Between two worlds

For Chinese-Australians, the loss of our citizenship places us in symbolic purgatory

hands holding Chinese and Australian passports Art. Risako Katsumata

Before I found out that going to Shanghai on exchange would spell the end of my Chinese citizenship, I was filled with excitement. I dreamed of the prospect of escaping the daily ritual of drifting through an endless stream of lectures and tutorials in a caffeinated haze. I pictured myself on some romantic odyssey, navigating winding streets of homely markets, gravitating towards the scent of familiar street foods, fried xiao long bao, and crisp scallion pancakes. Only once I had read several listicles on Shanghai’s food and culture scene did I realise the numerous hurdles facing would be homebound travellers.

China is a strange place for much of the Australian-based diaspora, including ‘ABCs’ (Australian born Chinese) and ‘Bananas’, a colloquial description of people who appear Chinese but have adopted elements of nebulously defined ‘Australian’ lifestyle and values. In one sense, China is the beating heart of our slowly eroding identity. Yet despite its familiarity, China represents a place that myself, and other members of the diaspora can never adequately know; a world where you speak your mother tongue in an Australian accent and where your mannerisms, conduct and personality mark you as ‘foreign’, as if you are not, and never were Chinese.

China’s laws and bureaucracy only further this sense of detachment. In a globalised world, the country’s seemingly outmoded prohibition of dual citizenship stands out. Article Nine of the People’s Republic of China’s Nationality Law provides that “Any Chinese national who has settled abroad and who has been naturalized as a foreign national or has acquired foreign nationality of his own free will shall automatically lose Chinese nationality.” The Article has its roots in China’s complex geopolitical history, which has seen the country’s borders repeatedly violated by foreigners. Once citizenship is lost, a Chinese passport is one of the most difficult to regain. For second-generation Chinese-Australians, the loss of our citizenship to the country of our heritage and ancestry places us in symbolic purgatory, where we are not quite Australian but not quite Chinese.

However, the prohibition against dual citizenship can theoretically be circumvented. Since Australia allows dual citizenship, a common method is to first renew one’s Chinese passport for ten years and then become an Australian citizen, thus achieving a mediocre balance of both worlds. Such a loophole enables Chinese-Australians to not only travel more freely, but more importantly better maintain connection to businesses and property interests in China. At the same time, it provides access to the practical benefits of Australian citizenship, including subsidised higher education —  critical to most migrants’  pursuit of a new and stable life.

Perhaps part of the diaspora’s fear of losing citizenship derives from our parents’ worries that, should the life they carved in Australia collapse overnight, China would always be a secure fall-back, an alternative future, or at the very least, another home across the sea. But tackling the challenge of maintaining Chinese citizenship is difficult, pitting individuals against an institutional behemoth of binary bureaucracies and social ultimatums. In particular, it complicates travel arrangements to China. Using a Chinese visa is impossible on most exchange grants at the University of Sydney, including the vast majority of New Colombo Mobility grants. The result is a confrontation with the Chinese Visa Office as they discover your dual citizenship and subsequently cut off a small triangular edge of your Chinese passport, terminating one’s citizenship forever.

The reality is that a passport is just one proof of ethnic identity. The Chinese-Australian diaspora remains and will continue to remain a living, breathing manifestation of Chineseness, even if we cannot be citizens of our spiritual home. At least, that’s what I hope.