Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
BREMEN, Ind. (AP) — Monica Allison was used to her older son's fascination with the Asian culture as a boy that he carried with him into adulthood.
But she never foresaw that interest would eventually lead to a 4:30 a.m. phone call last week notifying her that her 28-year-old son, Christopher, is sitting for an undetermined amount of time in a Chinese prison, accused of an unclear visa violation and subject to a mysterious process to deport him.
"He's always had a love for Asian people, anything Asian," Monica said in her Bremen home decorated with souvenirs of Christopher's life in China the last two years and Japan for three years before that.
The 6-foot-3, blond and blue-eyed Christopher stands out, Monica and her 19-year-old son, Jeremy, say, but he took jobs teaching English in both countries as a way to immerse himself in the culture and the language.
Christopher spent the last two years working for a company, owned by a fellow American, called Anjoli, which taught English to Chinese children after school and on weekends. His visa — and those of the two other Americans arrested with him who worked there — had been arranged by the company, his mother told the South Bend Tribune (http://bit.ly/1x0qYJW ). The business is closed because of the arrests.
The middle-of-the-night call from a U.S. State Department official was Monday, although she and a letter Christopher wrote said he was arrested Sept. 12, his 28th birthday.
A State Department spokesman commented Friday that Christopher was actually arrested Sept. 11 but said he did not have information that explained the difference.
Either way, Monica Allison is frustrated by the helplessness she feels and how little the government seems to be able to do on her son's behalf.
The State Department spokesman said an embassy worker visited Christopher in prison and "did not indicate any issues" in how he was being treated then.
"Our understanding is that Mr. Allison is suspected of violating Chinese immigration laws and he is suspected of living in China without the proper immigration status," he said. "The Chinese have, just like we do, the right to enforce their immigration laws."
He said he had no knowledge of how that system works, how long Christopher would be expected to be in prison, or how often Americans are arrested on visa issues.
But Monica Allison said the State Department woman with whom she has spoken and exchanged emails said such an offense typically leads to a 14-day prison stay and a fine before deportation. But with the eight-day Chinese holiday approaching starting Sept. 29, where the entire country practically shuts down, the official expressed doubt he will be released soon.
"She said I'm to sit back and to wait," his mother said. But that's easier said than done.
Christopher graduated from Bremen High School and then studied international business at Bethel College, with a goal of living in and traveling around Asia. He had loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a boy, which his mother credits with sparking his interest in all things Asian.
After his work ended in Japan, he took the job in China, but he definitely preferred Japan, his family says.
Monica Allison visited her son several times in Japan but has resisted traveling to China because of the stories her son shared about political and police corruption. She was considering changing her mind after Christopher pleaded with her to visit when he was home this summer, but all bets are off now.
"The only way I'm going to China is if I can get him out any faster, or if we have to get a lawyer," she said.
Luckily, she said, Christopher accidentally left behind his cellphone when he was home last, so she and a friend who had been planning to visit him were able to use the phone's contacts list to call people in Beijing to try to learn more and retrieve his belongings and money before the government seizes them.
Christopher was teaching English, but his true passion was traveling to Japan and gathering photos and other information for a website and travel app he was developing. His goal was to promote travel between the two countries. Two years' worth of his efforts and his expensive computer equipment might all be lost, his family said.
The English teaching job was higher paying than what he would have been earning back home, Monica Allison said, and she speculates that perhaps the company's success was the reason behind the police action.
Christopher planned to work in Beijing one more year to save money and pay off student loans "and see where it took him," his mother said. He talked of wanting to work for the State Department.
Monica has approached the staffs of both U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-South Bend, and U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Jimtown. Although Walorski's office indicated it would contact the embassy on her son's behalf, she said, Donnelly's staff told her they would wait the 14 days he might be in prison before checking on the situation.
"Senator Donnelly's office was contacted by the Allison family," Donnelly spokeswoman Sarah Rothschild said in a statement Friday. "Senator Donnelly's office encouraged them to continue to work with the U.S. Embassy in China and reached out to the embassy directly asking for an update on Christopher."
Walorski's communications director, Lindsay Jancek, confirmed Friday her staff is monitoring the situation.
"We can confirm we do have an open case on this individual," she said. "But because this case is pending, I can't comment any further."
Monica and Jeremy are worried for Christopher but describe him as not easily ruffled.
His mother hopes the ordeal might strengthen her son's already strong faith, in addition to giving him down time to consider his future and a good story to tell when he's home.
But she's having to call on her own faith as she waits and pushes the government to advocate for her son and the others who were arrested.
She thinks maybe God had a hand in the left-behind cellphone, for instance. She knows her friends at Bremen Missionary Church, where the family is active, are praying for her son's safe return.
"I want my son back here, I want him desperately back here," she said. "But it's all in God's timing. ... If I didn't have my faith through this, I would be a total mess."
Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the South Bend Tribune.