There were many moments I was certain that the story I was living was not for real. I mean, seriously. How was it possible that I was stuck in China? How had I experienced so many crazy scenarios in the week since my passport had been stolen?
I felt helpless. And trapped.
Although I was safe and well-cared for, I was at the mercy of the Chinese government and completely dependent on my friends. After the experience I’d had at the Exit-Entry Bureau (EEB) on Monday, that reality had become even more obvious than before. So as I prepared for the week of waiting, I begged God for the courage to accept the unknown and to embrace my total lack of control. I drew much strength and encouragement from the many prayers that were being lifted up on my behalf: two things I desperately needed to face the events that would soon unfold.
Day 18: (Tuesday)
Can I just say that technology is awesome?! This whole situation would have been so much harder if not for the opportunity to talk to my husband and kids basically anytime I wanted. Sure, the 13-hour time difference made things a little difficult, but most days we were able to talk or video-chat at least a couple of times. That Tuesday morning was no different.
It was Monday night back at home. After I talked with the kids for a little while about their day, I kissed and hugged them goodnight through the screen. As they got ready for bed, I was preparing to face a new day on the other side of the world. But not just any day. It was October 10, my baby boy’s birthday, and I knew that day was going to be tougher than most.
After I got ready, I walked to the coffee shop that had become so familiar and precious in the middle of all the uncertainty. I sat in there for several hours – sipping coffee, returning emails, texting my husband and some friends, writing, praying, and seriously missing my little birthday boy.
Upon returning to the apartment, I realized I had missed a call from the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai. I immediately called back the number and got a recording instructing me to dial “3” for an emergency involving a U.S. citizen. I asked my friends if my situation counted as an emergency. Because you know, to me, it was an emergency, but I wasn’t sure if the consulate would think so. When they emphatically said YES, I pushed “3” and was connected to a very kind and compassionate Chinese woman at the consulate. She was reaching out after hearing of my predicament from the office of the U.S. Senator my sister had contacted the week before. Unfortunately, empathy and compassion do nothing to speed up bureaucratic procedure, but it was really nice to hear her say she was sorry for what I was going through. I tried not to cry, but my emotions were constantly at surface level and could be triggered by just about anything. She told me that, unfortunately, there was not much they could do to speed up the process on the Chinese side of things. While that was not at all what I wanted to hear, the phone call was not a complete disappointment. I did learn the answers to several key questions we had:
•After obtaining the document from the EEB, I could travel by train to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing or U.S. Consulate in Shanghai.
•If I arrived before 4 pm, I would be issued an emergency passport within one hour.
•I would have to return to Wuhan to apply for a new visa since that EEB location had canceled my stolen visa.
•It would take 2-3 business days to obtain a new visa once an application was submitted.
At that point, the only obstacle preventing us from moving forward was the piece of paper I needed from the EEB in Wuhan. I had been told it would not be ready until Friday, but that timing would make it impossible to get to the U.S. consulate before the weekend. Waiting until the following Monday was a less-than-ideal option, but at that time, it seemed that it was the only one.
In the afternoon, I went back to Pacific Coffee for a demonstration of a new coffee machine. I just needed something different to fill the time and take my mind off my circumstances for a little while. I didn’t know where in the cafe the demo would be or what it would entail, so I ordered some coffee and sat down at a table. As I waited, four workers brought out the machine and began setting out plates of food on a nearby table. From where I sat, it looked like cherry tomatoes, limes, and cubes of cheese. Interesting. One of the girls looked over the table carefully then picked up the plate of cheese and took it back to the kitchen. A couple of minutes later, she returned with the cheese in a different dish and another girl arrived with a plate of purple something or other. The table was then rearranged literally twelve times! After they were finally satisfied with the setup, they invited customers to join them at the table where I discovered the cheese was actually mango, the limes were oranges with green peels, and the purple stuff was dragon fruit. The machine was similar to a Keurig but a little fancier and had the capability to make milk-heavy drinks like lattes and cappuccinos. One of the baristas started to translate everything into English for me, but I told her she did not have to. She seemed relieved and so did everyone else! I was one of four customers who attended the demo, and it was actually quite fun despite not being able to understand anything that was being said! Plus, I got free coffee and snacks and a new cultural experience to add to my growing list.
As I was walking back to the apartment, my friend texted to tell me she had just received a call for me from someone at the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan. He happened to be a person they sort of knew, so that sounded promising! I emailed him and explained my eagerness to obtain the Confirmation of Reporting the Loss of Passport document sooner than Friday and asked if he could try to help expedite the process. He responded that his office had been contacted by the consulate in Shanghai after my conversation with them earlier in the day. Even though the consulate in Wuhan does not handle individual passport and visa issues, he said they would see if there was anything they could do and promised to get back to me by early the next morning.
That evening, I felt a little more hopeful. I walked over to my other friends’ apartment for a night of laughter, good conversation, and delicious homemade chicken pot pie. By the time I arrived back at the other apartment, everyone was already asleep. I tried for several minutes to open the door with the key I’d been given, but I could not get it to work! Of course, right? I ended up having to wake up my friends to open the door for me. Thankfully, there was actually a problem with the key, so I didn’t feel quite as bad as I had when I thought it was just user error.
Back in my room, I FaceTimed with my little guy on his birthday morning. He told me all about the cake they were going to bake and the presents he was going to open. I longed so badly to be with him but had to settle for a conversation through the cold, impenetrable glass screen of my iPhone.
Day 19: (Wednesday)
By the time I woke up the next morning, my son had opened his gifts and enjoyed his birthday dinner and cake. We chatted again before he went to bed so he could tell me all about his day. He seemed to be happy and doing really well. I was thankful, but I was heartbroken and guilt-ridden that I had missed his special day.
Around 11 am, I got a fantastic email from my new BFF at the local U.S. Consulate! He confirmed that my document would be ready to pick up on Thursday morning at 9 am – one day sooner than expected! That meant I would be able to get to Shanghai in time to be issued a new passport before the weekend. Finally, some good news!!
I met a friend for coffee in the afternoon, and we discussed the most recent communication from the consulate. In my mind, if the document was going to be ready when the EEB opened the next morning, then it should be ready when they closed that day. That seems like a rational thought, right? I sent out a text asking if any of my friends were available to go with me to the EEB right before it closed. One of my friends was, so we met up and headed to the subway. I tried not to get my hopes up, but who am I kidding? They were sky-high. We walked up to the desk and handed a woman my receipt without explaining that we were there prior to our scheduled time. She was gone for a few minutes and returned with a piece of paper in her hand. MY piece of paper!! I signed for it and walked away with tears filling my eyes, praising God for the victory. A small victory, yes. But oh, so needed.
I excitedly reported to everyone that I had the document in my hand! We then tried to get train tickets at the ticket office near the apartment, but that plan did not exactly work out in our favor. Thankfully, we were able to purchase the tickets online to be picked up the next morning at the train station.
Day 20: (Thursday)
I woke up super early and left the apartment a little before 5 am to meet the friend who was going with me to Shanghai. I rode the elevator down to the lobby of the building and tried to open the doors to the outside courtyard. Locked! The doors had been propped open every single time I had walked through them for the last three weeks, so I wasn’t sure what to do. I spotted the button on the wall that I knew (from other buildings) would unlock the door. I pushed it and tried to open the door again. Still locked. I started to panic a little bit, then remembered there was another exit. I quickly walked to that door and pushed the button. It opened, and I walked outside… into the pouring rain. Thankfully, I had an umbrella.
It was a bit creepy walking in the dark through the empty complex. The rain was coming down pretty hard, so I was trying to walk quickly to the front gate. All of a sudden, something jumped out of the trash can a few feet in front of me. I screamed and jumped back, my heart literally in my throat! A cat.
With my heart still racing, I arrived at the front gate and rounded the corner to exit through the pedestrian gate. The guard on duty usually opened the swinging metal bar with a keycard, but at this time of day, there was no one posted at the usual spot. I looked ahead to the guard building. The light was on, but I could see no one inside. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone just a few feet away from me. It totally freaked me out for a moment until I realized it was the guard. I could barely make out a face in the shadows, but it was obvious he was fast asleep. Then, I really started to panic. I considered trying to climb over the gate but worried that if he woke up, I would be unable to communicate what I was doing. That would only cause more problems, so I decided against that plan. I walked back the other direction, unsure of what to do next. It was almost time to meet my friend, and I could not get out! I texted the friend I was meeting, but he did not respond right away, so I texted my husband and asked him what I should do. He responded, “Wake him up!” As if it were that easy. Startling a man in the darkness did not sound like a good idea to me. My friend texted back and offered the same advice. That was it; I had no other choice. I walked back to the gate, and this time as I turned the corner, I loudly hit my umbrella on the wall and dragged my shoes on the pavement. The poor guy awoke with such a start that he nearly fell out of his chair! He looked at me with wide eyes and hastily slapped the keycard on the scanner to open the gate. I just smiled and quickly walked through. To this day, he probably thinks he had a terrible nightmare about a white lady with a large black umbrella!
The train ride from Wuhan to Shanghai took about 6 hours. It was the fastest train I have ever been on, with top speeds of 250 kph (around 155 mph). Most of the trip was uneventful except for the shrill rantings of a woman who was sitting a couple of rows behind us. I understood nothing that she said, but she was dramatic and animated enough that I could figure out what had happened. Apparently, the old man in front of her had leaned his seat back and caused her to spill her water. And she was mad. Like out-of-her-mind angry. And so, for the next hour, she screamed at him. And I’m serious. She was actually screaming. In THE highest-pitched voice ever heard on the earth. Everyone kept turning around and glaring at her, I guess trying to silently communicate that she was being completely obnoxious. That approach was clearly not working, so a few of the other passengers started yelling back at her. It was pretty hilarious to observe. The poor train attendant tried to talk her down a couple of times, but the lady would not ease up. Finally, a plainclothes security guy came to talk to her. She got off shortly after that and screamed the entire time she was waiting at the door. It was actually quite entertaining, but it was nice when she was gone and we had peace and quiet again.
Once we arrived in Shanghai, we ate some lunch at the train station then took a cab to the consulate. We walked past a bunch of people waiting in line and went straight to the door. We showed our documents indicating we were U.S. citizens – all I had was the piece of paper I had picked up the day before and a copy of my stolen passport. They let us in and had us check our bags at the front desk. We were directed through a security checkpoint and then straight to the citizens’ area. It felt good to be treated like I mattered. That was as close to American soil as I could get at that moment, and I was thankful to be there. We walked into an empty waiting area, and I was a little surprised by the setup. I don’t know what I expected, but I certainly did not anticipate it feeling like a trip to the DMV. I went up to the window and explained who I was and why I was there. I then realized I had left my cash in my purse at the security desk. The visa processing area was now filled with long lines of Chinese citizens, so I squeezed past the people and went back to the security desk. I got the money from my purse and somehow managed to push my way through the mass of people to get back to where I was supposed to be. As I walked past the security guard, he said to me, “Welcome Back.” For some reason, I found that very comforting.
When I returned to the window, I paid the money and submitted my application. Soon after, I talked with a very nice American guy about what had happened and the steps I was supposed to follow after my emergency passport was issued. Then, we waited.
About 30 minutes later, I was called over to examine my passport for accuracy. I noticed right away that my birthdate was printed wrong, so I handed it back and we waited another 30 minutes for a new one to be issued. Finally, my name was called again, and I was given my emergency passport. It was beautiful. I was so relieved and excited! One more hurdle was cleared, and I was one step closer to getting home. Or so I thought.
We quickly left the building, walked to the nearest metro stop, and got on the subway headed back toward the train station. We were two stops away from our destination when my phone rang. It was a Shanghai phone number. When I answered, the woman on the other end of the phone told me there was a problem with my passport and that I needed to return to the consulate. I asked her to confirm that I had to come back, hoping that maybe there had been slow communication about the error on the first passport. She agreed to double-check, so I hung up and waited. When she called again a minute later, she said there was, in fact, a serious error with my passport. I started crying and told her, “If I come back now, I will miss my train.” She apologized but insisted I had to return to the consulate.
I could not believe this was happening. We exited at the next stop, walked across the platform, and got on the train headed in the opposite direction. The consulate closed at 5 pm, and we arrived back there around 5:30 pm. We had been instructed to call once we had arrived, but no one was answering. A couple of employees leaving for the day saw us and helped us get in touch with the people we were supposed to see. A few minutes later, the man with whom I had talked earlier walked out into the hallway. He looked as if he were about to cry and said to me, “This is all my fault. I am so, so sorry.” I immediately started to cry. Again. He then proceeded to explain that when he went into the system to cancel the passport that had been printed with an error, he accidentally canceled both passports. So, the passport I had in my possession was no longer valid. They had printed another passport for me, which he now held out. With tears rolling down my face, I took it from him and gave him back the one I had been given earlier. He said to me, “I am so sorry. I know you have already been through so much.” I had. And it felt nice for him to acknowledge it in that moment. But, unfortunately, it didn’t change the fact that we missed the last train to Wuhan and now had to stay overnight in Shanghai.
As we walked out of the building completely bewildered at the turn of events, I texted my husband the news. My friend texted his wife to help us book hotel rooms near the airport and a morning flight to Wuhan. After that, we told the rest of our friends back in Wuhan, and they could hardly believe that had actually happened. The only positive thing that came out of this new setback was the food. We grabbed a quick dinner at a little New York pizza restaurant called Joe’s Pizza, and I ate the best pizza I have ever had. Ever. Seriously, it was amazing. And then we stopped for gelato on the way to the subway entrance. The silver lining, I guess.
We took the subway to the area of the city near our hotel. We rode the escalator up to ground level and came out in, what felt like, a very sketchy part of the city. There were like no buildings around, just a subway entrance on either side of the road and a bunch of cars. And people motioning for us to get in the cars. My friend said they were illegal taxis and told them that we did not want a ride. He hailed a marked taxi, and we got in. He started explaining where we needed to go. He speaks pretty good Chinese, but it did not seem to me like they were communicating very effectively. After about 5 minutes of them going back and forth and the driver getting louder and more animated, my friend turned to me and said, “We need to get out.” He explained that the driver did not know the area where our hotel was, so he would not take us there. We walked across the street and found a cab driver who would take us. As we drove, we saw several police checkpoints. The driver told my friend they were pulling over illegal cabs, so I was very thankful we were not in one. That was definitely not an experience I wanted to add to the story. The driver dropped us at a hotel, but once we got inside, we discovered it was the wrong one. We had reservations at a hotel with the same name half a mile or so down the road. So, we walked to the correct hotel and went to the front counter to check in. This process was more difficult than I had expected. As I said before, it is a requirement that you register with the local police when you move to a new “residence”. This hotel would register us but needed our papers to do so. I handed the woman at the desk my passport, and she started flipping through it with an expression of skepticism. You see, the emergency passport kind of looks like I just printed it at my house. It has fewer pages and different markings, and the ID page is a sticker. Plus, there was no visa. She clearly did not believe that it was a real passport. My friend explained the situation and showed her my Confirmation of Reporting the Loss of Passport form. She looked that over and then decided to scan everything and check us in. It was almost 10 pm at this point, and I was so exhausted from another emotionally charged day. I went to my room and, after a short conversation with my husband, went to sleep. The bed was very comfortable (not Chinese at all!), and I slept really well. Another kindness the Lord gave to me in the middle of the chaos.
Day 21: (Friday)
I woke up early, showered, and headed down to the lobby to meet my friend. We were given a sack with bread, a hard-boiled and a little juice box container of apple milk. I did not drink the milk. Too weird. The shuttle van to the airport was a little intense. The driver went crazy fast and honked his horn like every two seconds for the entire ride even though traffic was pretty light.
At the airport, to my surprise, I had no trouble getting through security or boarding the flight. We arrived back in Wuhan around 10 am. After another ride on the subway, my friend helped me order some food for lunch before I walked back to where I was staying to freshen up and discuss the plans for the afternoon. Before I could apply for a visa, I had to register with the police under my new passport number. Unfortunately, by the time we got back, it was too late to go before the afternoon break (nap time). The office reopened at 2:30 pm, so we arrived a little before 2 pm hoping to be the first in line. When they raised the metal door, we were the first ones to sit down. The rest of the people must have sensed Murphy’s Law at work because they ALL got in the other line! And they were smart; we sat at the desk for almost an hour. The phony appearance of the passport was not working for this lady either. She wasn’t sure if it was real and would not process my registration. It was so frustrating because all I could do was sit there. I couldn’t explain. I couldn’t defend myself. I finally decided to email our contacts at the consulate there in Wuhan and asked them to call her and give our story some legitimacy. At one point, it seemed like she had maybe decided to print the form. Someone from the consulate called right then and explained the situation to her. After that, her demeanor toward us completely changed. She seemed satisfied that she would not get in trouble for processing my registration, so she printed the form and happily sent us on our way.
We arrived at the Citizens Home around 4:30 pm; it closes at 5 pm. After several delays due to standing in the wrong line, having to scan my photos, and my number being skipped, we finally sat down in front of a person. I submitted a visa application and handed over my new passport. I was given a receipt a few minutes after 5 pm. A receipt that indicated my visa pick-up date was 10/24. That was eleven days away!! I knew there might be a backup because they had just come back from holiday, but eleven days to print a sticker and attach it to my passport seemed ridiculous. Especially since I had been told it would probably take 2-3 business days.
Despite my total frustration and strong desire to argue about the absurdity of my having to wait so long for a tiny little sticker, we decided that was not a good idea. We would let our contacts at the local consulate fight that battle for me. In a more diplomatic fashion.
So, once again, we headed down to the subway. There was only this one more step to complete before I would be able to go home, but another eleven days stranded in China felt like an unbearable burden in that moment. I cried out to God for grace to endure. I asked for a miracle and sat back to see how He would show up.
Click here for the conclusion of the story!