Simply called a “travel document” (旅游征), it was essentially a substitute for a passport – but this one was issued by China.
“So she’s Chinese,” the clerk stated flatly. She gestured at Echo’s open Canadian passport, adding: “This is irrelevant because she was born in China.” My husband elbowed me to keep quiet. “They want to preference her right to choose a Chinese citizenship,” he explained later, “But she’s still Canadian.”
But at the time, this was not clear enough for me. I stiffened in protest. My greatest fear is a possible separation from my children for reasons of social or political unrest.
No one could explain why I had been misinformed at the PSB in Beijing, or if the usual “single use entry/exit visa” would be necessary next time. The response came with a flip of the clerk’s hand: “You’ll have to ask once you’re back in China. They don’t tell us over here.”
Chinese bureaucracy makes my hairs stand up on end, but my Chinese husband is relaxed and easygoing in its presence. He accepts such delays as a way of life – normal, even.
The next morning, we collected our rushed documents and managed to make the flight. As the family “ringleader,” I could only relax once we were beyond the gates.
Now, happy to be home, I am filled with new questions. Step right up to another traveling (visa) circus!
To read the follow-up to this story, check out Ember’s blog at
Illustration by Sunzheng
This article originally appeared on p43 of the beijingkids April 2014 issue. Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com