On October 13, my daughter and I were in our way from Canada to Beijing, where I was to spend a week as a visiting lecturer at Beijing Normal University, also known as BeiShiDa. When we landed, we found that my daughter’s passport was gone—“missing in transit”, as the form says. She boarded the plane with it in Vancouver; in the Beijing arrivals hall we discovered it was no longer with us, nor was it on the plane or anywhere else findable (most likely pick-pocketed, according to the Global Affairs emergency hotline employee in Ottawa, whom I called in a state of controlled panic).
This is how we became a two-body problem: two travelers, one of whom is legally required to enter (me, by virtue of my cultural exchange visa) one of whom is prohibited from entering (my daughter), yet who cannot be separated. Only two possible outcomes existed: either we both go into China or we both go back. Continuing to occupy space in limbo, like a pair of mother-daughter Edward Snowdens, was neither humanly nor bureaucratically desirable. They (by which I mean China’s immigration police and Air China’s ground staff) had to either let both of us in or turn us both back. I hoped (and politely argued for) the former, but in the end we got the latter.
In the moment when we realized we could and would go back home, I registered disappointment, frustration and the urge to either yell or cry, neither of which would have been a good idea. But in the sleep-deprived lacuna that is Air China’s next flight back to Vancouver, where I am writing the first version of this story, what struck me was how many things had gone remarkably right. We had arrived in the capital of the largest country in the world, whose government is famously preoccupied with security (“look at all the cameras,” said my daughter, minutes before the absence of the passport was discovered), with no documents: impossible travelers who should not have existed. Yet in five hours we managed to get neither deported or detained, although both could have transpired, we got temporary travel documents issued to enable my daughter to enter Canada, and we got on the next plane to Vancouver, with Air China absorbing all additional costs.
And all this in the middle of the night on the weekend, in a place where we didn’t speak the language and everyone we dealt with appeared to be under 25 years old with a military haircut (yet all seemed to be genuinely concerned on our behalf, even as they kept circling back to the same legal pincer: one of you must enter China and the other one can’t enter). I couldn’t even thank the people who helped us, not knowing if a handshake would be appropriate, and ended up making a series of awkward tapping-heart-with-closed-hand gestures, hoping that these were universal code for “I deeply appreciate what you are doing to help us out of this mess”.
The sociologist in me recognized that these kindnesses may not have been driven entirely by empathy – as long as we remained neither in China nor out of it, we were Air China’s problem, and I suspect a complicated dance was going on between Air China staff and the immigration police to find a solution that would clear us off the balance sheet for the night shift. I learned the importance of a few practical things: always make many copies of important documents and get them laminated as they may be the only proof of your official existence if things go sideways; keep every essential thing in your carry-on; and use the phrase “I would like to speak to my embassy” generously.
I also learned some less immediately pragmatic lessons. At this juncture, because this is 2018, I’m going to check my privilege. I believe beyond a doubt that one reason I am writing this on the Beijing-Vancouver red-eye instead of immigration bardo is because I am a white Canadian Anglophone woman, under stress but with enough of the savvy of my global elite status that I remembered to namedrop “university professor” and “BeiShiDa” and here is my Canadian business card; and that my daughter was an appealing and well-behaved younger version of same. I wasn’t quite at the point of bringing out the “my grandparents did God’s work as missionaries in Szechuan province” line hoping that in a rapidly Christianizing China it might strike a chord, but that line would have been the next thing out of my invisible carry-on bag of privilege if we hadn’t gotten that midnight flight. I believe that a person of color or a person from the global south or someone lacking the unearned and unconscious confidence that comes from being descended from the people who unleashed capitalism and colonialism on the world might not have had the good fortune to be returned comfortably if disappointedly via bulkhead seats in Economy.
This certainty is no aspersion on the people in Beijing Capital International who dealt with us and treated us quite well, or an insinuation that China is a nation of prejudiced people, but a reminder that, as the old American Express tagline goes, “membership has its privileges”. In this case, those privileges manifested in not getting the worst possible outcome – getting, in effect, a do-over that says, “we’ll act like this didn’t happen and just pop you back to Canada. We hope to see you in China again soon”. I’ve often thought that a sociology of white privilege would be a sociology of second chances, and this experience has reinforced that thought.
And because this is 2018, I can’t help but think of the parents and children in country we are currently overflying, in the form of Alaska, who showed up at the southern border with their documents out of order or no documents at all. We know that at least 2500 such parents were separated from their children, and just before embarking I read that some of these children are being taken from the tent cities where they have been housed and placed in foster care, with their parents detained or deported to the wrong side of the border. I’m a citizen of that country too, with a state ballot on its way to me in the mail from Pennsylvania, a country in which white privilege shows its violence in the devaluation of brown children.
I’m not sure how to bring this to a close. I’ve been awake for roughly 40 hours, nearly hallucinating with fatigue, drinking black coffee and eating apricot yogurt. In two hours we land in Vancouver with a two hour layover before the last leg back to Edmonton. Sometimes class and race privilege are almost invisible to those of us who embody this undeserved good fortune, or visible only as the outcome of a sorting process in which we have done remarkably well. At other times, privilege is a corporeal and tangible and consequential as the food on my tray and the manila envelope with my daughter’s temporary travel papers in the flight attendant’s folder at the front of the cabin. She and I are bodies in space, flying home.