“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.
A quick rundown of how International Women’s Day looked from the perspective of women in China – in pictures.
Global Times, a daily newspaper owned and published by the state-affiliated People’s Daily, decided International Women’s Day (known as Women’s Day in China), was an appropriate time to remind readers of International Men’s Day. Apparently, Global Times thought Men’s Day seemed a more effective “time to celebrate our achievements and fight against discrimination” than Women’s Day. Here’s looking forward to November 19th to see how they do so.
Chinese search engine, Baidu, went for a celebratory angle this year, promoting restaurant, cinema and shopping deals for women on their special day. The image is a distinct improvement on the controversial doodle of 2015, going for a “modern women can have it all” feel.
In comparison, Google’s doodle was diverse and dynamic, including representations of a variety of influential women, and stressing the importance of intergenerational relationships – every women pictured (whether or not she had children in life) was shown sharing her experiences with a young girl.
Demonstrators around the world showed their support for Feminist Voices, the Chinese women’s rights organisation whose social media accounts were temporarily blocked on 20th February for criticising Donald Trump’s misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic and racist policies. The overlaid green text is a reminder that the account has been forcibly inactive for 20 days so far (the total given was 30 days).
Chinese feminist activist, Li Maizi (or Li Tingting), spoke at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), in London this week:
Marking two years since her arrest by Chinese authorities, activist Li Maizi of China’s ‘Feminist Five’ is joined at SOAS by a panel of experts to share her activism experience, and discuss the current state and future of feminism in mainland China. Unprecedented in the UK, this is a chance to hear from one of the PRC’s leading activists and one of the most inspirational figures in global feminist and LGBTQIA+ networks.
2016 was characterized by sexism across the board, from President-elect Trump and Duterte to the Olympics and the music industry. We’ve lost a bunch of significant icons for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who’d would rather forget all about it, for one night at least.
But the world has made some serious strides towards equality and liberation in 2016, with female heads of state taking power worldwide, and women standing strong together in the face of adversity. Here we take stock of the year to recognise how we’ve continued to move forward.
Taiwan elected their first female President, Tsai Ingwen, who is leader of the Democratic Progressive Party. Tsai has since vowed to reduce Taiwan’s dependence on mainland China, which considers the independently-governed island as a Chinese territory, desiring eventual reunion.
English musician David Bowie, who consistently challenged social norms of gender and sexuality with his androgynous appearance, music and performance, died of liver cancer. After his death, he was remembered as a unifying force: “a human bridge between the queer and the hetero-normative.”
American musician Kesha sued Dr. Luke, her music producer, for over a decade of sexual abuse which “put her life at risk”, including drugging and raping her. Sony refused to release her from her six-album recording contract, signed in 2005.
During proceedings, talk-show host Wendy Williams victim-blamed Kesha for not simply filming the abuse, stating: “business is business, and it sounds like it’s fair. If everybody complained because somebody allegedly sexually abused them … contracts would be broken all the time.”
Female stars, including Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga, stood in sisterly solidarity with Kesha, with Swift donating $250,000 toward legal efforts to #FreeKesha
Police removed bail conditions on China’s Feminist Five who were arrested and detained last March for planning a protest against sexual harassment on public transport. One condition of the lifted bail was no travel outside their legal place of residence. However, police have not dropped the case and these young women could remain suspects indefinitely, despite committing no crime.
Aung San Suu Kyi took office as the first female political leader of Myanmar, after her National League for Democracy won a majority in the November Elections. The Lady became Myanmar’s first State Counsellor – the de facto head of government – a role created to counteract a constitutional clause preventing her taking office.
The death of American musician Prince, who famously defied categorization of race, gender and sexuality, shook fans worldwide. The Los Angeles Times called Prince “our first post-everything pop star, defying easy categories of race, genre and commercial appeal.”
Female Judge in New York, Judge Shirley Kornreich, ruled against Kesha’s motion to end her contract with Sony, even after attorneys argued that it was “slavery” to force her to work with companies associated with her rapist and former producer, Dr. Luke. Kesha stated: “All I ever wanted was to be able to make music without being afraid, scared or abused.”
Tsai Ingwen became the “most powerful woman in the Chinese-speaking world” when sworn in as President of Taiwan, when she vowed to promote democracy and freedom, and refused the idea Taiwan was part of “one China”.
Philippine citizens elected “proud womanizer”, Roderigo Duterte, in the Presidential election. He began as he meant to continue: by wolf-whistling and serenading a female journalist in a nationally televised press conference before taking office. Since his election, he has pursued the brutal execution of drug dealers, with a death toll of 6,000 in six months.
Despite all hopes (and votes) of the British youth, the island nation voted to leave the European Union in the national referendum. Brexit voters, many of whom were among the elderly population, were disappointed to learn they’d been lied to during the long campaign. The promise to re-route large sums of money into the National Health Service was immediately refuted by UKIP party leader and leave-campaigner Nigel Farage, who promptly resigned. Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, also resigned, leaving the country to wonder why he’d proposed this referendum in the first place.
Amid the post-Brexit chaos, Britain’s second female Prime Minister, Teresa May took office after all the male contenders played themselves out. British media ironically embraced sexism by reporting on the PM’s husband’s attire on the day they moved into Number 10.
Hillary Rodham Clinton won the Democratic nomination, making her the first female Presidential nominee of a major party in US history. Her opposition, Bernie Sanders, called for a unanimous nomination, and civil rights leader John Lewis said: “Tonight we will shatter that glass ceiling again.”
China overstepped it’s bounds in the South China Sea, by creating artificial islands with military runways on reefs in territories claimed by other countries, inviting major international dispute with the Philippines. The issue came to a head when an international tribunal favoured claims from the Philippines and China refused to acknowledge the ruling. In an October visit to Beijing, Filipino President Duterte had seemingly brushed the matter aside, stating a realignment with mainland China’s vision, snubbing long-term ally the United States.
A UK police force made strides towards fair reporting of sex crimes, in a decision to record misogyny as hate crime. Panic ensued, but, as Laura Bates stated: “fears of innocent men being locked up for compliments were proved misplaced when women instead reported abuse and assault.”
Tokyo’s first female governor, Yuriko Koike, took office after winning a landside in the July election. To the displeasure of many politicians it seems – one politician implied her leadership abilities are compromised because she’s “a woman past her prime in thick makeup.” Comparing her battle for office to Hillary Clinton’s, Koike once said: “Hillary used the phrase ‘glass ceiling.’ It’s often a sheet of steel in Japan.”
A woman in France was forced by a group of policemen to remove her clothing on a public beach in Nice after France banned the burkini citing concerns about terrorism related to religious clothing. Images show at least four policemen surrounding the woman, who sat on the beach with her family wearing leggings, a tunic, and a headscarf.
Female athletes suffered as Olympic Games commentators seemed to compete for the “most sexist” award.
Hong Kong held its legislative elections, with the highest turnout of voters in the territory’s history.
New statistics about the gender pay gap show how factors like race, age and education also affect the chasm between men and women’s earnings over their lifetimes. In the US, there’s a negative correlation between education and earning power. Similarly, earnings decrease with age: the older a woman is, the smaller percentage of a man’s wage she earns. As a result of gender- and race-based wage gaps, student debt is all the more crippling for women of colour.
North Korea tested nuclear warheads for the second time this year, in the most powerful detonation unleashed in a North Korean nuclear test so far.
New data displayed a significant rise in the birth rate of babies born to women over 45 in the UK. There were 1,578 babies born to mothers aged 45 and over in England in 2009, but in 2015 there were 2,119.
Women the world over were not all that shocked by the release of an audio recording of Donald Trump telling a reporter how he likes to pick up women: “Grab her by the pussy”, is a statement he brushed off as “locker-room talk”. In a moment of solidarity against the oligarch, women across America revealed stories of sexual harassment and abuse by Donald Trump, which he consistently denied.
The more allegations emerged, the more Hillary Clinton seemed the obvious champion for women’s rights across America. The majority of people using the early-voting system were reportedly Republican women whose husbands wanted them to vote for Trump. Predictions showed Clinton to be the next President.
Xi Jinping was announced “core leader” of China, an honour only three previous leaders (Jiang Zemin, Deng Xiaoping, and Chairman Mao) have been given. The new title is a sign that, “willingly or not, senior Communist Party officials have bowed to his dominance.”
Hong Kong and mainland China clashed over the chaotic swearing-in of young Pro-Democracy politicians, several of whom referred to the mainland by a racial slur, ‘Shina’, and one called it the “People’s ref**king of Shina”. Protests erupted in the streets of Hong Kong as a result of Beijing’s interference in legal proceedings.
Women mourned the reinforcement of the glass ceiling as Donald Trump won the US Presidential Elections, despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was infinitely more qualified for the job. Protests ensued across the United States and further afield. Many were upset to learn that no, allegations of rape and sexual abuse do not ruin a man’s career.
Moroccan TV normalised domestic violence with it’s make-up tutorial showing how to cover bruises.
Protests that broke out on the streets of the South Korean capital in November came to a head as the people called for President Park Geun-Hye to resign amid allegations of corruption. Park, the first female President and daughter of President Park Chung-Hee (in office 1961-1979), was suspended from office on 9th December to wait out impeachment hearings.
I turned 27, which puts me at risk of becoming a “leftover woman” – a shameful term invented by the government affiliated All China Women’s Federation to guilt unmarried women.
British musician George Michael was found dead on Christmas morning. George Michael was half of the first western act to play in the People’s Republic of China. Wham! toured China in April 1986.After Wham! separated Michael came out as gay, thus challenging notions of masculinity and sexuality, while remaining a sex symbol for the majority of his life.
Mother-daughter actresses Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher died 24 hours apart in the last week of the year. Debbie Reynolds was known for her wonderful singing voice, heard alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connell in Singin’ In The Rain (1952). Carrie Fisher was best known for her portrayal of Sci-Fi’s earliest strong female character, Princess Leia. The Star Wars character runs an empire on her own after both her brother and lover disappear with no explanation.
It’s not often that dancers are given free reign to create new works of their own, and even rarer that they get all the support necessary to make fully-realised, successful pieces. That’s why In Good Company, the project enabling dancers of the Hofesh Shechter Company to present their own works, is so special. Six budding choreographers show five unique dance pieces and one enthralling film in the third incarnation of In Good Company at The Place, London this weekend.
Weighty, abstract and astounding: Tao Dance Theatre’s 4 and 5
Hypnotic, enthralling and undeniably special: bodies ebb and flow with the tide of change in Chinese choreographer Tao Ye’s 4 and 5. These are just two parts in a series of abstract works that “explore the potential of the human body as a visual element, away from the limitations of representation or narrative” and “give free reign to the imagination”. These two progressive, contemporary works were presented by Sadler’s Wells in the Lilian Baylis Studio at the weekend.
Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s challenging Vortex Temporum
Dancers whirl through dark space, crossing paths, each following their own axes as they run at full speed along pre-drawn lines like ebullient planets. A deconstruction of the relationship between dance and music, Vortex Temporum is an engaging work, both powerfully engaging and lightly playful. This week saw the UK première of this 2013 choreography by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker at Sadler’s Wells to the strange and eerie sounds of Gerard Grisey’s 1996 piece by the same name, performed by Belgian dance company Rosas and contemporary music ensemble Ictus.
I recently made a major decision that will change my life.
Since then, other parts of my life have really improved. Everything around me has taken on the glisten of wonderment that I hadn’t seen there previously.
So, its probably about time I told the world. Or, at least, those in it who don’t already know…
I’m moving to China.
Beijing to be precise.
My decision was the result of a minor crisis that came after several months of serious overworking and underenjoying life. I decided I needed to change things, so went back to the drawing board, where I fleshed out plans I’d left virtually untouched for almost a year. (More about my decision-inducing crisis here).
It all happened very fast. I applied, had an interview and got the job within a week, having to promise it’s what I really wanted and therefore would not back out. I knew it was exactly the right thing for me at this point.
‘You know how it is when something fits, there’s just a question of being it.’
– Beth Orton.
Hope soon turned to overjoyed excitement, but I couldn’t share these feelings too openly – didn’t want to jinx it. Before I enrolled on a teaching course and handed in my notice at work, I had to wait for confirmation that I would actually be let into the country for a year…
Once that came, everything changed. But it was the decision that liberated me from my unhappiness.
It’s amazing the way a change in your attitude towards one element in your life can change everything in your life.
Once I felt I’d finally found my route into long-term professional happiness, I looked up and saw the good things in my life for what they truly are: abso-fucking-lutely fan-fucking-tastic.
The few weeks since I’ve handed in my notice at work have gone by in a haze of sunshine and fun. I’ve spent my time more socially, catching up with friends from all corners of the country.
I met a boy I really like hanging out with, and we’ve been on adventures to places in London I’ve never been before. I’ve done loads of cool stuff with my awesome housemates, including finding an abandoned zoo on an island in Croatia… And I’ve actually quite enjoyed work too, because I know I’m ending on good terms and leaving to pursue something I truly love.
Things are almost so good that it might lead me to falter, to question my choice to leave this place and the people in it. If I’d chosen to leave to escape London, my work, my lifestyle, I might have changed my mind, because I would be going for the wrong reasons. But now, instead of leaving London next Monday and being glad to see the back of it, I will have fond memories of a place I’d be happy to move back to in future.