Saturday May 9 : Okay this is it! I've decided! It IS the right thing to do. I'm going to do it NOW before I change my mind. Whatever happens it's worth the risk. I said goodbye to my friend whose conversation had prompted me into instant action. Running out of the coffee shop and the few hundred metres to our apartment, I was determined, convinced, motivated. I was actually GOING to do it! For the first time in my life I was going to take an enormous unlimited risk. I was going to throw myself into the bottomless pit, cross the tightrope without a safety net, jump on the rocket into space with no safe landing site, put my entire life, future, EVERYTHING into someone else's hands. Breathless, I ran up the steps to our third floor apartment, struggled to unlock the door and opened it. “Hi, Ian!” welcomed my arrival and I ran into the bedroom where Jessica was kneeling on the bed writing on her laptop. She seemed completely unaware of the momentous decision I had made just seconds before and the calamitous anticipation and fearful thoughts on my mind as I kneeled on the bed facing her. She was totally absorbed in her writing and didn't even look up as I said, “Will you marry me?” In most parts of the world and through most of human history, the process from agreeing to marry someone to the marriage ceremony would be a well-worn straightforward process. BUT, this was China in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic and a foreign guy wanting to marry a Chinese girl so NOTHING's straightforward. “Err, sorry, what did you say, Honey?” Jessica looked up at me quizzically. Emerging from her virtual writing world for a few seconds as her sixth sense told her that maybe I had said something that she should concentrate on. “Will you marry me?” It was easier to say the second time. “Yeah, sure, whatever.” Then her head dropped back to study her screen, clearly far less concerned by the importance of the moment. “So, what do we do now?” She looked up again, finally joining me in the off-line world. “I've been looking on-line and it seems that you need to provide a copy of your Hukou (Chinese Family Registration Certificate) and ID card. I need to provide my passport, valid visa, proof of residence in Kunming and proof of single-ness. The last item is the only problem for me. Where is your Hukou registered, as we need to get married in the city on your Hukou?” “My mum's got the Hukou – It's registered in Kunming.” “Okay, great, so we can get married here. Could you ask her to photograph it and send it to you on Wechat, so we can take all the documents to the Register Office on Monday to see if we need anything else.” “Okay, I'll message her now. What about the proof of single-ness?” “According to the on-line information, I need to prove I am free to marry you. If I had been married before, which I haven't been, then the final divorce certificate would be enough. As I have never been married, it's somewhat more complicated as it is trying to prove a negative.” “Do you have anything that would satisfy the authorities? “Unfortunately not. The UK doesn't provide public access to any database of its citizens to show they are unmarried. There is a database of marriages, so I guess someone would have to search for my name and if I am not on it, then, maybe, they assume I am single. I don't know.” I gave her a quick hug and got off the bed and went to turn on my laptop, to start the process of finding out about the procedure. I had already researched the 'normal' procedure during 'normal' times, but now I had to work out how to get married during the pandemic. And, in particular, to find out the WHOLE complete procedure, not just the partial, conflicting on-line advice, blogs and experience. Monday May 11 Where to start? The obvious place seemed to be where 'other' people got married – in the local Register Office. Jessica searched for it using Baidu and sent me the map, since I was better at getting us to places – even in China – once I had worked out how to use Amap! The Longquan Street Register Office was about 15 minutes by bus 168 from our apartment, so an easy first step. We caught the bus there and around half-an-hour later, we were in the Office. However, Jessica spoke with the officers there and discovered that yes, Chinese couples who lived locally, could marry there, but not foreigners. The only Register Office for foreigners to marry Chinese people was located in the southern edge of the city – Chenggong – 35km and 1.5 hours away at the end of line 1 of the metro! “I think you should call them to confirm, just in case.” Jessica asked the officer for a phone number and then called them. It was not a conversation, but like listening to an automated response! The officer had clearly memorised the standard answer to the standard question and simply repeated it into the phone. Jessica looked at me and smiled as she got drowned in the torrent. When the officer had finished, she ended the call and turned to me, “Yes, at the Municipal Administration Office in Chenggong. She said it's really straightforward – just make an appointment 24 hours before then just turn up with all the documents – she repeated the same list as on here.” “It's ridiculous! They REALLY don't want to make it easy for foreigners to marry Chinese, do they? All the way to Chenggong to get married!” “This is China. Just get used to it. We just have to follow the procedure, whatever it is!” “Okay, let's try it first. Let's go to Chenggong now. I am sure there will be more catches. They make it sound too easy.” I had been in China for around three years and had got used to the difficulty of finding the complete procedures, discovering only the next stage as I completed each previous one – particularly in relation to visas. Mostly, I needed to have a translator with me as I had not yet managed to learn Mandarin sufficiently well to communicate reliably. In addition, most people in Kunming preferred to use the local language, Kunminghua, rather than the national language Putonghua, which was completely different. Jessica was able to help me as she was fluent in English since we first met when she attended my English Corner originally in July 2019. A whirlwind romance followed over the next few weeks and I invited her to live with me in December 2019. By the time of the proposal we had been in a relationship for around a year and cohabiting for around six months. A couple of hours later, and we found the Chenggong Register Office. Jessica asked about the procedure for getting married and the officer handed Jessica a bi-lingual leaflet giving the step-by-step procedure and the list of required documents – matching the on-line information. “Okay, we have brought most of these things. Please ask her if these documents are okay – show her the copy of your Hukou and my papers – and ask if we need anything else.” Jessica handed the officer her phone with the photos on it and also my documents. She studied them for a while and then said something to Jessica in Mandarin. “What did she say?” “The Hukou is too old. It is a paper version. Apparently now, everything is on-line. We need to get an electronic version.” “It didn't say that on the leaflet or on-line! Bizarre! Okay, you will need to ask your mum if she can get an electronic version. Where was it issued?” “In a town about 30km outside Kunming called Haikou. She would have to go there to sort it out.” “Oh dear! Do you think she will be okay about it?” “Well, the bigger problem is that the Hukou has not been updated since my parents divorced – it still shows my dad's name on it. He may have to approve the changes and I haven't spoken to him in many years, so maybe he could be awkward and refuse.” “Crumbs – okay, can you find a good time to ask your mum about it?” “Okay – leave it to me.” “Anything else we need to provide?” “Yes, you need to prove you are not married.” “Yes, I know about that – what about my other documents?” “She said they are okay. We also need to have 3 special photographs of us on a red background, that's everything.” “Okay, great! On to the next obstacle!”
Luckily, Jessica's father had no objection to converting the Hukou to electronic version and after a week or two, we were the proud possessors of the printed version of the on-line Hukou. But how to prove I was not married? The form said that for unmarried people, I would need to swear an affidavit for proof of singleness in one of three ways....at the Chinese embassy in London, the British embassy in China or in front of a notary public. Jessica called a local notary public, and asked if they could witness this document. They said they could witness Jessica swearing she was single to get married in the UK, but not the other way round! So we called the register office to query the incorrect advice and they said some countries could use a notary public, but apparently not the UK. Since leaving China was not a practical solution, as returning to China had been impossible since March 26, when the border had been effectively closed to all foreigners, the only remaining option would be to go to one of the three British embassies/consulates in China. They each had their own online appointment booking service, but all were closed because of the virus, but I checked them daily anyway, just in case they re-opened. “Do you want to arrange a big hunli (ceremony) to celebrate our engagement or our wedding?” “I'm not bothered about making a big fuss. It's only an excuse for friends to give money in hongbao (red-envelopes containing cash – Chinese gift system) and we don't need the money. Besides, it's not really fair as normally you get invited to numerous hunli and give the married couple hongbao over many years and then when it's your hunli, you can receive it back, but you have not grown up in this culture so nobody would expect you to do so. Besides, I only have a small family and only a few friends. You have far more friends at English Corner, so it's up to you.” “No need, I am happy to celebrate just with you and your mum. Besides, how can we plan anything? We don't even know if or when we will be able to get married! It all depends on when the British Embassy re-opens and probably other unknown factors. By the way, “I added nervously, “What about about caili (the Chinese dowry system), does your mum expect me to give her a large amount of money before she will let me marry you?” “You know my mum, she's is very open and not restricted by the old cultural traditions. You can ask her, but I doubt you need to worry.” Jessica was right. Her mum wasn't bothered about the caili or about the absence of hunli.
Every day I checked the British embassy websites and the Chinese immigration rules in case anything changed. Then suddenly, at the beginning of May, Beijing embassy offered appointments for the beginning of June, so I booked June 2nd. Immediately, I received an automatic email reply. It said that it was only an “acknowledgement”, not a confirmation and to not book flights until they confirmed. What did that mean? After two weeks they put up more appointments. Since I had heard nothing further about the June 2 appointment, I booked another appointment for June 4. I received another acknowledgement, but still no confirmations for either appointment. The next week I received an email cancelling all appointments. I replied asking for five minutes of their time to swear the affidavit. I received a reply saying they “may” reply during the first week of June and “may” offer appointments later in June and that I would be a 'priority' for the new appointments.. At the beginning of June, Shanghai consulate website offered an appointment on July 2, so I booked it. This time I immediately received a “confirmation” and a second email shortly after offering a “pre-checking” service for documents - much more helpful than Beijing. Still nothing from Beijing. The next day, I checked all three embassy websites - I was surprised to find LOTS of new appointments at Beijing - for June!!!!!!! Also at Guangzhou!!!!! I immediately booked for Tuesday June 16 in Beijing and Guangzhou on the same day. I received yet another mere “acknowledgement” from Beijing, but a “confirmation” from Guangzhou. On Wednesday June 10, I received a further email from Beijing confirming the June 16 appointment at 10:15am and offering to “pre-check” all the paperwork. I immediately sent a scan of all the documents, except for a “credit card mandate”, which I asked for a copy of. I received the blank mandate the next day, presumably confirming that they had received the other documents. Guanzhou also sent a follow up email, which included an unexpected extra sentence saying that “maybe, only six provinces accepted Guangzhou documents (not including Yunnan) so I should check with my register office before attending in case the document was not acceptable! Another unexpectedly withheld crucial piece of information. Nothing like that was included on either the Beijing or Shanghai websites or in their emails, so did that mean that a sworn Affidavit from Beijing or Shanghai were valid everywhere, or only in a limited range of provinces? Since I had the confirmed appointment at Beijing, I waited until Friday afternoon before sending a complaining email back to Guangzhou, pointing out that IF they had mentioned this ANYWHERE on their website before I started the application process, I would not have bothered. They did say sorry! We then waited until 5pm on Friday 12 afternoon, when the embassy in Beijing would have closed and probably too late to cancel the appointment for the following Tuesday, in order to book the flights from Kunming to Beijing on Monday 15 and returning on Wednesday 17. I tried to find a hotel located on the main metro line from the airport to the centre, but most of them stated on the website, no foreigners. I found one that didn't say that and had reviews in English from foreigners as recent as January and Jessica called them, but they said over the phone that they no longer took foreigners. Eventually, we found a hotel that would accept foreigners and quickly booked it. So on Friday afternoon, we booked flights to Beijing, out the following Monday and back on Wednesday. Then we had a nervous wait over the weekend in case the British embassy cancelled the appointment before Tuesday.
Then the next unexpected problem appeared. Over the weekend, there was news of a virus outbreak in Beijing, starting small. Would the government close the city or was it just a one-off?
Monday June 15
On Monday morning, without any further warnings to the contrary, we travelled by Metro to Kunming Airport and caught the flight to Beijing. It was on-time and the only special additional precaution was that we had to download the Beijing health App before we could travel. It was not as easy to use as the Kunming App and Jessica had to reinstall and complete it several times (as it was only in Mandarin) before we got the green code and were allowed to board the plane. Apparently, the Beijing health code had to be updated daily, unlike the Kunming health code which apparently needed to be updated only every fortnight. Monday afternoon was time for a little sightseeing around the Hutings, but there were no tourists around and many things were closed. On the one hand, the absence of tourists meant an easy stroll, but on the other hand, it was a little eerie – as if we were breaking some unwritten rule about not touring during the virus. We had dinner near the hotel and turned in early. We had a big day ahead!
Tuesday June 16
The next morning, we woke early and had a snack before heading to the British Embassy. It was located on the 12th floor of what looked like an ordinary office building. We went up the lift to the 12th floor and security checked our names on the appointment register at the entrance. We then had to wait for ten minutes as we were a little early. At exactly 10:15am (our appointment time) we were invited into the office, through the metal detector and into the inner office. The Embassy staff were waiting for us and gave us some more forms to fill out. At least they were in English this time, so I was able to complete them myself and hand them back. The Assistant said that she would call me in a few minutes. “Nearly there.” I said to Jessica “Good luck” she replied as they called me into another office. I sat down and the Officer read the wording of the Affidavit and asked me to repeat it. I then swore an oath that I was single and she said to wait outside again, which I did. “That was quick!” Jessica said to me as I returned to the other office, where she had been waiting for me. “Yes, very straightforward. Fingers crossed.” A few minutes later the Assistant called me over to the window to hand me the stamped official version of the Affidavit, plus a copy and wished us luck. I took the form and looked at it and thanked her, then hugged Jessica and jumped up and down in joy together! The Assistant wished me good luck and I said thanks and goodbye and we walked out of the office. “We've got it! Sorted!” I said cheerfully. “Okay, what's the next step?” “We need to get some special wedding photos. Maybe we can get them now. We are free for the afternoon here in Beijing. I'll search on Baidu, see if there is a photographer nearby who could take them.”
Jessica searched on Baidu and after a few moments, she found one opposite the Embassy above a shopping centre on the other side of the road. “So call them, see if they can see us immediately, or we could have lunch first and make an appointment for this afternoon.” Jesscia called them and spoke for a few moments into the phone. “Yes, he can see us in about half an hour, shall I confirm with him?” “Yes, sounds good. It may take a while to find it in the shopping centre and we can wait until he is free.” Jessica confirmed it and ended the call. We went out of the Embassy, down the lift and out into the sunshine feeling that a massive weight was off our shoulders. This had been the major sticking point on the path to marriage as it was totally outside my control as to whether or when the British Government would feel safe enough to re-open the embassy. We crossed the road, trying to follow the Baidu map to the photographer with some difficulty, but eventually found him. He was completing work for a previous couple so we waited for him to finish and then they left. He greeted us in Chinese and indicated where we should sit. There was a red background as required and we sat together on the seat. He indicated some movements to get the picture right – it was all over very quickly. He then transferred the pictures to his computer and showed us the display and indicated that we should choose the best one. Having selected one, he then spent the next hour using Photoshop to remove my wrinkles! The final photo was very impressive! He made me appear to be even younger than Jessica! Miracle worker!
“Maybe you should call the Chenggong Register Office and make an appointment for us to get married on Thursday. All being well, we should be back by then.” Jessica called them and then asked, “Morning or afternoon?” “Morning should be fine.” The call was over very quickly. I was checking the English-language news websites for virus updates. “It looks like the outbreak in Daxing is getting bigger and spreading to other parts of Beijing including some parts of the centre. I hope they don't close the airports, otherwise we will be stuck here for the lockdown!” Jessica checked on the Chinese news-sites. “I can't find anything suggesting they will shut down the city yet. We will have to check again in the morning.”
Wednesday June 17
I woke around 6am, not having slept well worrying about the virus outbreak and whether we would be able to leave on schedule that afternoon. I turned on my phone, trying not to wake Jessica, and was horrifed to receive messages from two of my friends in Kunming indicating that the Beijing airports were closed and that Beijing was on lockdown! I turned on my computer and tried to find some news stories to corroborate the messages, but couldn't find any. I checked the departure boards for Beijing Capital Airport, where most flights were cancelled and then for Beijing Daxing Airport, where our flight back to Kunming was departing from. Many flights were cancelled, particularly in the evening, but there was no information alongside our 15:20 flight. “Why are you awake so early?” Jessica's sleepy voice indicated that I had unfortunately woken her. “Richard and May have messaged me with news stories indicating Beijing is on lockdown, but I haven't been able to confirm it myself.” “What about our flight?” “It seems to be unaffected, so far, but the virus outbreak is in Daxing – the community by the airport.” “What about the gaotie (high speed train), could we go back by train if the airports are closed?” I checked online and after a few minutes found some trains. “The journey is around ten hours. The trains leave fairly soon. We would have to leave immediately, or stay another night to get the trains tomorrow – if they are still running then.” “Your friends are just winding you up, don't worry. Let's go to the airport as normal. Come back to bed.” “I can't relax now. I need to know what is happening. I don't want to get stuck in Beijing during the lockdown. It could last many weeks. The Affidavit is only valid for the month of June. We would have to get another one!” “I'm sure it's okay. I can't believe they would shut down the whole of Beijing because of a small outbreak!” “Well, it's right near the Daxing airport, so they could close the airport, even if not the whole city. I think we should go to the airport immediately and if our flight is cancelled, maybe we could get another flight going somewhere south or west – as long as we get out of Beijing before they shut the city, we can always travel on to Kunming from there.” Jessica reluctantly agreed and so we packed up our things and checked out. Heading to the airport felt rather weird as we were virtually the only passengers on the high speed airport shuttle train and virtually the only people in the airport. The departure board was showing large numbers of cancellations in the afternoon and evening, including a later flight to Kunming, but our flight was still being shown. “Let's have a McDonalds!” Jessica said to try and cheer me up. So we ordered a burger and fries and went to sit down together at an empty table. “You can't sit togther!” An employee spoke English. “We're a couple! Of course, we're going to sit together. “Our rules are that only one person is allowed at each table. You cannot sit together in our restaurant.” “Crazy! Okay, we will sit together outside!” Which is what we did. We ate the McDonalds meal and then waited and watched the departures board carefully and watched the clock edge closer to our departure time. “Maybe we should update the Beijing health code in case they ask to see it before we board the plane.” So we tried, but my phone or my App or being a foreigner confused it and I just could not successfully get the green health code this time. The App just did not work at all, unlike the previous two days. When our flight was called to start boarding, I walked near the counter to watch what the other passengers were doing and it seemed like they were only being asked for the Kunming health code App, not the Beijing one. I returned to Jessica to tell her the apparent good news. The queue shuffled slowly towards the plane and, once again, I was extremely nervous in case anything should stop us boarding – a last minute ruling from the government or something, but nothing happened. We showed the Kunming green health code and we were allowed on – other than asking us to use the alcohol hand-rub, there was no other communication. We boarded the plane, sat in our seats and 'high-five'd' each other to celebrate overcoming another potential obstacle. “You'd better message your mum to tell her the good news.” Jessica did so and shortly after added, “She'll meet us at Kunming airport when we arrive.” “Okay, good, we can plan our trip to the Register Office tomorrow to FINALLY get legally married – or at least to apply for the marriage licence. Surely, nothing else can go wrong now?”
The flight back was free of further incidents and we were allowed to disembark freely – I was a bit worried we would be escorted straight to the quarantine hotel for 14 days and the Affidavit would be invalid in July – but it didn't happen. We met Jessica's mum for a welcome-home meal in McDonalds and agreed to meet the next day at the Metro station at 9am for the 90 minute journey to Chenggong and the Register Office.
Thursday June 18
The next morning we woke early and I checked the Beijing news. Both airports had just been closed and all high speed trains, inter-city buses and ride-hailing services outside the city were shutdown. We had escaped just in time! We got all the paperwork together including Jessica's mum's Hukou and ID cards and particularly the Affidavit from the British embassy and walked to the metro station where Jessica's mum was waiting. We travelled down to Chenggong on the Metro laughing and joking about the trip to Beijing and updating Jessica's mum on the incidents. From the Metro station, we walked to the Municipal administration centre and to the Register Office. The first thing that the Officer said was that she had called the day before to confirm the appointment and Jessica hadn't answered the phone! Jessica explained that we had been flying back from Beijing at the time, so couldn't answer, but maybe we had got off to a bad start with her. Jessica started filling out the forms in Chinese. The long main form was duplicated – one for me and one for Jessica, but, of course, it was all in Mandarin, so Jessica had to fill it all out for me and then asked me to sign in various places but I had no idea what was happening. So for fun, I just kept asking 'are we married yet'? The Officer entered the information onto her computer and had some kind of problem and had to re-enter it. Apparently there was a computer problem and the system would not accept our application, so we might have to come back another time. Oh no! She tried a third time and it was accepted! Relief! Maybe things would work out anyway. I took some photos of Jessica filling in the forms, but couldn't do anything else except wait and hope for everything to be completed successfully. “There's a problem with my Hukou.” Jessica finally explained despondently what the latest discussion in Chinese was about. “There are two places on the Hukou where my date of birth is mentioned and they are different, so she is refusing to complete the marriage registration until we correct the error on the Hukou.” “Is there anything else we can do about it now?” “It doesn't look like we can get married today. We will need to go and correct the Hukou error and return with the revised version and try again.” I took the forms that Jessica had completed so that we could save time next time and re-use them and we slowly walked out of the Register Office looking miserable. “Mum will call the Hukou office in Haikou and see how we go about correcting the error.” I could see Jessica's mum was already on the phone to them and talking in an animated way – obviously the correction process was not straightforward. “Perhaps she can go there tomorrow to collect the revised version and we can try and get married again next week.” We left the building and were slowly walking towards the metro station when Jessica's mum finished the call, not looking happy and spoke with Jessica. “Mum says they refused to make any changes to the Hukou. It's not possible to correct the errors.! “That's ridiculous! They must make loads of errors and there must be a process for correcting the errors.” “They wouldn't tell her of any process, just that she had to live with it. The Hukou still shows all of us living together in the Haikou address, so it is full of errors – it doesn't even show my parents got divorced! Nobody seems to care!” “So maybe they need a new separate divorced version of the Hukou instead?” Jessica and her mum were clearly uncertain of this kind of detail concerning the Hukou process and my speculative questioning was interrupted by Jessica's phone ringing. “The Register Office administrator is asking if we took the forms with us.” “Yes, I took them – to save time next time we come back. Do they want them back?” “Yes. Apparently they have to destroy them. We are not allowed to take them away.” “Oh great. You'll have to start all over again completing them next time. REALLY unhelpful.” We turned round and slowly walked back to the Register Office. “Maybe we should tell them that it is impossible to update the Hukou and correct the errors. Maybe there is an alternative?” “Okay, I will ask her.” We returned to the Register Office and handed the forms to the Officer. Jessica, Jessica's mum and the Officer entered into a somewhat heated discussion, presumably explaining that what she had asked us to do was apparently impossible and she refused to accept it. Eventually, the conversation paused and the Officer left the room. “What happened? Where has she gone?” “She has gone to check with her superviso, to see if there is any alternative.” The Officer was only gone a few minutes and a short conversation with Jessica and her mum ensued on her return. Jessica said excitedly, “We can get married now!” “What do you mean? What happened?” “Apparently her supervisor said that the Hukou errors are very common and irrelevant. As long as one of the dates of birth is correct, then it doesn't matter! We can get married regardless. We don't need to get the Hukou corrected after all!” I gave Jessica a big hug, but I was still worried that something else unexpected would still derail the process, so even when they handed us the red 'marriage licence' books, I still had to ask once again, “Are we married yet?” This time Jessica answered with a big smile on her face, “YES! Now we ARE actually married!” “Let's go and celebrate at our favourite restaurant!” “Heh, that wasn't so difficult, after all, was it? I never doubted it for a moment!” And we both laughed at the absurdity of the whole process. We left the Register Office for the last time with a smile on our faces, hand-in-hand to walk back to the Metro station to head back to Lunyuqiao. SUCCESS!
Footnote: We have now been married for a year and are expecting our first baby to be born in China soon – but THAT is another story!