Travelling (Visa) Circus

Birthing a baby in Canada and then bringing the baby back to China comes with some paperwork headaches, especially if you’re planning to take the full 30-day postpartum month and you can’t go outside or give the tasks to your non-English speaking husband. In other words, I was caught between agreeing to adhere to his cultural traditions and being the sole person who was capable of processing my newborn’s citizenship and travel documents.

Luckily, Paz came 9 days early. Two days after his birth, I was registering his birth and ordering a birth certificate from the Canadian government online. It arrived in the mail before the end of my “moon month” and then, on day 31 postpartum, I was out the door and submitting for his passport. There’s a wait time with that too, unless you pay extra processing fees, and then there’s the Chinese visa to worry about. Each step takes time.

I got it all done. It was in my hands about ten days before our scheduled departure—seven and a half weeks after his birth—even with all steps expedited. The extra cost was worth it. Bureaucracy takes its time, to be sure, but nothing could have prepared me for the circus that awaited us at the airport on our scheduled date of return as a family of four.

Unexpectedly, the drama surrounded my daughter who was born in China two years ago. Because of her in-between status as a child born in China to one Chinese national (her father) and the presence of her foreign (Canadian) passport, we have to process a “single use entry/exit visa” for her each time we leave the country (China). She doesn’t need a visa to be in China, but she needs one to leave. This document is more quickly processed in my husband’s hometown, but even they didn’t know what we needed the first time until we educated them about it. Now they recognize us when we walk in.

The problem with these little documents (that look like small passports with several pages but are, in typical Chinese illogical fashion, only for single use) is that they don’t issue them for longer than 3 months. They expire. I knew I would be in Canada longer this time, because of the birth, but the public security bureau told me that as long as I left during the three-month window, I’d be fine to return anytime, regardless of the expiry date. The Toronto visa office more or less confirmed this, (despite not issuing those types of visas from overseas).

Air Canada, however, who had never seen this document before, refused us at the desks. We were turned away and given a photocopied piece of paper directing us to the visa office—a location at which the staff already recognize me from my frequent visits and preference for dealing with them in Mandarin. At least the airline willingly re-booked our flights for two days later.

We had a mountain of bags and two small children. It felt like the ceiling was coming down on us. Luckily, some friends had come to see us off and they had a minivan. No carseats, however. After the long walk to the car rental desks in hopes of renting some safety, I was told curtly that all the car rental companies have the same policy:  “Can’t rent the car seats without the cars! Otherwise, how would we ensure we’d get them back?”

The latter question was an absurd rhetorical one, because of course the renter would have to give a credit card imprint and would have to pay for those car seats at more than twice their actual value, surely, if they were delinquent in returning them. I was thinking this in the elevator as we departed. I didn’t protest the thin line of the clerk’s lips as she leaned over the counter in refusal, however. We trudged back upstairs to the departures level, defeated, all while Echo didn’t want to walk on her own and was likewise squirming to go “down, down” in my arms.

A nervous (and illegal) trip followed to the Toronto visa office with our stuff piled high in our friends’ minivan and the kids strapped to our bodies and then belted in against us (my heart in my throat). At the visa office, we were redirected to the Chinese consulate that was only open in the mornings from 9-12. We had to wait until the next day. We then returned to their house and proceeded to accept the generosity of a beloved community for things like food, car seats, and a portable crib. We woke the next day overwhelmed by love and hopeful for resolution.

I also woke up with an enormous bruise on my hip from falling down their stairs the previous afternoon. I had had Paz in my arms and slippery boots on their wooden steps. I went down noisily and it brought everyone running only to find me in a slushy puddle at the bottom, the baby raised above my head protectively, and my shock making my mouth unable to form words in Chinese. He was fine, of course, and although I was weepy with stress and frustration, I was generally unscathed.

We left our big bags in the garage, which had me sleeping in my clothes for two days. I figured that I had been given the gifts of our babies’ safe transfer both on the roads and on the stairs and so a few days of the same clothes was a small fee for my good fortune. At least, this was what I told myself to counter the self-pity having to unpack would further unleash.

The consulate the next morning was where we, in previous years, had to process visas—a cold and unwelcoming office just off of St.George that still has an air of impossible, impenetrable bureaucracy. Painted a dull concrete grey, you can’t use your cell phone in the room, there’s security both at the outdoor and indoor entrances, and everyone working there behind the bulletproof glass stares out at the line-ups with eyes devoid of sunshine. Such rooms make me feel as though, by being a willful applicant to cross into China, I’m involuntarily queuing up for some “communist correction.” On this day, appealing for my daughter’s right to travel with us, I was shivering with the cold process of it all, (not to mention their unwillingness to turn up the heat, just like in China.)

They processed a document (expedited, of course) that would enable my daughter’s travel in and out of China for the next two years. The document has no other official name except “travel document” and they could only confirm her original exit visa was unusable because it was expired, not why I was misinformed or if we would still need to process another like it the next time we wanted to bring her back to Canada. In fact, the desk clerk responded to these questions with, “You’ll have to ask once you’re back in China. They don’t tell us over here.”

Chinese bureaucracy makes my arm hairs stand up with annoyance, yet my Chinese husband is relaxed and easygoing in its presence. He accepts such delays as a way of life—normal, even.

Even though my children have separate needs: one needs a visa to enter China (my son) and the other needs one to exit China (my daughter), I am ultimately grateful to have chosen to birth my second in my home country. His situation is more straightforward. For him, there will be no confused bureaucrats who’ll get puffed up and defensive when the client is more informed than they are.

“So, she’s Chinese,” the clerk stated flatly about my daughter, despite her Canadian passport having been passed through the slot and lying open on her desk. “The Canadian passport is irrelevant because she was born there,” she added. My husband elbowed me to keep quiet. I bit my tongue. “They want to preference her right to Chinese citizenship,” he explained later, “But they can’t deny her Canadian citizenship.”

Even the thought makes my arm hairs stiffen. They’d better not. Ever. One of my greatest fears is being separated from my children for reasons of political or social unrest, so this lack of clarity about her citizenship had me shaking in my boots, quite literally.

The next day, after a moment of holding my breath when the Air Canada staff  couldn’t figure out how to process a document without an expiry date (but later found proof of the two-year period in the fine print, something I questioned when I’d picked it up that morning, but the consulate assured me the airport staff would “just know”), we were given our boarding cards and we all breathed easily for the first time in two days.

And now we’re home. As a complete family.

Echo’s paperwork for the next trip is still unclear. I have some research to do. It will include a trip to the Canadian consulate, but that’s only open from 1-3pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Meanwhile, I have to register our arrival “as foreigners” at the local police station and then we have to process a residency permit for Paz within 30 days…

The travelling visa circus–never a dull moment!



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