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A visa conundrum: We hear from the mortified mum of an overstayer in Hong Kong

By: Karmel Schreyer

Hong Kong has been good to us, that’s for sure. For one thing, it’s where I met my husband and had my kids, not to mention a satisfying career as a writer of textbooks (and no, that is not an oxymoron).

Bar none, when my fellow-Hong Kongers (whether they are permanent residents or not) and I talk about living here, we don’t dwell long on the bad air, as bad as it is. It is always about the energy. Energy and efficiency. Families get things done here. Energetic, productive families – that’s what it’s about. Hong Kong makes it possible.

Two summers ago, we made the mistake of planning a trip to Canada to visit the grandparents but forgetting to update Youngest’s residency visa. And not only that, she had just got a new passport. The immigration officers at the airport are usually happy to be shown the visa in the old accompanying passport, but on this occasion it had been left behind. The officer checked his computer – it appeared the visa itself was expired, anyway. ‘That’s my husband’s job,’ I mumbled. ‘Would you mind waiting over there?’ he asked, and pointed to a doorway at the end of the counter.

Aunty E, my kids and I waited glumly in the ‘isolation room’. After about ten minutes, a uniformed immigration officer came over to us. ‘Which one of you is The Overstayer?’ he asked. I could see that our beloved Aunty E was barely breathing at this point. Poor Aunty E!

My youngest, eight years old at the time, raised a trembling hand. I observed all this – the writer in me interested to see how the story would play out – while at the same time running through a mental list of possible scenarios: we will get on the plane / we won’t get on the plane / some of us will get on the plane. Must call hubby…

The immigration officer looked down at Youngest seated glumly on the bench with her hand in the air. This civil servant, who looked like he could be a grandpa to someone the same age as the nervous girl at my side, was doing a pretty good job of not smiling. The twinkle in his eyes, however, gave him away. ‘Come with me,’ he said. I took Youngest’s hand and whispered in her ear, ‘We’ll face up to this together… and, by the way, it’s not your fault. I hope you’ll forgive your daddy and me someday.’ (She hasn’t yet).

I mea culpa‘d profusely as Youngest and I followed him to a counter. In keeping with the efficiency that so many of us perceive the Hong Kong civil service to embody, the solution to this situation was simple: I paid for a visa that would be valid until we boarded the plane. On our return to Hong Kong, my daughter would be issued with the same visa all visitors are given, giving me ample time to go through the process of getting her an updated new residency visa, and, this time, in her new passport. And away we went.

That’s one of the reasons why we love Hong Kong. Some problems are bigger than others, for sure, but you do get the sense that people want to help you to ‘get where you want to go’.

When I first moved here from Japan I thought I’d stay until the handover. That was 18 years ago.

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