Notes from the Middle Kingdom: A Hostile Time, A Hostile Place

Words: James Kramer
Friday 28 September 2018
reading time: min, words

It's no secret: Things are a bit tense at the minute. Here's our man in Beijing James Kramer weighing in on the currently bonkers socio-political climate, the mind-numbing bureaucracy of immigration control, and the malleability of time and place in an increasingly messy and frustrating world. 


Working in China, I flew at least twice a week. There were mountains to navigate, second and third tier cities only reachable via flight or trepidatious mountain roads undertaken by drivers who saw gravity as a challenge. Flying domestically in China usually meant a good four-hour delay, the causes of which were never explained. My favourite was a terminal screen that read: “flights cancelled, due to ‘some reasons”. Yet regardless of how long I sat or slept, or learnt that picking at your own skin could be fun and somehow mindlessly entertaining, I still knew that I was flying home. I was heading back to my girlfriend and our dog. Upon my arrival, she’d manage to simultaneously urinate, defecate and then vomit with excessive joy. The obvious joke being: and what did your pup do? 

During one of these flights to the coastal city of Dalian, our plane suddenly lost altitude. The experience lasted only a few seconds, but I came to realise how malleable time can feel. When the pilot regained control, the staff handed out sweet-crust sausage rolls to calm the passengers down. Had they been laced with diazepam it might have worked. Once off the plane, I ran through the subway, told the pup to give me five minutes before gastrically exploding. I kissed my girlfriend then haphazardly proposed. She agreed, or said, “sure, I guess so.” I’ve never been one to let minor details get in the way, especially when punching massively above my weight. 

The following year I married my wife in the UK.  Four days after that, she returned to China. This was not just to provide me with a strange and confusing answer when asked how we spent our honeymoon (“She took a plane alone to the other side of the world”), but to apply for a spousal visa, the process of which has been one of the most arduous and testing periods of our lives.

I bitterly loathe the ‘hostile environment’ and the less-than-implicit undertones of xenophobia and racism that it condones. Having spent most of my adult life living from one visa year to year, I’m well versed in the hoop jumping, document scrambling process of proving your validity to be allowed to move from one rock to another (perhaps a nicer rock, with less algae or tyrannical despots). In China, every document’s highest desire is to be repeatedly bludgeoned with auspicious red stamps. There’s no transaction that doesn’t come without the ceremonial clatter of inky foam smacked on paper. From bank statements to bus tickets, those smudgy crimson decals signify a lowly leaf’s journey to official authentication. So each run up to July (Visa season) I’d routinely sprint from office to office, collecting my fat stack of parchment, allowing my continued existence in Beijing.

This was, however, a fart in the wind compared to trying to obtain said UK spousal visa for my wife, the more educated and elegant of our duo (a contrasting compliment to my ramshackle awkwardness and musty odour). We collected over fifty-five folders of evidence (that’s folders, not files) to make the case that she’s not secretly trying to gain entry into that privileged and mystical utopia known as the shady end of the east midlands.

Included in these are not only original documents pertaining to marriage, living conditions, passports and other things you’d expect, but a detailed, near-voyeuristic introspection into our private lives. Here, a dense collection of photos signed and dated goes only to show I am awkwardly un-photogenic and aging rapidly. These come as the appetiser to an entire week-by-week printed breakdown of our Wechat (Chinese Whatssap) instant messages from the last four years.

At first I felt sorry for the lowly government official, whose Monday a.m. task it was to sift dutifully though the years of our inane conversation. I pictured the litany of private in-jokes and stupefyingly high usage of animated stickers driving them insane. But towards the end of our application, I was vitriolic enough against the invasiveness of it, that I thought “Good. I hope their eyes bleed as they have to read through Tuesday the 15th of May 2014’s fascinating interaction where I repeatedly sent the same sticker of a dancing bear provocatively waving its furry ass until she replied with a gif of a phallus being cut off, blood sprays the room like a geyser.” Because if conversations like this don’t demonstrate we’re in a genuine and substantive relationship, then I don’t know what does.

Who the hell documents the exact date when you “officially declared your relationship”? Don’t most of us just sort of slink into it with a mishmash concoction of alcohol, self-loathing and lust? Human relationships, I’ve been led to believe, are mostly organic things that develop and merge over time. Instead, we’ve held detailed tripartite phone conferences between lawyers, respective relatives and ourselves, making sure to be accurate to-the-day as to when we approached each of our significant milestones. A cautionary warning; if you’re planning on embarking on a foreign romance; be relentless with your annotation. Ignore the ambient surroundings, the swirl of strings as you prepare to kiss for that very first time. If you’re not ready to pounce with the notebook & camera and accurately document the date/time/location of that shit then the Home Office has got you by the curls. Don’t bring flowers on the first date; bring a copy of today’s newspaper. It’s not psychopathic, its just good British border policy.

Back in China, for each annual visa, I’d undertake a mandatory health check. These were held in a single hospital, located in dirt fields in the outskirts of town. I’d arrive early at 6 a.m. to beat the crowds, get my blood taken, eyes checked, weight & height measured (because, some reasons?) and my chest x-rayed. By now, I’ve had so many x-rays that at night I twinkle like a Chernobyl firefly, all radioactively luminescent.

There are continual changes to UK visa applications. Hidden clauses are omnipresent and applications can get rejected with little to no justification as to why. Because of this we punted to get professional legal support to guide us. And while I don’t necessarily recommend using a paralegal who repeatedly mixes up dates and locations and plays ‘how many different spellings of your wife’s name can I include in a single document’ (I seriously hope there’s some nepotism in her employment), if you don’t you’re almost bound to fail due to the intricate complexity of the task.

This is a (painfully) costly privilege that many do not have the means to employ. A system has been created by the people in power (some of who can't seem to remember if their own significant other is Chinese or Japanese; why not just say vaguely mysterious and oriental? Jeremy Hunt you throwback to Colonial white privilege), to fundamentally try to break, bamboozle and belittle you into giving up. It feels never ending, relentless. We’re still in the interim of not knowing whether we’ve been successful. Our relationship has existed for months now through the pixelated, time-lapsed haze of Skype. A seven-hour time difference means that for the most part of the day I watch over a blackened screen, knowing that somewhere in that darkness, my wife is sleeping. Reading that sentence back, it sounds more stalkerish and creepy than I’d intended it to, but I do it and it’s true so I’m leaving it in.

As a foreigner in China, it’s best to always carry a copy of your passport. In 2016 there were regular stop and searches, which if passport-less would result in a spot urine test for narcotics. Oh, and there’s guilt by association too. So if you’re buddy happens to smoke, then you’re going down with him to the re-education detention centre regardless your own clean system. But I’m angry and upset still, in a very vague and undirected fashion, towards how complex, expensive and unforgiving UK immigration is becoming. Fees are increasing annually, and the justifications for dismissal ever expanding.

We’re a nation of fascinating mongrels; our family trees plant roots across multiple continents. Many years ago, I made a strange little film with (then) up & coming actor Mufaro Makubika (ouch, always catch my foot dropping names that obviously), who has recently come to much deserved critical success for the Nottingham based play Shebeen about a Jamaican Immigrant couple living in St Anns. Beyond putting Nottingham theatre back on a national map, I can’t think of any area of Notts, where varied and diverse communities from overseas don’t drastically improve our culture and our environment. They build communities and enrich the experience of being consciously alive. We lock our coastal doors and all we’re left with is our own shitty company, watching Post-Apocalyptic Homes Under the Hammer in our drab lonely living rooms in this awkwardly extending metaphor that I’ve trapped myself in. We gain nothing, and have so much potentially to lose.

I’m still genuinely angry and bewildered by all of this. So, with no end in sight, I’m off to talk to my wife, the light of my existence and the reason that I’m still breathing. Only she exists permanently seven hours ahead of me. There in the future, she manages to be visible, but just forever that little bit out of reach.   

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