THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR STICKING WITH ME THIS FAR! I KNOW THE POSTS HAVE BEEN A BIT LONG AND DRAWN OUT, BUT IT WAS IMPORTANT FOR ME TO SHARE THE WHOLE STORY AS A WAY TO PROCESS EVERYTHING MYSELF. I HOPE YOU HAVE ENJOYED READING ABOUT OUR CRAZY ADVENTURE…YOU CAN READ THE FINAL INSTALLMENT BELOW!! 🙂
When my husband left China, we were both pretty confident I would follow within a week. We assumed that would be adequate time to replace my stolen passport and visa, but that presumption was wildly inaccurate. I was still in China at the end of those seven days and still without a scheduled date of departure. There were many moments when I couldn’t believe the situation in which I’d found myself. It felt like a bad prank or a disturbing dream from which I couldn’t wake up. The idea that I was stranded on the other side of the world from my family was just too crazy of a thought. But, unfortunately, it was all quite real.
Despite numerous complications, I had managed to jump through all of the bureaucratic hoops and was just one step away from obtaining my new papers. Because I had accomplished everything that was required of me, the length of time I remained there was completely out of my hands. I had never really had control of that anyway, but at least sometimes it felt like I’d been participating in the process. Now, all I could do was wait and pray. While I did not understand what God was doing and struggled to cope with having so little control over everything in my life, He met me there. Through every disappointment and frustration and small victory, I wholeheartedly believed two things: that His plan was ultimately for my good and His glory, and that He would surely accomplish His purposes. In my weariness, I begged Him to do it quickly.
Day 22: (Saturday)
My husband had really enjoyed his visit to Wuhan University and encouraged me to go there if I had the chance. Saturday was a gorgeous day, so a friend and I decided to take a bus to that part of the city and walk around the beautiful campus. Apparently, it is one of the best places to go when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. We missed that window, but there was still plenty to see and much beauty to appreciate.
Day 23: (Sunday)
I had a hard time accepting the fact that it was my FOURTH Sunday in China. I was missing my family and my normal life, and I truly just wanted to go home. That morning, the taxi ride to church took longer than planned because the driver decided to take the “scenic route”. He didn’t realize that my friends knew how to get where we were going, so he determined to make himself a few extra bucks at our expense. Before we got out of the car, my friend called him on it. He laughed and actually admitted that he purposefully drove out of the way because he didn’t think we would know!
The instant I walked into the building where the fellowship meets (15 minutes late), my heart ached for my husband. Maybe because that was where we went on our very first morning in China three weeks prior. Or maybe because there were a lot of American couples at the service. I don’t know, but for whatever reason, I suddenly felt so alone. Of course, I had already been missing him like crazy, but this morning was different. More intense, I guess. The loneliness I felt without him there was agonizing. After the service, I struggled to interact with my friends and others and cried the entire walk to the restaurant where we ate lunch. A cheap but delicious cup of coffee before the meal helped lift my spirits a little, and the amazing food didn’t hurt either.
The rest of the day was pretty low-key and included a nap, laundry, and some much-needed connecting with my husband and children over FaceTime. Those moments of seeing and hearing them as if they were in the next room were so comforting, especially on those really difficult days.
Day 24: (Monday)
Because I had planned to be in China for just two weeks, I had understandably packed just two pairs of jeans. Most days had been warm enough for shorts or capris, but by mid-October, the weather was turning cooler and was often rainy. Having no idea how much longer I would be there, purchasing another pair of pants seemed like a smart idea. I decided to try the H&M at the shopping center where we had eaten hot pot and Tex Mex during those first two weeks. As soon as my friend and I arrived at the store, I began scouring the racks for any pair of pants that might fit me. While I did find a few pairs of jeans in my size, they all had so many holes and rips in them that I might as well have been wearing shorts! Maybe I am a little old-fashioned here, but there was no possible way I was paying 50 bucks or more for jeans that looked like they’d been used by my 6-year to practice cutting with scissors.
A little frustrated by the selection, I decided to try the men’s department. I was not expecting much, to be honest, but I was hoping there would be something with less “distressing” and more fabric. I quickly found a very promising pair on the clearance rack. They were Army-green, but kind of shiny, and were tapered and cuffed at the bottom. Quite feminine looking, in my opinion. I picked them up and held them to my body. Yeah, these could work, I thought. On my way to the fitting room, I found THE most comfortable pair of sweatpants ever. I tried on both of my finds, and to my delight, they both fit! I was super excited to have found two pairs of pants in which to survive the next how-ever-many days I would be in China.
After getting some coffee and waiting in the rain at the wrong bus stop for like 20 minutes, we finally arrived back at the apartment. It was such a gloomy day, and I just wanted to lie around and mope. In my sulking, I sent an email to the man from the consulate in Wuhan who had been helping me. I told him I felt like I was just sitting on my hands and wondered if there was anything I could do that might be helpful. I asked if going to the EEB every few days to check on the progress would be too much. A few minutes later I received a reply:
Hi Erica, We sent a diplomatic note today and will follow up tomorrow. I don’t think there is anything you could or should do tomorrow. Perhaps a trip to the EEB on Wednesday would be good.
It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, but I was grateful that he was so responsive and gracious despite my continuous questions and requests for help. He didn’t know me and had no obligation to help me, and yet he did just that. God used that man to display His care for me and to demonstrate His kindness in a very tangible way.
Day 25: (Tuesday)
I babysat for my friends’ little boys in the afternoon while they went on a date, and then I stayed at their house for dinner. While I was there, our other friend texted to say that the U.S. Ambassador to China was in Wuhan.
I could not believe it!
I had actually been trying for more than a week to get in touch with Ambassador Branstad through a back channel connection. He was the governor of my home state of Iowa for more than 20 years of my life. From the beginning of my ordeal, I had been holding onto to this dream that he would hear about my situation, have compassion on a fellow Iowan, and use his influence to expedite my return to the United States. When I learned that he was in Wuhan that day, I was devastated. The one person I believed could be my ticket out was suddenly in the same city, but he wasn’t even there for me and would probably never hear about my situation. It doesn’t even really make sense, but I felt like I had been robbed of my chance.
Not long after getting that text, I received more upsetting news. My consulate guy emailed an update that no further progress had been made with the EEB that day. He recommended that I change my plans to visit the citizens home the next day for fear that continued pressure would end up working against me. Once I got back to the apartment, I went to my room, shut the door, and wept.
Like literally cried out all of my tears.
I wanted so badly to leave that place where I felt like a prisoner and where my hopes and expectations were constantly being crushed. I cried out to God, and even though I didn’t feel relief in that moment, I know He heard me and that He was with me. I know because His Word promises that He is near to the brokenhearted. And my heart was in pieces that day.
I eventually pulled myself together and emerged from my room to go for a night walk with my girlfriends. Donning the new sweats I had purchased the day before, I walked with my friend to meet the other ladies. It was a perfect night, and I knew the walk and time with friends would be good for my heavy heart. When we met up with the others, I tried to talk about how I was holding up but I could not stifle the sobs that broke through. My friends comforted me as best they could and then, lovingly, just let me be. I walked along, quietly listening to their conversations and wiping away the tears that flowed down my cheeks. I wanted to be ok, but I just wasn’t. It was becoming evident that I would not be home in time for my other son’s birthday, which was just four days away. I couldn’t bear the thought of having to tell him I would miss his birthday too.
As we walked beside the road on our way back, I suddenly felt a gush of cold water crash into the bottom half of my body. After a brief moment of shock, we realized what had happened and stood on the sidewalk laughing hysterically. For some reason, a street washer truck was not playing the music that ordinarily indicates its approach. Because we didn’t hear him coming up behind us, we were doused with rank water and debris from the street. I am sure we were quite the sight, all soaking wet and plastered with sand and grit. Even though the pants I had bought to avoid doing laundry were now dirty, I was thankful for the laughter.
Day 26: (Wednesday)
I tagged along with one of my friends as she took a baby gift to her friend/neighbor. I enjoyed observing their interaction and being in the home of a Chinese family. The woman spoke very good English and was kind and hospitable. She was so proud of her little baby, her second child. It was rare to see families with more than one child since the One Child Policy was just abolished in 2016. It made me smile each time I did.
After we stayed there for a little while, we went with her to lunch at a nearby hot pot restaurant. She picked out all of the food, and I think it was a much more authentic experience than I’d had at the other hot pot restaurant. She ordered a lot of seafood, including fully-intact fish and several things I could not identify. At one point, I looked down to see a tiny eyeball floating in my bowl. The food was mostly very good, but I could have done without the creepy fish eye staring at me.
After lunch, I met up with an American friend I had met my first day in China. We hung out at her apartment watching Liam Neeson in Les Miserables, sipping hot coffee, and eating cookies. I can’t even tell you how good for my soul that time was. And to make the afternoon even better, while I was sitting on her couch, I got an email from my consulate contact. He told me that the EEB would be issuing my visa within the next two days!
Best. news. EVER.
My heart was pounding as I sent a screenshot of the email to my husband. My text read: Just got this email. Do I dare hope?? I wanted to be cautious in my optimism, but this was the first good news I’d received in a while, and I couldn’t help but be excited! When my husband replied, he echoed my happiness and encouraged me to hope.
That evening, as I talked to the friends with whom I was staying, I became aware of an opportunity to go to the EEB the next day. The dad and oldest kids were meeting up with another friend and his kids to visit the museum that is located in the citizens home. I said I would think about going with them and let them know the next morning. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to risk pushing too hard by trying to pick up my passport before receiving confirmation that it was ready. But I also knew that in order to be home in time for my son’s birthday, I had to get my papers by the next day. After talking it over with my husband, I decided I was willing to take any chance to make that happen.
Day 27: (Thursday)
My friends’ 2-year old hurt his neck, so they had to take him to the hospital that morning. From what I hear, it is quite the experience. Thankfully, that is one aspect of Chinese culture that I did not have to face during my time there. I stayed at the apartment with the other kids and waited for news on their little brother. Thankfully, nothing showed up on the x-ray or CT scan, and their little guy would just need to rest for a few days.
Soon after they arrived home, we left to meet up with their friend and his kids and go to the museum. On the subway ride, I learned the friend’s other purpose for going was that his family had applied for new visas, and he needed to pick up their passports from the EEB. The decision was made to get their passports and check on the status of my visa before heading to the museum. I had not had any further communication from my consulate contact, so I was a little uneasy as I walked up to the counter with the friend. He handed the woman his application receipt and, after a few minutes of conversation about his request, he handed her my receipt. She looked it over and immediately started to give it back, shaking her head. He did not reach for it. Instead, he told her that the consulate said it would be ready that day or the next day. The women shouted something to her colleague at the other end of the counter, which prompted an immediate reaction. He turned to me and whispered, “She told the other woman that the consulate sent us, and there’s no way I am going to correct her!” Within a few minutes, we were each handed a piece of paper and instructed to go downstairs to pay for our documents. My heart was probably beating loud enough to be heard by everyone in that room as I realized what was happening! After we paid, we walked back up the stairs and turned in our payment receipts. The woman motioned for me to walk down to another window where I was handed a pen and instructed to sign a log book.
Then, she casually reached out and handed me my passport. I gripped it in my hands as if it was worth a million dollars. To me, now that it contained the sticker that would allow me to finally go home, it was priceless. The best thing I had ever been given by another human. Those next moments were very emotional as I found a seat and called my husband. It was the middle of the night in the U.S., but I did NOT care. He was beyond happy to be awakened by that phone call and contacted the airline immediately after we hung up.
There were some complications with the friend’s visa, so he was delayed for a little while. While he waited at the counter, the rest of us went to the museum. It was actually kind of a bust, but there were a few cool things to see. The best display was the 3-D model of the city of Wuhan. I enjoyed finding the buildings that had become so familiar to me during my time there and seeing some of the incredible structures that are being built or will be built in the future.
Around 3:30 that afternoon, I received confirmation from my husband that I would be leaving China the next morning. I could hardly believe it was true. After so many days of waiting and feeling like the process could not move any slower, I suddenly had papers AND plane tickets. I was so grateful!
I had one last chance to have authentic Chinese cuisine before returning home, so we ordered a variety of dishes to eat back at the apartment. To top off the night, our other friends came over with milk tea ice cream, a favorite treat of mine. Before they went home, it started to sink in that I was really leaving when I had to say goodbye to the friend who had often acted as my translator and had been such a help and encouragement to me.
Despite that, my mood was joyful as I packed my suitcase later that night. I could almost feel my family back in my arms! Before I went to bed, I called to tell my children the good news, that mama was coming home! I also messaged friends and family and announced on Instagram that my crazy trip was finally coming to an end. So many people had been praying for me, and I wanted to scream it from the rooftops that those prayers had been answered!
Day 28: (Friday)
Early the next morning, after I got everything ready to go, I said goodbye to my dear friends who had let me crash at their apartment for almost three weeks. Friends who had graciously put up with my many quirks and unstable emotions. Friends who had become like family. I’m so thankful for their hospitality and generosity to me.
I left their apartment one last time and met up with my other sweet and generous friend to take a taxi to the airport. She stayed with me until I got my boarding pass and checked my bag, and then we said our goodbyes. As I walked toward the security line, I was aware of the fact that each step I took was one step closer to my family. I didn’t want to be pessimistic, but I was also quite aware that something could still happen to prevent me from leaving the country. I couldn’t wholeheartedly celebrate the victory until after I was wheels up out of Beijing, and that moment was still hours away.
After getting through security, I really needed some caffeine, I didn’t have much Chinese money left and wanted to save most of it for my layover in Beijing, so I opted for a cheap refrigerated coffee beverage from a convenience store. After I took a few sips, I realized it was expired. Normally, that kind of thing would bother me. But, I had just been stuck in China for multiple weeks, so expired coffee didn’t feel like a big deal at that moment.
The flight from Wuhan to Bejing was short and uneventful. I was nervous about navigating the unfamiliar airport all alone, but there were prominent signs directing transfer passengers. I retrieved my suitcase and proceeded through customs and immigration with no problems. I couldn’t help but think about the bullet incident and thanked God nothing like that happened while I was alone. I decided to spend my last few RMB bills on a cup of mediocre coffee and an incredibly overpriced bottle of warm water. While I sipped my Americano and waited to board my flight, I eavesdropped on a group of American families exchanging adoption stories. They were all heading home with a new son or daughter in their arms, and it was beautiful to observe the love and joy of these families.
Once I was all buckled in, I looked around and realized there was only one empty seat on the plane. And praise Jesus, it was right next to me! After what felt like an hour, the plane finally lifted off. I was extremely emotional as I let go of my pessimism and embraced the moment. I had been kept away from my kids for 28 days, and I was finally on my way to them. I was no longer held captive by a system that felt arduous and punitive despite the fact that I had been the victim of a crime. None of the mattered now because I was going home!!
For the next 14 hours, I had an empty seat to my left and the aisle on my right. I couldn’t have asked for a better spot on that side of the curtain. To pass the time, I watched a bunch of movies, messaged with my husband as much as I could, and ate a lot of food. I think I maybe slept an hour, which did nothing to relieve the profound exhaustion that had settled in. The weight of all that had occurred in the two and half weeks since my wallet had been stolen was beginning to feel unbearably heavy.
Arriving at the airport in Detroit brought on another flood of emotions. I was so thankful to be on American soil again, even if I had yet to clear customs. I knew my passport situation had the potential to delay me, so I walked to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection area as quickly as I could. Not surprisingly, the automated kiosk printed my receipt with a big X, so I was directed to a line where I would have to speak with an actual person. While I waited, I got an email informing me that my flight from Detroit to Des Moines had been delayed. I didn’t have a lot of time to make my connection, so I was actually quite relieved. When it was my turn, I handed the officer my passport and briefly explained why I’d been issued an emergency one. She looked it over while typing in the number. A few seconds later, the looked up from her screen and smiled. Then she handed me my passport and motioned for me to go on through. I assume there were notes in the system that confirmed my statement because the process was a lot easier than I thought it would be. I was super thankful for that, as I had not been looking forward to explaining my whole emotional story to a bunch of strangers.
At my gate, I ran into an acquaintance I had not seen in more than fifteen years. We sat together and chatted about our families and all that I had just been through. Our flight was delayed for over an hour, and it was really nice to have someone to talk to. By the time we boarded the flight, more than 20 hours had passed since I had left Wuhan, and I could no longer fight the exhaustion. I put in my earbuds, cranked some music, and was asleep before the plane even took off. I woke up shortly before we landed and immediately started to feel anxious for the coming reunion with my family. Once I started toward the exit, I could not contain my joy and practically ran toward the escalator. As soon as I saw the faces of my children and husband waiting for me, I hurried down the rest of the steps and rushed toward them. My daughter, not surprisingly, was the first to meet me. She ran and jumped into my arms screaming, “Mommy!” I pulled her close and cried tears of joy and relief. I put her down and turned to my boys. At first, my youngest acted shy and gave me an awkward hug. After some encouragement, he snuggled in and gave me a kiss. My oldest was very happy to see me but was much more reserved than my daughter. All three of them perfectly displayed their individual personalities in their reaction to my returning home. After embracing and kissing my husband, I hugged my parents and grandma who were also there to welcome me.
My family was finally back together, and all I wanted to do was hold them and explain how desperately I had missed them. It’s hard to adequately convey how I felt in that moment. I was relieved. I was emotionally spent. I was exhausted beyond my limits. I was overflowing with love and joy. More than anything, I was just so grateful to be home. And in God’s kindness, I had made it back just hours before my son’s birthday.
Even now, two months later, I’m still completely astounded at everything that happened. It was the most unforgettable experience of my life, and I am forever changed by what I went through. Being separated from my children was definitely one of the most difficult things I have ever had to face. If I would have known ahead of time what was going to happen, I never would have gone. I think that’s why we aren’t supposed to make decisions out of fear. God used what I experienced to show me areas where I didn’t fully trust him and to reveal some ugly things in my heart. He also proved to me once again that He is faithful and trustworthy. Even in the most distressing moments, I held tightly to the truth that God is sovereign and that His ways are far above mine. I may never know everything He was doing, but at the end of the day, I trust Him and love Him more than I did before I left for China. And if that was His only purpose, that would be enough.