Our much-anticipated holiday week was proving to be more exciting than we had all expected, and not in a good way. After my wallet was stolen, the focus of the following few days turned from exploring the city to navigating the Chinese police and government systems. It felt like a game in which I held none of the cards. I was thankful to be walking through the process with my husband and friends. Friends who became dearer through all that we experienced together. I was especially thankful that, even in the midst of having all control stripped away from me, I could trust that the Lord was working and moving on my behalf and for my good. Even if nothing went as planned. Which is exactly what happened.
DAY 12: (Wednesday)
Before leaving the police station the night before, we had been instructed to return the next morning to properly register our stay in Wuhan. We planned to go there, but first, we needed to borrow a bicycle from a friend and get some breakfast. The people we were staying with at the time had to be the ones to register us, so the husband came along. While we were picking up the bike, he got a call from his wife saying that the police were at their apartment inquiring about our location. Because we hadn’t shown up right when the police department opened, they came looking for us! So, instead of getting a bite to eat, we booked it to the police station, me on the back of the e-bike and my husband trying to keep up with us on the bicycle. The registration process was fairly quick and easy, but by the time we were finished, we were super hungry. We stopped for some hot dry noodles before swinging by a neighborhood market to pick up some fruit and veggies.
For the remainder of the day, we just hung around the apartment, the mood still a bit somber. We tried to recall the details of the previous day and attempted to piece together what had happened. I remembered the overweight man from the subway, and we theorized that he could have been the one who took my wallet. When he shoved me forward, I was forced to put my hands out for balance, and I was distracted by the pushing on my upper back. That would have been an easy opportunity to take the wallet, especially if my purse was unzipped like we think it was. It was all just speculation, but it sounded plausible to me.
We took the bus to the mall to get some Indian food for dinner, but the restaurant had inexplicably closed since the last time our friends had gone. (That actually happens quite frequently!) We ended up eating at a Chinese-run Tex Mex restaurant, which felt a bit incongruent. I thought the food was pretty decent, but my husband was not a fan of his “hamburger” made from sliced beef.
Later that evening, a detective investigating my case called to ask me some questions. We actually talked three different times throughout the night. His English was fairly easy to understand despite the heavy accent, but that did not prevent the hilarity that transpired during those phone calls. Here are a few of the high points, which still make me laugh out loud:
- He asked me what I used to pay for my subway fare the day my wallet was stolen. I told him that I had a transit card that I put money on when we first arrived. Then I, being one who tends to over-explain, told him that it was not, however, my bus card. He replied, “It’s not your bus card?” I said, “Well, I borrowed it from my friend who lives here.” He seemed confused and asked again if it was my bus card. I told him that it was the card I was using but that it was not technically mine. Exasperated, he cried out, “Well, WHO’s bus card IS it?”
- In the next phone call, he asked me to describe my wallet: size, color, material. And of course, he wanted the measurements in centimeters. You guys. I am from America. I learned about the metric system for like one week back in middle school. It was pretty comical trying to figure out the conversion from inches, especially since I was totally guessing on the measurements anyway! After that, he asked about my place of “residence”. At that time, I didn’t know that the place you are staying in China (even a hotel) is called your “residence”. I assumed he meant my actual residence so I told him the name of the city I am from. He asked me to spell the name since he could not understand what I was talking about. The last three letters of my town are O-L-A. He says, “O-O-A?” So I said, “No, O-L-A.” Again, he repeats the same thing. So, I spelled it slower. This time, he thought I said “O-O-O,” and he asked, very frustrated, “There are three O’s?”
- After the second time we talked, he called our friend (the one who speaks the best Chinese) to ask him what place I was talking about that is spelled with three O’s at the end. On that phone call, unbeknownst to me, our friend mentioned to him that I had remembered the man who had pushed me on the metro. So, when I answered the phone the third time, the first thing I heard was, “I understand you have a suspect!” I literally almost died laughing, not so he could hear, of course. I had no clue what he was talking about until he told me what our friend had said. I tried to describe the man with polite words, but he was not following what I was saying. In the end, I just said, “He was a fat man”. He understood that. And then he wanted me to describe the man’s height. In meters. I am sure you can guess how that went.
- One of the most comical things was that he abruptly ended every phone call with, “Okay. Goodbye.” Click.
Day 13: (Thursday)
As the week started winding down, we spent a significant amount of time talking to the airline and our families to explain what had happened. My husband and I decided that the best plan, both financially and emotionally for me, was for him to go back home on our original flight. While I certainly wanted him with me, I knew my mama heart could not handle having to tell our kids that we were both not coming home as planned. We had already been away for nearly two weeks, and we still had no idea how long I would have to stay there. With that in mind, along with the financial and logistical implications of us both remaining in China for an indefinite period of time, my husband reluctantly agreed it was the better of the two options we had.
(And just as a side note: he would have NEVER left me in China if I was not safe and being well-cared for by our friends!)
We wanted to enjoy the last couple of days we had there together, so we resumed some of the fun activities that had been so abruptly halted earlier in the week. We had talked several times about going to Tanhaulin Lu (Art Street) and decided we should go that day. We ate some of the most amazing street food, bought souvenirs and gifts, and ate lunch at a Thai restaurant. I was really surprised at the number of coffee shops there were in this area. I never saw many Chinese people drinking coffee, so I am not sure why they cater so much to the relatively few number of coffee-drinking foreigners. One of the high points of the day was when we found a sweet little coffee shop called Big Water Cafe. Not only was the shop beautiful, but the coffee was amazing! While we were ordering, we saw a small batch coffee roaster in the back, which revealed that they roast their beans in-house. We loved that place and wish we could have gone more than just that one time.
That evening, we did some more babysitting so one of the couples could go out for dinner and go to a show they had been wanting to see. After they returned home, we took the elevator up to the roof for a different perspective and some breathtaking views of the city lights.
Day 14: (Friday)
On my husband’s last day in China, he and a few of the American guys explored more of the city and the impressive Wuhan University. He got to drive around Wuhan and the beautiful campus on his own e-bike, which for him, was one of the highlights of the whole trip! They were gone for the entire morning, but he redeemed himself when he came back with a bacon cheeseburger and green tea shake for me. The night before on their date, our friends had discovered a new burger restaurant called Shine Shark. The first week it was open, everything on the menu was half price! And the food was actually really good!
In the afternoon, we had plans to meet with the American couple we had met who runs a coffee business there in Wuhan. We decided to take the e-bikes to the subway entrance, and my husband wanted to drive. Up to this point, I had refused to ride on one with him – not because I didn’t trust him or his driving skills, but because I knew he wasn’t used to the craziness that is the traffic there. People and e-bikes come out of nowhere, and buses and cars barrel through the streets as if there are no lanes painted on the pavement. As we chased after our other friends, we came very close to death at least a dozen times. Ok, maybe not death, but I could not stop myself from blurting out some sort of instruction or scream every few seconds. I did not mean to do that, but I could not control what was coming out of my mouth! Maybe a fight instinct? In any case, I was terrified, and my husband thought it was hilarious.
Once we survived the ride to the metro stop, it took us another hour or so to get to the meeting location. We had a truly fantastic time sipping coffee and chatting about the city with that dear couple. They have been living and doing business in Wuhan for more than 20 years and had so much wisdom and insight and experience to share with us that day. We were moved by their stories and encouraged by their lives and their love for the people of Wuhan. We definitely consider that 2-hour conversation a highlight of our trip and are so thankful we had that opportunity to talk with them.
We had a farewell dinner out at a restaurant we had been to one other time. It was supposed to be a parting meal and goodbye to both of us, and it felt strange knowing that I would not be getting on the plane with my husband the next day. As we casually strolled back to the apartment, we made a point to take some final pictures and talk about the amazing time we’d had together during the previous two weeks. Experiencing that culture was life-changing, and we were so grateful we had been able to do that side by side.
Day 15: (Saturday)
Early the next morning, I went with our friend and my husband to the airport. It was super early, so we had to take a taxi. The ride was a little crazy as the driver took a few navigational liberties in order to rack up the fare and apparently did not believe in lanes or the gentle use of brakes.
At the airport, we waited in the wrong line for about 25 minutes before being directed to the right counter. We maybe should have realized we were in the wrong place when we were the only non-Chinese people in the line, but since that had been the case for most of the last two weeks, it didn’t really phase us. But once we got to the correct area, it was very obvious we were in the right place. I said a tearful goodbye to my husband, hardly able to believe that he was leaving China and I was staying behind. That scenario is something we would have never imagined in a million years. While we both had so much peace about our decision, there were still moments when fear or anxiety would creep in. If I’m honest, I did not like feeling completely out of control. I wondered what God was doing and why this was how he was doing it. The awful thought actually crossed my mind that maybe the reason for all of this was because my husband’s plane was going to crash and God was making a way for our children not to be orphaned. I pushed aside the thought, knowing that dwelling on it would not be healthy or helpful.
Later, after taking the subway back to the place I would call “home” for a while, I needed some space to process everything that had happened. I got some coffee and a danish from Pacific and sat outside to watch the passersby. I reflected on how, even in all of the chaos, I could see the kindness of the Lord. Even in those moments of uncertainty, I knew I could trust Him.
I needed to get new passport photos taken because all of the applications I would be submitting that next week required a photo. One of our friends “has a guy”, so we went to his “studio” to get some printed. He did not have a white background, which is what I needed, so a large piece of white foam board did the trick. My friend and some random lady held it up behind my head while the guy snapped a picture on his phone. While he was uploading it to his computer, I pulled up the U.S. passport photo requirements on my phone to see if this was going to be up to standard. He printed like fifteen pictures and then laid them out on a table to cut. It was at this point that I realized they were not the size I needed. My friend explained to him the problem, but because of how he had taken the photo, he could not crop it to the right dimensions. So, we had to set up for another awkward photo shoot with the form board. This time, he was sizing it correctly, but there was a pretty dark shadow on the background. He was attempting to edit it out, but in the process, he edited out some of my hair. And part of my shoulder. My friend was trying to communicate that these would not be acceptable because of, you know, the divet in my shoulder. The vocabulary was a little unusual, so we had to get another friend on the phone to explain it to him. Once the guy finally understood what we were saying, we had photo session #3. This time, we moved the stool I was sitting on to avoid the shadow. In our haste, I forgot to remove my jewelry that time, which is a requirement for Chinese visa photos. I didn’t realize it until he was already printing them, so we just decided to go with it and hope for the best. We walked out with 20+ photos: 2 different poses in 2 different sizes, one with jewelry and one without. In other words: options. We also walked out with another legit China experience to add to my growing repertoire.
After a much-needed nap that afternoon, we all had Korean BBQ and homemade mashed potatoes at the home of the other American family we had met our first week in China. My husband was able to iMessage me from the plane, a new feature on Delta flights since we had arrived in China two weeks prior. It was really nice to be able to communicate with him, but everything in me just wanted to be on the flight, heading home to our children.
Day 16: (Sunday)
On this morning, our group of friends and their families assembled for a time of fellowship and prayer at one of the apartments. It was good to be together, but it did not feel complete without my husband there with me. Sunday morning in Wuhan was Saturday night in Iowa, which is when his plane arrived home. Once he landed in Des Moines and reunited with our kids, he sent me a voice text of everyone saying hello and that they loved and missed me. Right at the end of the recording, my littlest guy yells out, “When are you gonna get home? Is it going to be before my birthday? Cuz I don’t want you to miss out on my birthday.” Oh, man. Talk about a dagger to my heart! My husband, knowing I would be upset by that, laughed nervously and said, “Um… he misses you.” Obviously, we hadn’t told our son yet that I would not be home in time, so to hear that he was thinking about that all on his own? So many tears.
A little while later, we were able to video-chat over FaceTime. Although it was emotional and difficult to not be there with them, it really was a balm for my heavy heart to see my four loves together again. And the half-price bacon cheeseburger I had for lunch was a little bit of a balm in its own right.
For the rest of the afternoon, I hung around the apartment filling out the different forms and applications I would need to submit in the process of obtaining a new passport and visa. The first step was to report my stolen passport to the Exit-Entry Bureau by submitting our copy of the police report, and in return, receiving a specific document I would need to travel within China and to apply for an emergency passport at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai. We planned to go to the Wuhan Citizens Home first thing on Monday morning, with hopes of getting the document and traveling to Shanghai on Monday evening or Tuesday morning.
Pizza Hut delivery and a movie rounded out the day. We watched “The Indian in the Cupboard”, which was a lot weirder than I remember and, surprisingly, had a lot of language for a kid movie! I talked to my husband before going to bed, excited about finally being able to make some progress the next day.
Day 17: (Monday)
One of the wives met me in the morning to ride the subway to the Citizens Home. She brought one of her little boys along because it never hurts to have a cute kid! We arrived shortly after they opened and were able to find the right department with only a little trouble. There was no one waiting, but we were told to take a number. After a minute or two, we walked up to another woman and my friend explained to her why we were there. She told us to go ahead and sit down. I handed her a copy of my stolen passport and the original paper the police had given us, along with two photos. She asked a few questions, which my friend translated for me, and then began typing on her computer. She continued conversing with my friend, and I could tell by the look on my friend’s face that it was not good news. Tears immediately started welling up in my eyes. I don’t know exactly what was being said, but my friend kept repeating the word “mama” and motioning toward me. Finally, she turned to me and explained that they needed time to process my request and I would not be able to get the paper I needed until Friday.
WHAT?!? Friday?? When I had walked into the building, it was not even a possibility in my mind that I would walk out without the document I needed. And now I was being told that I would have to wait another four days just to complete the first step in the process. The step that I thought would be the easiest and shortest of everything. I sat in the chair with tears just streaming down my face as my friend continued to plead with her to do something to speed up the timeframe. She handed me a receipt and told us there was nothing she could do.
We walked out into the atrium and down to the main level; I was shocked and confused and frustrated. I could not believe this was happening or hold back the flood of tears as I thought about what this meant. I texted my husband to tell him the unexpected bad news we had received, while my friend contacted everyone else to fill them in. My friend (bless her heart) hailed us a cab so I wouldn’t have to endure an hour on the subway. I cried the entire ride back while my husband and I exchanged texts. I told him that I just wanted to go home; I literally could not stop crying. I felt terrible for my friend, who compassionately let me sit there and weep in silence. There were no words for that moment. It was like I just needed to grieve. My idea of how things would go, the plans I had made in my head, my hopes of returning home to my children by the end of that week. All of that was gone. It felt like too much, like more than I could handle. Because it was. Because I wasn’t supposed to handle it. After those moments of despair, I realized I could only cling to the Lord. I needed to depend on His strength to make it through. My husband reminded me that the place I would find peace in the middle of these circumstances was in the arms of the Father.
After we all realized the process was going to be neither quick nor smooth, we started reaching out to any contact we could think of who might have a connection with the Consulate or the State Department or with Ambassador Branstad. We were hoping someone could help move the process along a little faster. My sister had already opened a line of communication with an Iowa Senator’s office, but it was Colombus Day, so all the American offices were closed. Of course, they were!
After dinner that night, I saw myself in the mirror and laughed out loud at what a hot mess I was. It had been a long, emotional day, and it certainly showed in my reflection. We decided to go out for ice cream, both to ease the sting of the day and to celebrate our friends’ anniversary. We came back home and ended up having a good night, full of laughter. I needed to laugh. The next day, my son’s birthday, was going to be a difficult one.
Read Part 4 here!!