I licked my lips and tried to control my hands from shaking as I searched through the heap of pages. Her keen eyes were watching my every move, and I was afraid she would misread my visible nervousness as lying instead of just my stress of trying to complete this first complicated step on our wayfarer’s path: obtaining our visas for China.

Seb and I had been preparing ourselves mentally for several days as we amassed the necessary paperwork. Passports, completed visa request forms, proof of French residency and employment, proof of sufficient funds, etc. – the typical admin requirements. According to my online research, the Chinese Visa Application Center of Paris was supposed to be quick and efficient. I shouldn’t have been worried.

Sandwiched between Louis Vuitton and Nespresso on the luxury chic Avenue des Champs Elysees, the Chinese Visa Application Center is appropriately sharp and grey. Early this weekday morning, we passed a mix of tourists snapping pictures and businessmen in suits walking quickly. After pulling a thin paper number out of the machine in the lobby, we joined the assortment of Asian and Western applicants in the sprawling grey room.  The smell of new carpet and ink from the copiers hung in the air. A few minutes later, my heart jolted as our number was called. Seb squeezed my hand to reassure me.

“You’re American? Why are you applying in Paris? What are you doing here?” the short dark-eyed Chinese woman grilled me in heavily accented French as soon as she saw my blue passport. She was curt and efficient; we weren’t to waste her time.

I explained my situation, the simple version: American, living and working in Paris, about to embark on a year in Asia with a Frenchman. My voice trembled a bit and Seb looked sideways at me.

The Chinese officer lady appeared annoyed at having to deal with this atypical situation, but her face relaxed when I showed her my pay slips, proving that I did indeed have employment and could indeed pay for my trip.

The perceived complication started when we read the list of additional documents required: hotel reservations while in China and proof of entry and exit of Chinese territory. As backpackers, our plan is to journey cross-country via overland travel for nearly a year. We will book trains and guesthouses along our route. Our one-way ticket to Hong Kong and lack of accommodation would take some justification.

“You can’t go to China.” I sucked in my breath as she pronounced the dreaded verdict. We were leaving in less than a month, we had already purchased our tickets from our preciously gaged travel fund, and it would seriously throw a wrench in our plans to change now. “You don’t have a return ticket or any place to stay. The Consulate will never approve this application. Do you understand?” she said in a commanding tone.

Seb shifted his weight and leaned forward towards the glass divider as he calmly explained our project with a charming smile. The woman shuffled our pile of papers and shook her head. I was reminded of my countless hours in the French immigrations office over my years fighting to live in Paris. I must have developed some kind of stress aversion to these sorts of administrative procedures, although I half expected the answer the Chinese center was now giving us.

“How can we make this situation work? Certainly other people must have backpacked through China without a return flight?” Seb continued fishing for information with as much patience as he could muster. Behind us, a middle-aged Frenchman was starting to yell at another visa officer out of frustration of a refusal.  The glass dividers are visibly for more than just protection from flu viruses. I could empathize with him, and silently prayed that our officer would take pity on us.

“Well I can’t guarantee anything, but come back tomorrow with a hotel reservation and a hand-written letter about your backpacking project. I don’t think you’ll get approved, but you can try…” the Chinese woman suggested without much conviction. I fidgeted and she looked irritated.

Feeling stymied and stressed, we left the building with a list of additional items and a small note written in Mandarin characters that would serve as our entry ticket the next day. The complication of this first visa attempt doesn’t bode well for the 12 or so others we’ll need to finagle over the coming months. I shared my feelings with a sigh on the sunny sidewalk.

Ma chérie, this is one of the easiest procedures we’ll have. But it’s all part of the experience.” He squeezed my shoulders with a smile and I leaned gratefully into his optimism.

We were approved the next morning.