Wednesday, December 31, 2014

baby passport and visa woes

This is a bit of a long post which details some of the issues surrounding having a baby in China and how it relates to passports, visas, and nationality. Hope this info and my experience might be helpful to others as there is not a lot of information online about this topic.

This past week I celebrated my birthday, which is sadly sandwiched between Christmas and New Year's. Having a birthday around the holidays means that presents and well-wishes are often lost in the shuffle. As a kid, I sometimes felt a bit bummed about being overlooked, but now that I'm an adult, I don't mind that much. I was actually shocked at the number of people who emailed/called/wechatted me on my birthday this year—I felt loved. Thanks guys!

Last year I spent my birthday celebrating by holding my annual Christmas party. This year, things were much different; the family took a last minute trip to the big city. This was not how I wanted to spend my birthday or any other day, really. I was hoping to avoid taking William to Beijing until he was a bit older, but the US Embassy had different plans for us.

Ping and William out to dinner in Beijing

I've been planning on taking both Ping and William to the US to visit for a few months now. Everyone is excited to meet them both and I am desperate for a visit. Ming has a big advocate for this trip as he thinks it best for baby William to spend Chinese New Year outside of China, or at the very least, away from Chengde. You see, the weeks leading up to and winding down from the Chinese New Year are very noisy here. Some days there are fireworks and firecrackers sounding from early morning until late at night. I have always hated the noise, but I'm sure it is exponentially more aggravating when caring for an infant.

So it was settled, the kids would go to America with me for a month over the holiday, as long as we could arrange their visas. Since they are both under the age of 14, they didn't have to interview for a tourist visa. In early December, I dropped off their applications and Chinese passports at a CITIC Bank (the embassy doesn't accept drop-offs directly) and crossed my fingers—with any luck the kids would have visas within a week. . . but when have I have been lucky when it comes to visas?

William at Fatburger
When Ming picked up their passports last week, they where empty. Instead of visas, Ping and William each got a piece of paper requesting an “interview with parents.” Great. We needed to take an eight-month-old in to the embassy for an interview. I tried to stay positive. At least we live close to Beijing. At least I'd get to go to Starbucks (I know, I'm pathetic). Still, the logistics of such a trip with a baby were tricky. We decided it would be easiest to take an unlicensed taxi to Beijing since we don't have a car. The taxi ended up being a van which I can now fully appreciate, being a mom. It was a comfortable ride (distance: 250 km, time: 2.5 hours, cost: 600 rmb or US$100). We got dropped off near the embassy and had a lunch (mmm, Fatburger, a stone's throw from the embassy) before our appointment time.

As always, the US Embassy was swarming with people. We skipped the entire line of locals while Ping commented loudly, “Wow! My mom is awesome! We can skip all these people!” I could feel the glares of a hundred pairs of eyes bearing into our backs while I said a little prayer that we wouldn't get sent to the end of the line. We weren't. And once we got inside we were allowed to skip the queue there as well. I'm not sure it was the power of my being a US citizen or the fact that we had a baby. It doesn't matter. It was awesome.

We interviewed briefly with an officer. It was not as I expected; I felt like I was at the bank talking to a teller. Ming said that when he had his K-1 visa interview in Guangzhou the situation was much more serious. He sat down with an officer and there were armed personnel around. I guess they don't bring out the big guns for tourist visas. Our experience in Beijing was pretty relaxed and we informed on the spot that the visas would be issued. But at this point you might be wondering, why did we even both getting William a US visa? Is he an American or what? Fair enough, William's nationality is a frequent topic of conversation. In case you are interested, I will lay the details out here—this could be of use for anyone who is thinking of having children in China.

William, currently, is Chinese. China DOES NOT recognize dual citizenship (although the US and many, MANY other countries do—why China?! Why????). Since he was born in China, William is a de facto Chinese citizen. We applied for his Chinese hukou (household registration) shortly after his birth. Having a Chinese hukou will allow William to have access to public schooling and certain health care benefits should we stay in China longterm. This fall, we also applied for his Chinese passport. Both his hukou and passport list his Chinese name, though his birth certificate holds his English name. Some hospitals will agree to this, but if they don't and insist on a Chinese name, no fear. There is a form you can fill out (with the US Embassy and I'd assume other countries have something similar) requesting the child's non-Chinese name on his or her non-Chinese passport.

William's first subway ride 
Since we had to take a trip to the embassy, we decided we might as well try to get William a US passport. I wasn't sure of there would be an issue considering we were also there to apply for his US visa, but the workers at the embassy were compassionate and helpful (as always). Now the next burning question, Why didn't you just get William a US passport and circumvent all this US visa business?

The answer is complicated and definitely something you should give some thought to if you happen to give birth in China. Firstly, our local PSB (a branch of the police) have been somewhat adamant in their stance that they will not recognize William's foreign passport. According to them, any person born to a Chinese citizen, no matter where in the world they are born, is Chinese. Why a country with such a huge over-population problem would be so rigid in this belief is beyond me. Regardless, I have been assured by the US Embassy in Beijing, they do actually have to recognize his foreign passport—but I don't want to kick up a fuss with the local police until I know we are out of here for good. Most likely, other PSBs are more well-versed to dealing with these matters and won't put up such a stink.

The next, related issue is that if we want William to exit China using that passport, we have to apply for an exit visa. William cannot leave China on an empty US passport and we must obtain the exit visa from the PSB where my husband's hukou is registered (in our case, Chengde). Moreover, William cannot return to China on an American passport without a special travel permit. That permit has to be obtained at the Chinese Embassy or Consulate in the foreign parent's region. In our case, it would be in Chicago. In the end, we decided it would cause less trouble if we had William travel on a Chinese passport for now. I had to laugh when the officer interviewing us at the embassy pondered, “I don't know whose bureaucracy is worse, China or America?” To me, the answer is obvious.

If you, by chance, do have a baby in China and this topic is a matter of concern for you, there are some great posts by Ember Swift (check out Traveling Visa Circus: Part One and Part Two) and on nama mama's blog. Feel free to leave a comment or contact me if you need any more information.

Anyone care to air their visa grievances? Please do share!

Friday, December 26, 2014

trip to the clinic

entrance to clinic which is part of apartment complex

William still hasn't full kicked his cold or, more likely, he caught another one. To help ease his cough and throat, he continues to use a nebulizer. Instead of going to the nearby hospital to use it, we decided to take him into our neighborhood clinic. As far as I know, every neighborhood (housing complex) in China has its own clinic. Ours is run by a husband and wife, who are a doctor and nurse (adorable!). They provide basic care such as administering IVs (probably their most popular service), taking blood pressure, and prescribing medicine.

Whenever I go to the clinic, there is a little old granny roaming around. She must be the mother of either the husband or wife. As a typical old Chinese lady, she loves to chat. Unfortunately, I usually don't feel much like talking when I am out with William, especially when we are alone. I feel worn down by the constant comments, criticisms, and advice strangers feel the need to dole upon us (me). While in America I often like talking with strangers and am somewhat outgoing, in China I often find myself avoiding eye contact, hoping to (please, just this once,) be left alone.

As the elderly woman approached, I sang to William. I hoped this would be a clear enough indicator that I was busy and not up for conversation. Of course, my silly western social cues were lost on her and it just fueled her desire to comment.

“Us grown-ups can't understand you, how can he understand you?” she pondered.

Sigh. While this is certainly flawed logic, I can somewhat understand it. When I first came to China I was momentarily confused when I heard people speaking to their dogs in Chinese. I didn't know what the owner was saying, so how could a puppy possibly understand? But a moment later I realized that obviously an animal learns commands in whatever language it's trained in. Babies are no different, but I didn't feel like explaining this to an old lady. She should have been able to figure it out on her own. So instead, I just smiled and continued singing.

Before long, William started to fuss. Nothing major, just a little squirming. The wife (nurse) rushed over to distract him. You'd think I'd be happy for the help, but I knew what was coming. Sure enough, before long she said to him gently, “Your mom can't handle you.”

I could feel the smoke coming out of my ears. I can't handle him? Was she trying to say I was inept? An unfit mother? Or my child was too unruly? What, exactly, was she insinuating?

“An eight-month-old fusses from having to sit still for 25 minutes doing a nebulizer and YOU have the AUDACITY to say I CAN'T HANDLE HIM,” I wanted to scream. But didn't. I don't know the Chinese word for audacity (but I do now know the word for nebulizer).

But it didn't end there. As I talked and sang to William, trying to get him to relax, the nurse cooed to him sweetly, “Aww, grandma's not here today. There's no one to talk to you.”

I was willing to excuse the 90-year-old woman for her similar comment, but a middle-aged lady should know better. Just because you don't understand the words I'm saying, doesn't mean I'm not talking. But at that moment, I let the wave of anger pass over me. They obviously weren't saying these ridiculous comments in an attempt to hurt me. I kept singing. One day William will be bilingual and he'll be able to speak for himself, in both English and Mandarin.

Have you ever had a frustrating experience due to language differences? How did you deal with it?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

I won't be home for Christmas

William with my stocking

Homesickness. . . it's something I never really suffered from until the birth of William. Now that the holiday season has arrived, I have to work extra hard not to be overwhelmed by it.

coloring contest
I've missed nearly a decade's worth of Christmases without much too much regret. I've actually somewhat enjoyed celebrating the holidays on my own terms. In China, particularly in Chengde, Christmas can pass without much notice. Though it's gaining some popularity in recent years, Chinese people don't celebrate the holiday in any traditional sense. There are decorations here and there, some that remain throughout the entire year. Even my favorite cafe, whose boss is normally so well in tune with Western habits and festivities, has had a Christmas tree in her shop since last December. Sometimes I hear Christmas music, but it may be in July or January.

making cookies
Clearly, Christmas is mine do with as I please; unlike in the US, in China there are no expectations. Since returning to Chengde in 2008, I've made a point to go all out for the holiday. I decorate our home with Christmas decorations, some of which date from my childhood, others left behind from other foreigners over the years. I buy presents for Ping, pretending to be Santa, though Ming's mom has given me away numerous times when she says, “Thank your mom for all the nice presents she got you!” (The concept of Santa seems to be lost on her, an elderly Chinese woman). I also spend over a week baking, having each one of my students make a different cookie with me. At the end of the week, I throw a Christmas party for all of my students, at which we sample all the different cookies. We also play a variety of games such as Pin the Nose on the Rudolph and White Elephant gift exchange.
some of the treats

Getting ready for Christmas this year has been just the distraction I needed. Last Sunday I threw my party, with18 kids and 21 different holiday treats to sample. A part of me did feel sad that this might be the last year I host such a party since there's a good chance we'll be in the US during the next holiday season. My Christmas Party has become infamous among students (they start talking about it in June) and it's a tradition I manage to create all on my own. But as with so many things, it's something I'll have to leave behind when we move. But I guess that's okay, I'm sure we'll forge new traditions back in the US.

What about you, have you spent the holidays away from home? Does it make you feel homesick?

decorating the tree

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Eve apples

A year or two ago, I was discussing the custom of Christmas trees with one of my students. I had never given much thought to the tradition, so it was interesting to see how a person unfamiliar with the ritual viewed it.

“Do most people have Christmas trees in their homes?” she asked me.

“Yes, most people do,” I answered, not delving into the complexities of the religious aspect of it.

“So how long do you keep the tree?” she further questioned.

“Everyone is different, maybe a month,” I explained.

“Is it a real tree?”

“Some people have fake trees. Many people buy real ones,” I told her.

“What do you do with the tree after Christmas?”

“We throw it away.”

She stared at me incredulously, “Isn't that a bit of a waste?!”

“Hmm. I suppose it is. . . . I think they make wood chips out of the trees though,” I tried to rationalize.

wrapped apples
I thought more about it. Christmas trees are wasteful, but I couldn't imagine the holidays without one, so I find the waste excusable. But do you know what kind of holiday waste I do not find acceptable? Dozens of sheets of tissue paper used to wrap a rotten apple. For those of you who do not live in China, let me explain. . .

students picking out paper for apple wrapping
There is an odd Chinese tradition, on Christmas Eve, for local children to exchange apples. The reason for this relates to the Chinese word for Christmas Eve, 平安夜 (píng'ān yè), which literally translated means “peaceful night.” The first character, pronounced píng, is a homophone for the first character in the Chinese word for apple (苹果, píngguǒ). Years ago, some clever Chinese fruit seller must have figured that this word play would be a great way to cash in on a foreign holiday most Chinese people know little about—naturally, on Christmas Eve you must exchange apples! Most of my students assume this is a foreign tradition and are surprised to learn I had never heard of it before coming to China. For some of my more advanced students, I try to explain that this custom must have roots in China as Christmas Eve and apple are homophones in Mandarin, not in English or other foreign languages (that I know of).

 Over the years, I've seen the tradition of giving apples grow more and more excessive. The apples are often wrapped in layers upon layers of tissue paper and cellophane. They are decorated with ribbons, bows, and even tiny teddy bears. They are often sold for ridiculous sums of money. Even in Chengde, you can find an intricately wrapped apple for upwards of 60 rmb (US$10). It seems like an awful waste of paper and the worst part is, since the apple is often wrapped in advanced, the buyer has no idea of its quality. Inevitably, you are giving someone the gift of a half rotten apple and a bunch of colorful paper she will just throw in the trash.

My students like me too much (or don't like me enough?) to give me a rotten apple for Christmas. That's great, as it's a gift I'd rather not receive.

What about you, what's the worst gift you've ever gotten?

Monday, December 22, 2014

Where is my freedom?

My post and photos about this year's Christmas Party aren't ready yet. Instead, I bring you more social Chinese media fun!

I came across another gem about parenting on WeChat. This one comes in the form of a comic which makes it doubly fun. It paints being a mom in a pretty dismal light, though I will not waiver in my stance that I find taking care of children, even caring for a tiny baby, isn't so bad. This holds especially true in China, where many women have the help of an army of people (at least compared to American moms) such as their own parents, in-laws, nannies, and maybe their husbands. I think Chinese moms may feel like they have no place to complain, as most American moms do. I suppose this type of comic provides a little humor and relief for some.

I thought I'd loosely translate part of the comic into English. The WeChat post is titled After giving birth, do you become your child's slave? And the comic is drawn by Zhang Xiaoyu (张小玉).

1. All along I've been the kind of person to live life to the fullest. . .
“Seeing loads of different performances.”
“Enjoying new experiences.”
“Partying with friends.”
“Snapchating delicious meals.”
“Enjoying the moment instead of saving money.”

2. . . . until the day I had a kid.
(name of a Chinese song about parents' love and showing filial piety)
“Eh? My freedom. . . where has it gone?”

3. Before I could come and go as I pleased, playing happily. . .
“It's all about me!”
“It's all about me!”
“It's all about meeeeee!”

4. . . . now, every time I want to go out I have to plan for ages.
“Arrange a baby-sitter.”
“Shit. Milk is leaking.”
“Need to tidy up the diapers.”
“I'm gonna be late! Kill me! Kill me now!”

5. Even though going out means the possibilities are endless, I'm constantly restless because I'm worried about my baby. . .
“I can't sit still!!!”

6. . . . so then, I can't have a good time. I'm always the first person to leave the party.
“First to go.”
“See you guys next time! Next time!”
“Being a mom is truly miserable,” say her friends (or are they ghosts?).

7. Returning home, each time I vehemently admonish myself.
“Honey, I'm so sorry.”
“Maybe I really shouldn't have my own life.”

Some parents may struggle with a sense of lost freedom having having a baby, but I think most people have gone through a time when they felt their life was not their own—maybe after taking a difficult new job, caring for a sick relative, or suffering through an intense semester at school. Have you ever gone through a period in your life or had something happen during which you felt like you lost your freedom?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas is canceled

from WeChat (微信)

Ming sent me this cute little blurb on WeChat, outlining some of the challenges Santa has to face entering China. I'm not sure whether it makes most Chinese want to laugh or cry, but I couldn't help but chuckle. It's definitely a new spin on The Night Before Christmas. Below, in both Chinese and my English translation:


Entering Chinese territory from Denmark, Santa encountered smog mid-route thus causing an inability to see the road clearly. He crashed and until now, no one has dared help him up. In the snow, lies his bag of presents, which has been looted empty of gifts. His [reindeer] have been taken away by city inspectors (chengguan) and his sleigh, which was unlicensed, has been seized by traffic police. This year, Christmas is canceled; please spread the word!

In such few words, this sad tale cleverly illustrates a variety of problems in China, such as:
  1. Theft and looting  
  2. Police brutality and incompetence 

'Tis the season to grumble about life in the PRC! My next post will be slightly more cheerful but still on the topic of Christmas. I'm hosting my annual Christmas party on Sunday and I'll be sure to post some pictures.

What are your plans for the holiday?

Thursday, December 04, 2014


This past week I came across an article about the most popular baby names of 2014. I was relieved to see that William did not make the top ten, as it did on the US list in 2013 (when it came in at No. 5). I never intended to name my kid a trendy name. I pitied all the Adams I knew growing up. In 5th grade there were four of them in my class of 25 students and we had to identify them by the first initial of their last name. I've never had that problem. I am the only Rosie most people know.

My Grandpa Gerald holding me
I was hoping to come up with a name someone like my own. I've really come to embrace my name as I've gotten older. As a child, it wasn't ideal as I had to deal with endless rhyming (Nosy Rosie; Rosie Posie) and nicknames (Roseanne was the end of me). Now that the name-calling has ceased, I like having an uncommon name. In fact, I've never come across a Rosalie who wasn't elderly or a Rosie that was a retriever (I guess it's a cute pet name). Though not popular, most people can pronounce it and I don't get a confused look when I introduce myself. That's what I wanted for my child.

Then I found out I was having a boy. For a girl, it was easy. I had a million names I loved, but settled on Athena and Ming liked the meaning behind it. For her Chinese name, Ming would have her named by a Buddhist monk, as he had done with Ping. But for a boy, I wasn't sure, as nothing stood out. So I took the sentimental route.

Grandpa during WW2
For a middle name, I went with a good, solid German name—Gerald. Actually, while I like that this name ties William to his German roots, I picked it because it was my grandpa's name. My grandfather and I were very close growing up. He passed away in 2008.

My dad lost his beloved younger brother, Billy, in a motorcycle accident when they were just out of high school. When I brought up the name William as an option for a first name, Ming asked what it translated to in Chinese. I told him the transliteration (Wēilián), to which he smiled and quickly agreed, “Yes! Let's name him after a prince!” We also decided, much to my relief, to give him the Chinese name of Wēilián, instead playing Name Russian Roulette and have him named by a random monk. Double win!

While his English name is certainly common, his Chinese name is not. Wēilián is not something a Chinese person would normally, if ever, pick. However, the characters of his name aren't odd and I like the meaning behind each of them. Wēi () meaning “power” or “prestige,” and lián () meaning “honest and clean” (it also means “cheap” which I generally prefer to gloss over). Wēilián is the name that appears on William's hukou (Chinese household registry) and Chinese passport. On his birth certificate, the hospital agreed to print his English name, William Gerald. When we get him an American passport, most likely next spring, he will officially be William Gerald in the eyes of Uncle Sam.

What about you? Does your name have any special meaning? Do you have a name in more than one language?