“You know it’s illegal to possess two passports as a Chinese citizen?” I saw her take out a large pair of scissors and decisively cut the corner off my Chinese passport. She then threw it back out at me. It landed before me on the counter, disfigured and invalid.
Xiaolu Guo is a Chinese filmmaker and author based in London. We met at Beijing’s Literary Festival in 2015, where we discussed writing techniques (she always writes by hand before word-processing, which is part of her editing process) and she borrowed my black biro to autograph copies of her books. She signed a copy of her debut book in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which was shortlisted for the 2007 Orange Prize, for me. I wanted to buy a copy of her latest novel, I Am China (published by Random House in 2014), but the bookstore’s order of had not made it through Chinese customs due to the controversial content of the book. Guo advised me to read it as an e-book, saying she didn’t think I’d be able to acquire a hardcopy in Beijing soon.
Below is an extract from Xiaolu Guo’s latest book, Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up, which was published by Chatto & Windus on 26 January, 2017. This extract was originally published by the Guardian.
Some years later, after I had published a number of books in Britain, I managed to finish a novel that I had been labouring on for years. Publication was due in a few months’ time, but I began to worry that it would bring me trouble when I next tried to go back to China, since the story concerned the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and the nature of totalitarianism. What if I was denied entry because of this book? I decided to make preparations before it came out. So, since I had been living in the UK for nearly 10 years, I applied for a British passport.
I spent some months gathering the necessary documents for my naturalisation. After a drawn-out struggle with immigration forms and lawyers, I managed to obtain my passport. Now, I thought to myself, if there was any trouble with my books and films, I would feel a certain security in being a national of a western country. Now I could go back to visit my sick father and see my family.
A week later, I applied for a Chinese visa with my British passport. After waiting at the visa application office in London for about half an hour, I found myself looking at the visa officer through a glass barrier. The woman wore horn-rimmed glasses and had her hair cut short, military-style. She looked like a resurrected Madame Mao. She took my British passport and scanned me up and down. Her face was stern, the muscles around her mouth stiff, just like all the other Communist officials, seemingly trained to keep their faces this way.
“Do you have a Chinese passport?” She stared at me with a cold, calm intensity, clutching my British passport.
I took out my Chinese passport and handed it to her through the narrow window.
She flipped through its pages. The way she handled it gave me a sudden stomach ache. I sensed something bad was coming.
“You know it’s illegal to possess two passports as a Chinese citizen?” she remarked in her even-toned, slightly jarring voice.
“Illegal?” I repeated. My surprise was totally genuine. It had never occurred to me that having two passports was against Chinese law.
The woman glanced at me from the corner of her eye. I couldn’t help but feel the judgment she had formed of me: a criminal! No, worse than that, I was a Chinese criminal who had muddied her own Chinese citizenship with that of a small, foreign state. And to top it all, I was ignorant of the laws of my own country.
She then flipped through my visa application, which was attached to my British passport, and announced: “Since this is the first time you are using your western passport, we will only issue you a two-week visa for China.”
“What?” I was speechless. I had applied for a six-month family visit visa. Before I could even argue, I saw her take out a large pair of scissors and decisively cut the corner off my Chinese passport. She then threw it back out at me. It landed before me on the counter, disfigured and invalid.
I stared, without comprehension, at this once-trusted document. The enormity of what had just happened slowly began to register. Although I was totally ignorant of most Chinese laws, I knew this for certain: when an embassy official cuts your passport, you are no longer a Chinese citizen. I stared back at Madame Mao with growing anger.
“How could you do that?” I stammered, like an idiot who knew nothing of how the world worked.
“This is the law. You have chosen the British passport. You can’t keep the Chinese one.” Case closed. She folded my visa application into my British passport and handed them to another officer, who took it, and all the other waiting passports, to a back room for further processing. She returned her tense face toward me, but she was no longer looking at me. I was already invisible.
‘Is this what the west is really like?’ How it felt to leave China for Britain, Xiaolu Guo for the Guardian