Brace yourselves! This is going to be a long post. I'm warning you from the get-go, this is going to be a long read, so if you don't have the time to burn, you can still turn back now.
All ready? Good. Because here we go!
So like, a friend of mine is having this crazy wedding, on New Year's Eve. The plan was to have a wedding late in the evening, and then spend the rest of 2016 partying until the countdown to 2017. I really wanted to go, but my wife and I were deliberating whether or not I should attend, because as it so happens, my friend has moved back to Virginia, and aside from being such a long way, finding a cheap flight to the states isn't easy.
My wife finally, but reluctantly, acquiescenced. I mean after all, my friend had been there for our wedding, and he and his now soon-to-be wife did arrange our after-reception party. (In Japanese culture, it is common to have a second party after a wedding reception for the wife and groom's closest friends called a "nijikai." [二次会]) He has also been a friend since he first made his sojourn to Japan as a JET. The least I could do was be there for him and his wife on their special day.
So it was decided; I was going to Virginia to attend my friend's wedding, and I was now frantically searching for a cheap flight to the US. There are a couple of options if you're looking to travel cheap to the US. A last minute direct round-trip flight to the US costs anywhere from $2,000, so I would be lucky to find anything below that, 3 months before my trip. I had to exhaust all of my options. Direct flights are the most expensive, so that's not even an option.
The first option is to fly out on a Korean Airline to Korea, then the US, but there were no flights to the US via Korea available. The next option is to fly out via a Chinese airline, and then to the US. Several Chinese and American airlines offer paths to the US via various cities in China and Taiwan. Readers may start noting a pattern; usually, the more stops a flight has, the cheaper it becomes. Stopping over may be cheaper, but not necessarily easier. A good piece of advice; DON'T DO IT WITH KIDS. If you have children, spend the money and go direct; your kids will thank you.
When looking for flights I use an iPhone app called "SkyScanner," as well as another one called "Hopper," and I was hopping between my apps and what I could find online. Eventually Hopper gave me what looked like a schweet deal via Pudong Airport in Shanghai, China. At about $915, I don't think I would have found a better deal on such a short notice. I've seen $615 or so 6 months in advance for a direct flight on United, from Osaka to LA, but that was well, well in advance.
So what do I do? I take the flight of course! I had bought e-tickets, written down my confirmation codes, flight numbers etc. in my schedule, and I was all set.
I made it onto my plane at Kansai International Airport without a hitch. (Juneyao Air is pretty good by the way. I'd never heard of them, but they were my ticket to the US. Their in-flight chicken with rice was delicious!) I was to pick up my luggage at Pudong and transfer to United as soon as I got out of customs.
That is, if and when I got out of customs, which turned out to be after what seemed like an eternity waiting in line.
I can't be certain that the customs officers' actions were a politically motivated order to intentionally stall US passport holders, but other US passengers as well as myself noticed that the lines for the local Chinese arrivals were going much, much faster and smoother than the lines for the foreign nationals. Inclusively, some officers would come to the foreign passenger lines and say "You Japanese? Korean? You no have wait here. You can wait over there with Chinese."
Call it what you want, but the Chinese passenger side had 8 clerks or so working, and all the Chinese nationals etc. were being let by swimmingly. The foreign passenger side had two clerks, and it seems they were taking their sweet time checking documents, calling people on the phone, having casual conversations with other staff, having a laugh etc. While the plethora of Chinese nationals and others had already gone through, the short line on the foreign side barely made any progress. Other Americans waiting in line were asking each other if these actions were politically motivated and may have had something to do with Mr. Trump's phone call with Taiwan. What else could it be? I don't know.
Needless to say, that by the time I got out of customs, I had to go find my luggage, and my flight number wasn't even being displayed on the monitors anymore, so I didn't even know where to look. I ask someone at a nearby information counter if she knew what conveyor had my flight's luggage. The staff there couldn't even speak English, which means I had to show her my boarding pass stub. Her first reaction was to look on the monitors, and she was also surprised to see our flight number wasn't even being displayed. Then she looks at a paper version of the conveyor schedule, and she finally points to the conveyor where our luggage was supposed to be. My small suitcase was the lone piece of luggage spinning slowly around on the gi-normous conveyor. I grabbed it and start heading toward the United check-in counter.
As I approach the mile-long United check-in counter, my heart starts to sink as I come to realize there was no one there. No passengers waiting to check in, no staff at the computers, nothing. Finally a staff shows up and I ask where my flight to the US was. He said check-in was closed for that flight, and that I had to wait for two hours for the next flight to talk to a United Staff about re-scheduling my flight.
Would you believe, I waited at the United check-in counter for two hours? Having nothing to do, no Chinese money to spend, every intention of getting out of China to the US ASAP, I decided the best I could do was spend two hours practicing kanji on my phone. I must have been interrupted by 5 different deaf people asking me for money. They would tap me and point at a card that read something along the lines of "I'm deaf. I cannot hear or speak. Would you please donate to our cause?" I felt terrible saying no, but I honestly had no Chinese yuan to give them. Also, as they say, "If I give to one, I had to give to every body." Better not risk it.
It would have been nice to have been boarded onto the next flight out to LA, but it turns out rescheduling isn't that simple. After two hours, staff finally showed up and started taking their places at each check-in booth. I was first in line, and when the check-in counters finally opened, I walked up to the first staff available. I pleaded with a Chinese staff to reschedule my flight. He asked me why I was late, and he told me the only way I could get a rescheduling certificate was if my previous flight had been delayed. I told him the flight was on time, and that I had been made late by the slow customs officers. He told me there was nothing he could do, and that I had to call United directly and talk to them. He gave me a couple of numbers and wished me luck.
Still there at the ticket counters, I ask "Where can I connect to Wi-Fi to make this phone call?" The staff tells me "Wi-Fi is weak here, sorry." "OK, so where can I make a phone call?" I ask. The staff tells me "Oh! There's a business center if you go to the far end of this counter and turn right." And oh, what a "right." The "business center," if it could even be called that, was all the way at the end of the terminal! (United was on row E. I had to walk all the way back to A.) I trek over to the "business center" and ask to use the phone. Along the way I'm stopped by a woman who tells me she doesn't have money to eat. I tell her "I need to eat too!" and I guiltily rush off. When I arrive at the "business center," the staff tells me that other passengers were facing the same problem, and that the numbers I was given don't work, and that I had to go back to the United staff and tell him that. I trek all the way back, and he gives me yet another number which would finally connect me with a United operator. I'm telling you, I must have been stopped by a person begging for money each way!
The "business center" was an interesting facility. Very poor lighting, and very unkempt. Possibly the only neat-looking thing in that room was the counter. The "phone booths" consisted of make-shift walls and desks that were falling apart. And then, only one of the phones worked, and it was being used by a lady who was suffering the same dilemma as I was. I wait for her to finish her call, and I sit to notice other oddities at the "business center." There was a copy machine that seemed it could barely operate, the computers in room all had towers with different chassis. Around one computer, where only one person should be, there were three or four Chinese guys crowded, loudly hollering to each other in Chinese. I couldn't understand what the commotion was about. The lady behind the counter just sat there. Sometimes the guys would turn to her and yell at her, and she would reply.
What country am I in!
Finally it's my turn to use the phone and the person finally let's me have the phone booth. I dial the number as I sat on the nearby office chair with dirty upholstery. The phone, which wasn't even bolted to the wall or anything, had to be a decade old! There was a plastic combination pencil holder with a broken pen, and an empty square space where a Post-it notepad should be. An automated service picks up and answers in Chinese. However I hear a familiar language, "For English press 2." While I'm on hold, blurry classical music plays for a few minutes. Someone finally answers and I'm asked what I could be helped with. I tell the United operator of my plight and she puts me on hold to see what she could do. She tells me the best she could do is reschedule me for the same flight out I was taking only the next day. To top it off, I had to make my own hotel arrangements for the night. I ask the operator if by any chance she could put me on a waiting list for any of the next flights out, and she tells me that all the flights are booked solid, and that rescheduling me for tomorrow was the best that she could do. I thank the operator, hang up and realize I was on my own in Shanghai China for a night. I had NO idea what to do.
I ask the lady at the "business center" if she knew of any cheap hotels I could stay at. She tells me there's a hotel at the airport. I ask her how much it is and she tells me that rooms start at about 500 yuan.
Yuan? I don't have Chinese money! I'v never had to use Chinese money! I came to realize I was on the verge of beginning a new adventure to a place I had never been before. What I was about to embark on was uncharted territory. I had mixed emotions. I was sad, angry, and yet strangely excited at the same time. After today, I could tell people that I spent one night in China.
The Adventure Begins
I ask the lady at the business center "Do you know if that's the cheapest?" (I seriously don't know how much 500 yuan is.) She tells me if I go down to the 2nd floor, I could inquire about hotels there. What have I got to lose? I didn't want to spend the night at the airport with all the deaf, hungry people. Besides, this is my chance at a peek at China. I go to the nearest currency exchange booth and exchange $100 dollars for about 600 yuan or so. With Chinese currency in hand, I now move to the next step in my adventure; finding a place to stay.
So I make my way down to the 2nd floor and I notice a place that read something like "Hotel Information." Immediately, I'm approached by a kind, petite, cute and friendly Chinese girl. I'm pleasantly surprised she could speak near-perfect English. "Did you want to find hotel?" She said. I said "Yes," and she started showing me a list of what rooms she could get me, and the range of prices. I chose the cheapest, which was 588 Yuan. I mean, it's the cheapest. What do I know about "cheap" in China anyway? I went with that. After inquiring about other amenities (if there would be Wi-Fi there, places to eat, how much food would be etc.), I agree to pay on the spot, with about 30 yuan left over for food, and she proceeded to escort me to the shuttle bus that would take me to the hotel. I almost couldn't believe what was happening! I just booked a hotel for a night in Shanghai!
As the girl escorted me, she took my luggage and started hauling it for me. (OK, thanks, I guess this is what is supposed to happen?) I was half-afraid I had just paid some stranger to take my luggage and she was going to run off with it. "If she runs off with my luggage," I thought "That's OK. It's nothing but old clothes anyway." She was talking on the phone, with whom I could only presume was someone concerning the shuttle bus. At times she sounded angry. "Where the hell are you?" I could almost hear her say in English. I was smiling and giggling to myself the whole time. Suddenly she looks towards a downward leading escalator and she starts yelling frantically "What are you doing! Up here, up here!" I can't speak Mandarin, but I swear that's what she was saying. The people she was yelling at had other passengers with luggage in tow as well. The others head back up the escalator, we unite and head towards the shuttle bus. I don't know what it was, but I thought the way this petite little girl was bossing others around in her black pant suit, and tied back blonde hair was rather charming. The staff loads other people's luggage onto the "bus," which was actually just a van with tinted windows and worn lettering, and we were on our way. Well, almost.
My Ride to the Hotel
I shared a ride with three other girls. They were talking with each other, when the driver starts chatting with them. I'm sure they had never met before, but already, it's as if they were a college group of friends bantering. I, of course, am sitting silently in the back seat, not knowing what to expect next. My eyes were busy taking in everything they could from the tinted windows, all the illuminated simplified Chinese characters, all the different road signage, all the roads snaking out in different directions, the Shanghai night scenery. Suddenly, the van slows down and we get in line at a gas station to get some gas. I guess the driver forgot to fill up before picking us up? We approach a pump rather quickly, and I'm amused to find the pump speaks in a very loud, but polite male voice with what I could only guess were instructions, through blown out speakers. The driver fills up and we're off.
As we approached our final destination, I'm delighted to see that there are a lot of restaurants lining the street with bright lights. "Boy it'd be nice to stop now," I thought. I hadn't eaten since my lunch on the flight. I come to find out that those restaurants are actually a bit a way from where I would stay. We pull into this enclosed area, where the entrance to the lobby would welcome us with cheesy Santa Claus decorations, a dingy tree, and a sign saying "Merry Christmas" in brilliantly colored letters. Just before entering the lobby, I notice what looks like the entrance to a restaurant. "I'll go there as soon as I'm all checked in," I told myself just before getting off and claiming my luggage.
As soon as I walked in, someone at the counter started barking "Passport please," and I proceeded to take it out. "Passport please" she said again and I felt like saying "Here! Take it!" (I just smile and give it to her.) She scans it, gives it back and hands my the key to my room. Another man takes me to my room, grabs my key, opens the door, sticks the key in the slot, and tells me to come in in Chinese. The man was smiling and seemed genuinely pleased with the fact that I had made it to my room. "Enjoy your stay," his eyes seemed to say. "Thank you," I smiled back. "谢谢" (Xièxie), I said.
Time to Grab Something to Eat
Now it's dinner time. I need to drop my stuff, head on over to that restaurant and see what I can do about getting some chow. I leave my stuff in my room, grab my wallet, my jacket, my scarf, and I walk into the restaurant entrance, only to find it seems deserted. As soon as I walk in the door, there is another wide entrance to yet another room which seems to be a dining room where guests previously ate; the light was on, but the chairs were all out of place, and there were some used plates on the table. The room was big, but it had only one table in it. Strangely odd...
The entrance to the restaurant opens to a dark, unlit hallway, and one could follow it left to where there is another entrance to a similar lighted room. This time there are four tables, and there is a group of four people sitting down and eating. They seemed to be older folks. There is a huge menu hanging from the wall on the left-hand side. On the right, there were three pictures of dishes that were served there. One was fried rice, the other was a bowl of noodles, and the other was a dish of fried vegetables.
One of the gentlemen sitting down gets up with a huge smile on his face, I had one on mine. We were looking at each other trying to figure out what to say. I know little to no Chinese, and it sounds like he wasn't understanding it. I start trying to speak to him in pantomimes indicating that I want to eat. "我要吃饭!" (Wŏ yào chī fàn!) I told him. He said "好了, 好了!" (Hăole, hăole!) (Something like "OK OK!") I told him I wanted to write. (I know how to write some Chinese.) "画画!" (Huà huà! Draw!) I told him, gesturing for a pen and paper, and I wrote down what I could. All I can remember him saying is "Chee kun, chee kun!" (Heaven knows what that means...) I thought he was trying to say "Chicken, chicken." I seriously don't know what he was saying. I just said "是, 是" (Shì, shì.) He said "OK!" We agreed. Something had been ordered. I don't know what.
He goes over to the back, and I hear something being fried. I'm relieved to think I'm finally going to eat. I'm sitting there waiting in this room, taking all I could in from the experience, and I could hear the others talking about me, smiling at me, me smiling back. This was not my idea of a restaurant. The room was cold, people ate wearing jackets, the windows were opened letting in even more cold air, aside from the pictures on the wall, there were no decorations, and worst of all, there was no music. Elevator music would have been nice then, but aside from the hissing of something cooking in the background, there was no music. Just the strange, awkward quiet of locals and a foreigner trying to make sense of each other.
The man comes with a cell phone and asks me to speak to it. I say "Hello?" A man replies in English "Yes? I can speak English. Did you want to order something?" (I thought I already did.) I told him "I think I ordered something, but I don't know what it is. How much does it cost?" The phone cuts off, and the man doesn't have a chance to reply. The restaurant cook is a bit distraught and he tries calling the guy again. There's a connection. "Yes, how much will this cost me?" I asked. "35 yuan, OK?" he said. "What? I only have 30!" "Only thirty?" he asks. "Yes. I'm sorry..." I reply. "OK, fine, 30 yuan OK," he says. " Thank you!" I gratefully reply.
"OK?" the man cooking my dinner asks me after the man on the phone hangs up. "OK," I smile and reply back. He brings out a dish full of stir-fried vegetables and chicken, and a bowl of rice and sets it on the table in front of me. I grab a pair of chopsticks and start eating. The food is OK, but the rice has the consistency of it being in the cooker for a rather long time. It's hard in places and sometimes crunchy. But I'm not going to complain; I am a guest, and where I come from, it's rude to complain about the food. These people are being kind and trying to show some hospitality, and I'm not going to ruin it all by saying how bad it is.
From the table next to me I could hear a lady and a man tell each other how good I am with chopsticks. I can't quite make out every word they're saying, but I do hear "筷子" (kuàizi) and "好," (hao) which mean "chopsticks" and "good." I clean out my first bowl of rice and there is still some more stir-fry left over. The lady stands up and says something in Chinese, I assume it means "More?" I say "是." (shì) (It means "yes" or "is" in Chinese.) The lady takes my bowl and brings me another bowl of rice, for which I am grateful. But now I'm thirsty. What will I do?
I remember the one word for liquid that I know in Mandarin Chinese. "有沒有水?" (Yŏu méi yŏu shuǐ? Do you have any water?) I ask. "有!" (Yŏu! Have!) a lady says. I want to ask how much, but I don't know how to say it. I can only assume it's extra. The lady tries to gesture and she says with her face "Don't worry about it! Just drink, drink!" I open the bottle and I start to drink. Another man who was sitting at the table next to me stands up and offers me a cigarette. I don't normally smoke, but I don't want to sound rude, so I accept it. I gesture I want to finish eating, and he seems to understand. I'm finally finished, and I ask for a light. I take my first drag of whatever that brand of cigarette that was, and I feel a strange calm come over me. The man is looking at me smiling, enjoying it too. "谢谢" (Xièxie. Thank you.) I tell him.
Pretty soon it's time for me to pay and go, but I know it won't be enough. The original price was 30 yuan, but I had now just got a bottle of water. I try to give my 30 yuan to the lady there and she says "不, 不." (Bù, bù.) (It means, "no, no" in Chinese.) I said "我吃饭," (Wŏ chī fàn, I eat food) gesturing that she should take the money. She finally takes it. I want to tell her that I want to come back and pay for the water as soon as I could in the morning. But I can't say it. Suddenly I got an idea. I'll write in whatever kanji I know, and maybe it'll get across. So I ask for a piece of paper. "画画!" (Huà huà!) I say again. I get my pen and piece of paper and I write "morning" and "I come" in Kanji. (朝、我来) The lady reads it out loud, "Cháo wŏ lái." She looks up and me and she says "好了!" (Hăole!) (OK!)
Determined to pay the nice lady back, I go to the hotel counter to see if I could exchange money there, but the woman at the counter was not helpful. She was sitting down and wanted to be on her cell phone. I try offering my money, and she just looks up and tells me "No thank you." There were two other men in the room just lounging around, one sitting behind the counter, and one in front of the counter, leaning back with his foot on the wall. As if to say "Hey, he's trying to talk to you. You should help," they try talking to the woman. She waves them away as if to say "I don't care, not my problem." I take it all in stride. I'm in a different country with different standards of service, different expectations. I decide I can't pay the lady back, and that in the morning, I would have to make my way back to the airport to make sure I'm on time for my next flight.
I have a character trait in my personality that I don't know whether it's a blessing or a curse. If it's something I can't stand is not being able to pay someone back, having offended someone without wanting to, and not making things "right" with people I have wronged. While most people might be able to say "fuck it" and forget about it without a second thought, the feeling of guilt will eat away at me for days, months, sometimes years. There are things I remember that give me pangs of regret. Toys I couldn't return, money I couldn't repay, people that died that I didn't get a chance to apologize to, people I pissed off that I wish I could somehow make good with. I really wanted to pay off the lady for the bottle of water I drank, and it would eat away at me to leave China with that debt unpaid, the promise of coming back in the morning broken. With that prospect, I was preparing to leave that little hotel in the morning, and I had to figure out how I was going to do it.
But now I was full, it was bed time, and I needed to get a good night's sleep for the next day. I got back to my room, skinned down to my long johns and prepared to hit the sack. But before doing that I wanted to check the place out. What is a Chinese hotel like? I was grateful for sleeping in a room and not the airport lobby, but man, what a dump.
588 Yuan For This?
I was already kind of miffed at the lady at the counter, but everywhere I looked it was the bare minimum. The restroom was a sort of unit bath, with the toilet being in close proximity to the showering area. The only thing separating them was a short, raised border. There were no curtains. The wall directly in front of the shower was glass, and though slightly veiled by cheap green striped plastic, was completely see-through. A person sitting in the bed had a clear view of who was taking a shower. The sink sat on a wooden structure without cupboard doors; the paint on the wood was clearly falling off. Except for a lone roll of toilet paper, there was nothing in the bottom wooden structure. The water in the sink did not go down easily, and there was hair around the shower drain. There was a metal shelf just under the mirror in front of the sink, on which there was a large, black plastic container with a slide-out drawer. The container was about a third larger than the shelf it sat on, so pulling out the drawer to reveal the amenities inside would cause it to fall, so it had to be held. On the same shelf was a glass cup that was turned upside down. If one look closely, one could see that there was white precipitate caked to the bottom of the glass.
The lamps next to the bed did not work, and the switches for the lights in the room were sporadically placed. To be sure, some didn't even do anything. I had to try them all to test out what turned on what. The room was dimly lit; I had to squint my eyes to see better. The room itself was rather gaudy, almost as if it were stuck in a time-warp, a different time in China. I got a room with a single queen, maybe king-sized bed. The walls of the room were a dark green, and there was black furniture. As one entered the room one couldn't help but notice the large, tall window ahead, which had a metal cage behind it, an ominous sign of what part of town I was staying in. The tall curtains were wide open, and upon entering the room I immediately proceeded to close them. There was a huge headboard with padded, shiny leather or plastic mounds. There were nightstands on either side, thankfully with electricity outlets that accepted western plugs; I needed to charge my iPhone. I also needed to call my family and my friend in the US to tell them of my plight.
The first person I called was my lovely wife, who had stayed behind in Japan with my boys. The room had Wi-Fi as promised, and having logged on, I decided to try to FaceTime with my wife. As my iPhone chirped, I was wondering if the connection would work; I know that China has a tough internet policy that, and I had heard that they monitored everything you did. My wife answers, and I'm relieved to see her in pajamas with my boys; they had just gotten out of the bath. "Hi daddy!" I could hear my boys say. I'm so happy to see their happy faces. I explain to my wife what happened, and she tells me to spend some money and enjoy myself in Shanghai. It was only a stop-over, and I didn't think I'd have time to look around, I told her. I appreciated the permission with a smile. I did just spend $100 American on a crappy hotel with OK food. But that was it. I promised myself that I wasn't going to change any more money in China, and that I was getting on my plane out of there as soon as I could. I bid goodbye to my wife and kids, and I call my friend next to tell him I was going to be late by a day. That was the last thing I did before I decided I was going to go to bed to wake up bright and early the next morning. Or so I thought.
As I lay there in my bed with the lights out, I could still feel the buzz I got from the cigarette I had smoked earlier. It was a nice feeling. I tried to go to sleep, but thinks kept waking me up. "I won't be able to pay that lady at the restaurant. She's going to think I'm a lying foreigner... I'm going to leave having left a bad impression." I thought to myself. But then, I could also hear myself saying "Get it together Joe. Somethings you just can't help. Shit happens, and sometimes there's just nothing you can do. You're going to have to start not giving a fuck at some point. Just let it go." The song from "Frozen" starts playing in my head; "Let it go, let it go..." Hah hah! Yeah, at some point I'm going to have to learn to not give a fuck... I don't know when though.
Next thing you know, I was thinking "What if I need a special visa to do what I'm doing? What if they don't let me leave China tomorrow and I can't be at my friend's wedding and I have to spend more money and I run out?" I turn on the light, grab my phone and I start trying to Google information about landing in China. But for whatever reason, my phone gives me an error message. "Could not connect" or something like that. Great. Just great. Then I remember; Google had some sort of falling out with China a while back. Maybe that's it. I try searching for info again, this time through Yahoo, and I'm successful. And according to my findings, I'm good for 48 hours. Phew! I thought to myself. Time to go to bed. It took some time, but that relentless little voice in my head finally shut up.
But then, as I try to close my eyes, my ears catch the sound of a girl yelling obscenities out in front of the lobby. (My room was the first door from the lobby, wouldn't you have it.) I couldn't tell what was going on. Was a customer complaining? Was a staff berating an underling? Was it a fight between a woman and her boyfriend? Or what? All I know is that things got kind of heavy, because I start hearing people slamming stuff down, slamming doors. Geez! What in the world is happening! This went on for a few minutes. Finally it ended and there was quiet. But I was just sitting in my bed in the dark thinking "WTF just happened." I rationalized it with "I'm in China, this is a different country, different world, different ideas of 'normal.' This is just the way it is around here. People yell at each other and it's perfectly OK." Finally close my eyes and I'm fast asleep.
Morning in Shanghai
It's dark and I can't sleep any longer. I could see some light peering through the crack between the curtains. I wonder what time it is? My iPhone says 5:30, and I remember I must have fallen asleep at about 9pm last night. "Meh, that's about 8 hours," I thought. "Time to get up." Curious to see what it looks like outside, I sneak my head through the curtains. "Wow. This is China's sky." I thought. I look around, and I could see a high-rise building here and there. My eyes look lower, and they stop at a horizon of broken glass bottles. HAH! This is just as I have seen in Mexico; the hotel is surrounded by a concrete wall, and as a security measure, there are broken bottles cemented in place, in case thieves try to break in. That, combined with the metal cage around the window can't fail! Outside there is about two or three meters of free space between the wall and the window, like some sort of back yard. Just outside was a decrepit clothes hanging apparatus, along with the air conditioning unit for my room. And that's about all there was to see outside my window. I wasn't expecting anything big; I did choose the cheapest hotel I could find.
Through my heat-tech tights and shirt, I could feel the winter chill, so I decide to use the heater function on the air conditioning unit installed in the room. Slowly but surely, the room begins to warm up. I decide I need to take a shower before figuring out how I'm going to take on the day. I undress, leave my heat-tech top and bottom on the bed, turn on the restroom light and fan, go in and test the water to make sure it's a comfortable temperature. Once it's just right, I do like Goldilocks and jump right in. As I stand under the shower head, I get this strange feeling; I'd never showered without curtains right next to the toilet before. Water was splashing on the toilet, but the cover is just such that the water falls over and off of it, leaving the seat under it dry. With the water running, I grab a towel from the rack suspended above the toilet. The water doesn't touch the towels because the stream aims well below the rack. Wouldn't it be a shame if someone took the shower head and aimed it at the rack... :-D
As I turn around while bathing myself, I remember that the wall behind me is clear, and I imagine the odd situation where I had to share a room with a mate. Would there be an unspoken rule of "Guys don't look?" Or would there be an obligatory "OK dude, we're grownups. Please stay away from the window?" Would we strategize to cover up the wall with our luggage? Or what? Or would we be comfortable around each others' nakedness and just not care? How would we handle this? This brings me to a related topic; nakedness in Japan.
Historically, Japan is a culture where people bathe together. In olden times, baths were communal and were shared by people of different sexes. Even today, such baths can be found in some parts of Japan. They are rare, but they can be found. The tradition of bathing communally continues, albeit with a wall separating the genders. At hot springs and public baths, men bathe, walk around, and soak in the bath completely naked. Fathers bring their children in with them, and so from a very young age, children learn to be naked together. This is kind of taboo in the West, but fathers even bring their little girls in to bathe with them up to a certain age. When I first saw this at a public bath, my first thought as a Westerner was "WHAT???" Some in the West may think that having a little girl be around a bunch of naked men might be traumatizing. But this is common, and, it seems, Japanese girls grow up to be normal young women. Fathers simply bathe with their daughters, and their daughters learn to be naked around people of both sexes.
The Japanese have a word for being together naked with other people. Some people say you don't really know someone until you've been with them naked. The term is "hadaka no tsukiai," (裸の付き合い) or "abiding together naked." There's even a wasei eigo (English Made in Japan) for it; "skinship," a portmanteau of "skin" and "friendship."
At our home, our family bathes together. Me, my wife and our boys. My wife has a saying in Japanese, that I translated to English as "The family that bathes together stays together." My wife told me that she and her sisters all bathed with my father in-law until they were approaching maturity. We have four nephews, and whenever they visit grandpa, they all bathe together. If my wife is visiting, they'll go in with her. Sometimes when the family gets together, we'll all go out as a family to an onsen (温泉, hot spring). So yes, I've seen my father in-law naked.
Actually the first time I saw this phenomenon was in the movie My Neighbor Totoro. There is a scene in the move where the father is bathing with both of his little girls in the bath. The animators are careful to leave out any genitalia but what is happening is clear.
Scene from the movie "My Neighbor, Totoro":
Satsuki and Mei bathe with their father
When I first saw this, I was watching the movie with my mother, and she immediately caught it. "Joe," she asked "What's going on?" I told her maybe he's wearing underwear. At the time, I wasn't sure either, but I know for sure now.
Communal bathing is such an ingrained part of Japanese culture that one can still visit bathhouses (銭湯, sento) and hot springs (温泉, onsen) today. Some upscale hotels boast an in-house hot spring in their facilities, usually located on the first floor of their facilities.
Running a bathhouse was a theme that played a huge roll in the Ghibli/Miyazaki film Spirited Away, as the protagonist Chihiro becomes employed at one, run by the old crone Yubaba.
The plot of Spirited Away centered around a bathhouse run by
an old woman named "Yubaba," who hires the protagonist, Chihiro.
The bathhouse was unique in that it was a place for gods to come unwind.
Sen's job was to clean up after gods had finished using the baths.
Japanese housewives can identify with this scene; the bath in a
Japanese home is scrubbed clean every day before use.
Readers, especially those of you who play video games, where in a video game do you remember seeing a bathhouse as a backdrop for a stage or game scene?
Name the game and character. :-D
But I digress. I'm not exactly sure what Japanese guys would do in the situation where they had to share a room like mine. Perhaps being used to nakedness, they wouldn't mind?
After my shower, I grab a dry towel and lay it on the wet tiles. I use another dry towel to dry myself off, and wrap it around my waist. I know there is no one in the room, but I don't like the cold porcelain of the sink against my skin. I pull out the little plastic drawer with amenities on top of the metal shelf just under the mirror, being careful not to let it drop, and grab a toothbrush and tube of toothpaste from it. Some time ago in Japan, there was some incident where lead or some poison was found in toothpaste tubes that were made in China, so I was kind of wary about using the toothpaste. But I had to brush my teeth, so I thought "Whatever. It's not like I'm going to eat the stuff." After washing the glass cup and making sure I had wiped the residue at the bottom with my finger, I fill it with water for rinsing. Having brushed my teeth and rinsed my mouth, I wanted to rinse the sink. But the water would not go down. I decided I'm just not going to bother with it. It would be the one and only time I ever use that sink; it's role in my life was finished.
Which got me to thinking; the same is true for everything I do on this trip; the people I met, the sights I laid eyes on, the food that I ate, I will most likely never have these experiences again. The Japanese 4-character proverb "Ichi go, ichi e" (一期一会) comes to mind. Roughly translated, it means something like "one lifetime, one chance." And that's what this is. I only have one life, one opportunity. Thinking this made me feel glad I missed my flight.
Crash Course in Chinese
So I put on my clothes, it's now about say, 8 o clock, and I'm now thinking, how am I going to go about getting back to the airport? The staff obviously doesn't speak English, so I'm going to have to learn to ask in Mandarin. I'm going to have to teach myself Chinese! I decided I would study for an hour, and then head to the lobby to ask the staff at 9. Using the Yahoo search engine, I started looking up web pages with useful Chinese for travelers. Back when I was in college, I took a semester of Mandarin Chinese, so I had something to work from. After about an hour, I had the vocabulary and sentence structure I needed to march myself to the counter and ask the staff when the next shuttle to the airport would be. After having practiced, I decided I'd go to the front at 9 on the dot. I packed up all my clothes, all my belongings, put them neatly in a pile in the middle of the room, and prepared to go to the front desk.
As I approach the front desk, I noticed the staff was completely different than the rude staff that had attended me the night before. I brace myself, call one of the staff and try out my newly learned Mandarin: "请问, 我要去 飞机场. 接驳车几点出发? (Qǐngwèn, wǒ yào qù fēijīchǎng. Jiē bó chē jĭdiăn chūfā?) The lady looks at me and says "Woah, your Chinese pretty good. I can speak English you know..." No, it's shit, and I know it, but I'm extremely relieved. Maybe an hour of Chinese study wasted (or maybe not?), but now I can get across just fine. The lady tells me that there's a shuttle bus every hour, and the next one was going out at Ten. She asks "Are you sure you want to leave early?" I say "Yes." We agree and my time out to the airport was set. Then it occurred to me, what if I asked this lady if there is a place somewhere nearby where I could change some money. I was serious about paying that lady at the restaurant back. The staff says "Right here," gesturing to her desk. I'm seriously floored. The staff yesterday could have told me that, but didn't. Maybe she just didn't want to deal with the English-speaking foreigner? Whatever.
The fact that I can change money here at the hotel? This is something new. OK, change of plans. Now I could pay the lady AND get something to eat. Perfect. I tell the staff at the counter "OK, I'm sorry, I want to change my plans again. The reason I wanted to go to the airport early was because I had no funds and I wanted to go, change money, eat and be ready for my flight. Can I go ahead and change to leave at 11?" She said "Sure." Then I ask, "Are there places to eat around here?" She said "There's a restaurant just outside here. Or if you don't want to eat there, just go out, turn right, cross the bridge to the left and there are many places you can go eat." As I changed some money, I ask the lady at the counter "Is this enough to eat?" She said "Enough! Enough." With a smile on her face. And with that, I left my luggage at the front desk and I was on my way out.
The first thing I did was go to the restaurant adjacent to the hotel. I found the lady I wanted to talk to sitting at a chair at the back door of the restaurant, basking in the sunlight as she prepared some kind of food. She looks at me and smiles. Our gazes locked and smiling, I can't find anything to say to her, but I think we can sort of tell what we're telling each other through some sort of mystical, destiny-related telepathy. I felt as if she were saying "Oh! You're back. Just as you said." And I replied with my smile "Yes, just as I said." I extend a 5 yuan note to her and try the Mandarin I just learned "水是多少钱?" (Shuǐ shì duō shǎo qián?) (How much is water?) She kept saying "不, 不." (Bù, bù.) (No, no.) I kept extending the bill and she finally took it. I think I heard her say "二元" (èr yuán) or something like that. (2 yuan) I said OK. She kept motioning to the case of water behind me and saying something in Mandarin, as if to say "Take more!" I took one more bottle. I looked back and I thought I could hear her say "Are you OK with just one? Take more!" I told her "一个好了. (Yī gè hăole. One is fine.) I smile, she smiles back, and I start moving out. I think she cheated me out of one yuan. But you know what? That was interest. In my heart, things were settled. We were square. I could now leave China in peace.
Out Into the Mysterious Beyond
Now as I mentioned, entrance to the hotel lobby was within an enclosure that acted as a parking space for the facility. The shuttle bus comes in from an opening that leads out to the street and parks in front of the lobby. As I headed towards the opening I had the sense that I was going out on a little adventure. I was treading uncharted territory. I was breaking new ground in my life. I was excited to see what was beyond!
The enclosure opens out to a road. Parallel to the road is a river or canal, I can't tell if it's natural or man-made. A rail keeps cars and people from falling over, and out on a small boat I spot a man fishing.
As I look both ways, I take notice at the contrast between the world within the hotel enclosure, and the world immediately outside. What a difference! I thought the buildings on the inside were unkempt, the buildings along the road were dirty and beat up. I feel the scene resembled a street in Mexico. Some buildings have sealed doors, others have no doors at all. Just outside the buildings there is old debris, metal vats that have been recommissioned to be planters or garbage cans, worn signage of all sorts, the place was a mess! But, hey, this is home for many people. What a peculiar world!
As I walk down the road along the river, a familiar face rides up behind me in a mo-ped. It was one of the men from dinner at that restaurant last night! He was motioning for me to climb on to the back seat behind him. With my eyes I said "Really? OK?" The man said "OK." I happily obliged. This, by the way, is a complete no-no in Japan. Here I am, in China, taking a ride on the bike of this man whom I met only the night before! Where was he taking me? I don't know! I was just happy to let him take me there. Luckily, he stops and motions to a bus stop. I see! He thought I needed a lift to the nearest bus stop. Not exactly where I wanted to go, but I was thankful. He took me over the bridge the lady in the lobby told me about. The bus stop was right in front of where all the restaurants began. Now began my hunt for something to eat.
But let's be honest, this was more than just looking for a place to nosh. I wanted to see what life on the streets was out here. So I took a little stroll and took in all the sights I could. A middle school, a hospital for the disabled, a small shop selling packaged goods, a produce store, some restaurants, this was awesome! One of the restaurants had Chinese pop music coming from it and I was in heaven. WOW! I'm really in China! And this wouldn't have happened had I got on my flight in time!
OK. I've got an hour and a half before I have to be back at the hotel for the shuttle bus. Time to get serious and start searching for food. Of course, I can't read Chinese, but thanks to my Japanese studies, I can make out what the characters say. Each restaurant has lit up marquee signs flashing in vibrant colors. Some have pictures of the food they serve, but none of them really too appealing. And then a shop with a huge character catches my eye. "麺" (Men, noodles), the character says.
If there is one thing I love in this life, it's noodles. I try to enjoy them wherever I go, and in every which style. Chinese chow mein, Vietnamese phở, Japanese yakisoba, soba, udon, ramen, somen, chanpon, harusame, ito konnyaku, spaghetti, fetuccine, linguini, you name it. If it's long and squiggly, I want to try it! So when I saw the huge character for noodles, I knew that I had found my place. But there was one problem. The place looked closed. The doors are the foggy type so you can't really see what's going on in the shop. I walk past it and see if there are any other shops that serve noodles, but no dice. So I walk back to it and I push the door open to see if anyone was inside. The place was deserted. No one was there. But my eyes catch a man at the furthest end of the shop at a table taking a nap. Another man comes through the door at the back. I try to ask with my eyes, gestures and the little Chinese I know: "吃饭好吗?" (Chī fàn, hǎo ma?) (I was trying to ask if it was OK to eat.) I think I got across, because the man smiled, said "好," (Hǎo) and motioned for me to sit.
The first man was sleeping in that chair, way at the back.
I look at the menu, but there's so much I don't know! All I knew was that I wanted noodles and that's what I came to the shop for. Luckily, there were pictures of noodles, rice and other dishes served at the shop on the wall.
I point to a picture with a delicious-looking bowl of noodles. "这是多少钱?" (Zhè shì duō shǎo qián? How much is this?) The guy who come from the back tells me "十五." (shí wǔ) And I'm thinking to myself "Shí wǔ. Let's see Joe, numbers. Numbers. 一 (yī), 二 (èr), 三 (sān), 四 (sì), 五 (wǔ)... that's 5... 六 (liù), 七 (qī), 八 (bā), 九 (jiǔ), 十 (shí)... that's 10. 10, 5 that's... 15! It's like in Japanese! Ju go! Shí wǔ! 15 yuan! I'll take it!" But wait, there was a nice picture of boiled-style pot stickers. I wanted those too! "这是多少钱?" (Zhè shì duō shǎo qián? How much is this?) I ask again. "十五" (Shí wǔ, 15), the guy says again. "Shí wǔ, shí wǔ, that's 30 yuan! I'll take them both!!! YES!!!" I told the guy, pointing to each picture "一个, 一个." (Yī gè, yī gè.) (One and one.) When I called my wife the night before, she said to enjoy myself and get some good food. Today, I decided to take her up on it.
So once I ordered my food, the guy I was talking to heads back to the kitchen and starts preparing it. Then, the guy at the table wakes up and goes back there with him. I start looking around to take in the place. I start noticing things here and there, and I started asking questions in my head. Why are the guys wearing white skull caps? And why is this place green? I'm looking at a decal at my table and I was trying to make out what it said.
One of the lines toward the end read "禁止饮酒." (Jìnzhǐ yǐnjiǔ; drinking liquor is prohibited) One of the shop's specialties seems to be beef. Beef noodles, beef pot stickers... I'm trying to put two and two together. Up towards the ceiling one can see frames of the shop's endorsement, and one of the signs had what looked like a minoret on it. Then it hit me. THIS PLACE IS A CHINESE MUSLIM ESTABLISHMENT! This place is Muslim and it specializes in special Chinese Halal dishes.
I had read about it on the internet before. One of China's minorities are a group of people that call themselves the "Hui people" ( 回族: Huízú). They're a Chinese minority that separates themselves from the rest of China. They have their own Muslim culture, they don't drink, and they have their own special Chinese Muslim cuisine that, unlike the rest of China, excludes pork. When I first read about these people, I couldn't believe it. Pork is like a major Chinese staple. How could these people survive? Well, they do! There are many different major schools of Chinese cuisine, and Chinese Muslim cuisine that follows Halal dietary laws is one of them. And now I'm trying it for the first time! I felt kind of strange very strange. So many firsts on this trip. And where was I going to enjoy breakfast but here of all places?
My eyes catch the sight of a refrigerator at the entrance. It was filled with many kinds of fizzy drinks. No alcoholic beverages, of course. I decided I really wanted a Coke. There were other fizzy drinks in there, but you know what, this was the place in the trip where even though I was enjoying different food of a different type cooked by different people in a different country, I decided I wanted something familiar. So Coke it was. I went over to the fridge, took my can of drink, set it on the table and waited for my dishes.
The first dish to come out were the boiled pot stickers. 20 or more little dumplings, they were piping hot. Added by the fact that it was cold to begin with, the dish was steaming profusely. The dish was accompanied by a small dipping saucer. I poured some sauce, took some chopsticks from the cup in the middle of the table, took a steaming dumpling, dipped it in sauce, and took my first bite. A warm feeling came over me. The dumpling was piping hot, so I tried to blow it cold in my mouth. "Ho, ho, ho," I whispered. The taste was out of this world. And there was a whole shitload more just waiting for me to devour it! I went to town.
While I was eating, I noticed the cook in the back working on my bowl of noodles. The kitchen was separated by windows similar to the doors; they were fogged, but you can see above. I could catch the guy taking dough and spreading it with his hands. The noodles I was about to enjoy were hand-pulled noodles, especially pulled on site at that shop!
You can't really see the guy in the back, but from my vantage point,
one could see his hands in the air, and the noodles springing up and down.
He looked like this. (Not my picture.)
In Japan, some ramen places make their own noodles, but it's a different process. The dough is rolled thin, and the noodle master chops it, giving the noodles a characteristic square shape. This applies to soba, udon, as well as ramen. In china, noodles are pulled by hand. Because the noodles in China are pulled, they have a rounded shape, almost like spaghetti, except not too even.The characters for the word "ramen," or "lāmiàn" in Chinese, are 拉 and 麺, meaning "pulled noodles." I was about to enjoy "ramen" as it was meant to be!
When my bowl of noodles finally arrives, I still had a few pot stickers left over. I didn't want to start eating my noodles until I finished my pot stickers, but also, if you wait for too long, the broth cools and the noodles get soggy, so I started eating faster. Once I was finished, I put aside the dish where the pot stickers used to be, and I brace myself for my first bowl of Chinese noodles in China.
When I eat a bowl of noodles, I have a little ritual. The first thing I do is taste the broth. For me, the broth sets the stage of what is to be. I take the ladle that comes with the bowl, scoop up some broth and take my first sip... Mmm. Delicious. There's an exotic taste to the broth that lets you know that you're tasting Chinese noodles. There seems to be tomato and carrots, along with some slices of beef floating in the broth. I decide to take some veggies and beef. They add a heartiness to broth that reminds me a lot of minestrone or a stew. Finally, I take a strand of noodles with my chopsticks and bring it to my face. I don't know whether it's good or bad manners to slurp in China. It's definitely good manners in Japan. I decide to try and slurp quietly.
The noodles, being round, immediately have a different feeling in my mouth, compared to Japanese ramen noodles. The noodles were strong; in this sense there was a toughness to them. But, at the same time, when I bit into them, they had a softer texture. The noodles allowed for the broth to soak in, at the same time bringing some broth up with them. This is important in ramen noodles back in Japan; you don't want noodles where the broth just rolls right off, you want for the broth to stick to the noodles. Delicious broth, delicious noodles, not to mention a good size portion; that was one of the best bowls of noodles I had ever tasted. I can't compare it to Japanese ramen, because it's its own thing. It was truly an experience I will never forget.
So I finish slurping my noodles, and pick up the bowl to finish every last drop of broth. It's always interesting to see what noodle restaurants have at the bottom of their bowls. Sometimes they have their own special insignia. For this shop, it was just a classic drawing of a Chinese boy. Trying to cling to every last experience at that restaurant that I could, I try to drag it out as much as possible. There's still a little bit of Coke left, and I take my time drinking that. But I can't be too long, I need to be back at the hotel for my shuttle bus. I look at the guy, signaling I want to go. I stand up and hand him the money, a 50 yuan bill. He goes to the back to give me my change. Here I thought that he was going to factor in the Coke I just drank, but instead he hands me 20 yuan. I point to the Coke, and I ask "好吗?" (Hǎo ma? Is this OK?) He says "好了, 好了." (Hăole, Hăole. It's OK, it's OK.) I tell him "不! 这是多少钱?" (Bù! Zhè shì duō shǎo qián? No! How much is this?) He says "三元" (sān yuán. 3 yuan) I hand him a 5 yuan bill and he gives me a couple of coins back. He says something in Chinese, but I can't quite make it out. Then he says "OK. OK." But I didn't want to let it go, I try out some more freshly learned Chinese. "对不起. 我不明白. 麻烦你写一下，好不好? (Duìbùqǐ. Wǒ bù míngbai. Máfan nǐ xiě yīxià, hǎo bù hǎo?" So he writes "哪国人?" (Nǎguórén? What country are you from?) So I tell him (because I know how to say it) "我是美国人." (Wǒ shì měiguó rén.) He says "啊!美国." (Ah! Měiguó. Oh! America.) I tell him I have to go. "好吃. 谢谢." (Hào chī. Xièxie. It was good, thank you.) We smile good bye and I walk out the foggy doors.
Back to the Hotel, Back Home
It's almost over, and now it's time for me to make my way back to my hotel. I'm still trying to take in as much as I can before my flight out. Now that my hunger has been satiated, I take a look at the same road I walked by with a new set of eyes. I look to the sky, I look around, and I look at the floor, and I can't help but notice how dirty and unkempt the place actually is. The road the restaurants are on is comparatively better-looking than the road the hotel is on, but it's still pretty crappy-looking. The sidewalk seems to be covered in a layer of dirt and dust, and I can't help but taste it in the air.
I noticed there was this strange mixture of dryness and dirt the moment I stepped out of the hotel. It's almost as if I were breathing concrete. People that I know who have visited China tell me the air is unbearable. Could this be what they were talking about? I had been to Mexico before, and people are often burning their trash. But this felt different; a different level of air dirtiness that I couldn't quite put my foot on. By this time, my tongue began to feel numb, and I was grateful this hadn't happened before I went into the noodle restaurant, or else I wouldn't have been able to taste anything.
As I passed a pork bun street vendor, I thought I'd eat my last bite before I went back. What did I have to lose? I wanted to have an authentic Chinese pork bun! I look at the menu, check out the prices, and ask the lady to give me a steamed pork bun. There are a lot of other varieties, but I wanted the pork one.
The lady asks me for a couple of yuan coins, and I give them to her. She gives me back a couple more coins of a smaller denomination. At this point I don't care, I just want my pork bun. She smiles "Thank you" and I'm on my way. The pork bun was real good! I could still taste it! But by now I wanted to be back at the hotel, and so I started making my way back.
I cross the bridge the man on his mo-ped had taken me over earlier, only now I could take a closer glimpse at the water. The water was so cloudy I couldn't see past the surface. Even so, the man I had seen earlier fishing on his little vessel was still there. What could he possibly be fishing for? He can't be fishing for food. Just no way.
I cross the bridge and hang the right back onto the dirty road that would lead me back to my hotel. That filthy, dirty road. And hidden on it was a cozy hotel for travelers seeking a place to spend their layover. Very soon the shuttle that would transport me out of this world would arrive, and it would all be over. I have mixed feelings... I was excited to get this glimpse of China, but at the same time, I wanted to get out. I'll barely be able to make my friends' wedding.
As I continue on the dirty road along the cloudy river, the opening to my hotel's enclosure finally comes into view. I hadn't noticed it before, but across from the opening, on the side of the road that faces the canal, there is a huge sign with my hotel's Chinese Characters on it. I guess unless you're really looking, the opening to the hotel is easy to miss.
I turn left, walk right in, past the restaurant where I had eaten the night before, and into the hotel lobby. I was a few minutes early, so I sat down at a booth. I forgot to mention it earlier, but in the hotel lobby are a couple of sitting booths with tables, like there would be at an American diner, except the booths were merely for lounging at the lobby and didn't appear to serve any other purpose. The booths are in front of a large window from where one could see outside. I sat at the booth looking outside the window, waiting for the shuttle bus.
I had about 30 minutes to go, and it was that point that I took out my iPad and began to write this long account. The shuttle bus finally arrives, I close up my iPad, put it in my bag, grab my luggage and board the bus. As much as I had enjoyed myself, I couldn't wait to be back at the airport.
Ride to the Airport
Boarding the van that acted as a shuttle bus by day, I noticed things about it that I hadn't notice the night before. The middle section of the back seat was missing, and in its place was an actual wooden stool. Only the back padding was one continuous cushion that extended from window to window. The seating was navy, interrupted by the stool's white upholstery. The van had a high ceiling, like a camping van. No one seemed to be bothered to wear their seat belts, and as the van traveled over the bumpy road, the seat buckles caused the taught belts to vibrate. As I looked at the dusty dashboard I'm reminded of riding in the car with relatives in Mexico. The dash is old and dusty, but it's complete with a CD player. The passengers to the airport that day were all old men, but this time, there was no talking. All was silent throughout the ride to the airport. As I look out the windshield, the driver is weaving like nobody's business. He would weave in and out of cars, in between other vans, even past larger trucks. I was beginning to pray I made it to the airport alive.
I finally make it to the airport. The old men start alighting from the van, and the driver starts to unload our luggage. I thank the driver, but he doesn't seem to take notice, and that's OK. We grab our luggage, the van drives away and we were on our own. As I approach the entrance to the airport, I'm greeted by security guards who immediately demand I take off my coat and put my luggage on the X-ray conveyor. I empty out my pockets and take off my shoes just in case, but they say taking off my shoes isn't necessary. They walk me through the scanner and tell me I'm good to go. As I enter the atrium of the terminal, I come to notice all the signs that say "Domestic." I can't find United. I'm in the wrong terminal. Great. I ask someone at Information where I could find United and they tell me I have to go all the way to Terminal 2. It's alright. I have 2 hours to go. I have plenty of time to spare.
Down the "Middle Road"
Walking from one terminal to the other entails going through yet another security check point. But that's OK. I'm used to this. I'll strip down naked if you want. I don't care. Just please let me through. I can't miss my flight this time. Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 are connected by a long, wide corridor called "The Middle Road," or "The Middle Way," I can't remember. All I can remember is that these words have some sort of spiritual significance for some people. "The Middle Path." The one path. The path one musn't veer from. Thinking about this made me consider that perhaps walking down this corridor called "The Middle Road" is kind of ironic. Passing through it also meant passing by the airport hotel, which also happened to lay right in between the two terminals. If you could think of the airport buildings from a bird's eye point of view, they almost look like the Chinese character for "river," (川) with the hotel lying right between the two terminals.
As I passed by this hotel in the middle of the airport, on a road called "The Middle Road," I thought to myself... How different would my experience in Shanghai have been had I chosen to walk this "Middle Road?" And stayed at this airport hotel snuggled right between the two terminals? Perhaps staying at this hotel was the safest thing to do, possibly the thing most passengers want to do if they had been forced to be laid over in Shanghai. Perhaps a "normal" passenger would think to himself "Me? Travel outside of this airport? Out into China? When I can't even speak Chinese? Purposefully putting myself in a potentially vulnerable situation? Travel outside of uncharted territory? HELL NO. Put me up at this nice, safe hotel within the airport. Fuck that shit." But I didn't choose to stay here. I chose to veer from the path.
Some time earlier, back at the hotel when I was browsing the web on free Wi-Fi looking for clues about the Chinese language, I clicked on a mysterious link titled "Scammed in Shanghai," and I began to get scared. There were other such links, with people warning travelers that there are lots of "friendly" Chinese people who were really only looking to scam foreigners who didn't know any better. At that time I began to think to myself "Was I scammed? Was that friendly girl at the airport lobby who showed me the hotel nothing but a con-woman?" Could be. Then I remembered all those times the "deaf" and "hungry" people tried to get me to give them money. If they could freely roam the airport without security or the police saying anything, could it be possible that there are scammers trying to screw over foreigners right here in the airport? But then I began to reflect on other things that happened. I met some very friendly, very hospitable people who could have given me food for free had I not insisted on paying. An old man gave me a cigarette. Another old man gave me a ride. The guy at the Muslim place almost gave me a free Coke. Maybe I was scammed 88 yuan by that cute girl. But maybe it was worth it to see all the things I did, to have all the experiences I had. To be put in this unique situation of having to learn Chinese.
As I walked to the end of the road into Terminal 2, I thought to myself, that all in all, perhaps it was a good thing that I didn't stay at the hotel in the airport. Perhaps had I stayed at this hotel, I wouldn't have met the kind people I did, eaten the delicious food that I did, behold the interesting sights that I did. In a strange way, I'm glad I veered from this "Middle Road," both physically and symbolically.
I think that perhaps I connected with people in ways I can't even understand. I feel placing myself in that unsafe, vulnerable position, I have allowed people whom I don't even know, people who don't even share the same culture with me, to touch my life, and I'm sure that somehow, I touched theirs. A stranger in a strange land, I was able to view the world from the perspective of a scared, lost child, and others had the experience of helping someone who was helpless without their aid. I was glad to be helped, and I'm sure they felt something for helping me get some of the basic things in life; food, direction, and the feeling that everything was going to be OK, that there are people interested in giving these things to me. The experiences I have had on my brief stay here have made me a new man, and I'm grateful for them.
The Familiar and the New
Approaching the end of the Middle Way, I began to see all the different aisles of check-in counters, and I saw a familiar aisle E, where United had theirs. People were lining up for the next flight, which I assume had to be mine, so I line up also. Waiting there, in line for a check-in counter, some people start approaching those who were lined up with familiar cards that read "I'm deaf. Could you please donate to my cause?" Those people had the tenacity of going down the line and asking each and every customer for money. And there wasn't just one person. There had to have been a dozen people or so scouring the airports for money, looking for people who had some yuan they wanted to get rid of. I decided I'd give one of them a 5 yuan note. As soon as I did, the person asked me to write the amount I gave on this card with my signature. I could see other people donated to his cause, which I guess made me feel better to think I wasn't the only one. Somehow, in my mind, I thought this person wasn't deaf, and the money wasn't for any important cause. But I decided to do it anyway, because why not? What am I going to do with spare yuan in the US or Japan? I don't see myself coming back in the foreseeable future. Enjoy your yuan, kid. Another person started coming down the line not too long after that. But I couldn't give anymore. 5 yuan. That was it. No more. I had none.
When I get to the check-in counter, a staff member asks for my passport. The person, in broken English tells me, "Sir, this is flight to San Francisco. You fly Newark right? Please come back 2 more hour." I said "OK, thank you!" I was glad to walk away. At the very least he found my name in his roster, and he didn't say anything ominous like "Uh oh... It looks like you don't have special visa" or something like that. I went over to the waiting lounge to continue writing this story. But before that, restroom. I need to use the restroom. After a long ride, a long walk, a long wait at that line, I felt I could use a bathroom break. On my way there, I see a lady who I think I saw yesterday on my way to the "Business Center." She uttered the same lines in English I had heard before "Sir, excuse me, but I'm hungry. Could you give me some money?" I said, "No, I'm sorry, I can't," as I rushed past her into the restroom. I thought "Geez. She's still here? She can't possibly still be hungry. Why is she all the way out in an airport trying to get money for food? I don't have any money, and if I did, I don't think I'd want to give her any. She sounds like a complete fraud." So I do my business and come back out.
I'm walking out the restroom, the lady from before is still at the door. Was she waiting for me? I walk right past her, but she tries to grab me. "Sir?" I say "Yes?" "Please, I'm hungry." I ask her "How much do you need?" She says "30 yuan. Do you have 30 yuan?" Thinking to myself "She's naming a price? No! Beggars can't be choosers." Had she said "Anything you can help me with is fine," maybe I would have considered digging into my wallet to see if by any chance I had some left over yuan. I tell her "Sorry, I'm all out of yuan. I only have American money." She tells me "I'll take American money." OK, now I know she's some sort of scam artist. I say "Sorry," slightly bowing and I try to walk away. This woman clings onto me as I try to walk away saying "Please, please! I'm hungry! Please..." I do not feel sorry for her in the slightest and keep walking. She finally lets go at some point I don't know when.
All this time I was thinking "Psh. She has got to be lying. Perhaps every person in here begging for money is." At the same time though, I thought to myself, she must have really needed money, and she must really be at the end of her rope, if she has to resort to begging people for money, and wasn't afraid of being embarrassed of becoming a spectacle at such a public facility as an airport. This must be her job. Perhaps the lady couldn't get a job doing anything else. Perhaps China's system has driven her to do something like this and she couldn't help herself. You gotta do what you gotta do to get the bare necessities of life. In a strange way, I do wish there was something I could have done to help. But then again, if I helped this one person, I'd have to help everyone, and I couldn't do that. This woman, all the people begging at this airport, are possibly the symptom of a bigger problem that China as a country needs to address.
So I finally find a place to sit, and I whip out my iPad and continue writing this. I want to find a place where I could type and charge at the same time, because the battery on my iPhone was running out, and I need it charged to contact my family, my friend, and get a Lyft once I arrive in Richmond. I feel lucky to find this schweet lucky spot next to a charging booth where people could plug in their phones and stuff for charging. I plug in my iPhone, set it on the short, small table in between the seats, right next to the other phones plugged in, and sit down. Meanwhile, the man sitting across from me, the other nice corner next to the charge station, takes an electric shaver, plugs it in and starts shaving right then and there. However, this older man comes back and tries to tell me in broken English "Excuse me, but this my seat." I think the man had also had the same idea as I did; he had plugged his phone in, and perhaps left to get some water or use the restroom. I apologize and move over to the next seat to let him sit down. I didn't mind; I could still type and charge at the same time.
Not too long after that, the person sitting right across from him on the other side of the table with our phones on it (the guy who was shaving) gets up, unplugs his phone and leaves. Immediately the old man gets up, sits down in the now vacant seat and motions me to sit where I had intended to sit originally. What a kind, thoughtful man! I must have typed a good while. The man gets his luggage, gets up and leaves for a while, but then he comes back and sits down, but this time next to me, as his previous seat was now occupied by someone else. I hadn't noticed this until he calls to me. At the time, I felt some stranger on my left was trying to talk to me, but I was pleasantly surprised that it was a person I had seen before.
The old man asks me "Where you from? 哪国人?" (Nǎguórén?) I tell him "我是美国人." (Wǒ shì Měiguó rén. I'm from America.) He seems to be happy and excited I'm trying to use Chinese. "美国!" (Měiguó! America! ) I simply smile. "America good country," he says. I say "不, 不! Trump 不好!" (Bù, bù ! Trump bù hǎo! Trump is not good.) I look up "I'm sorry" in the Chinese phrase book I had written out earlier at the hotel. I say "Trump, 对不起." (Trump, duìbùqǐ. I'm sorry about Trump.) He says "No, no! No need. America is good country." I say "China is a good country too. Look!" I show him my phrase book "I'm trying to learn Chinese." He takes it and looks it over. He laughs lightly at the basic, simple Chinese I'm trying to teaching myself, and gives it back. "Why you come to China?" the man asks. "Actually, I live in Japan." I try to speak Chinese. "我在日本. 现在我去美国." (Wŏ zài Rìběn. Xiànzài wŏ qù Měiguó." Feeling maybe my Chinese was mistaken, I'm certain it was, I repeat myself in English "I live in Japan. I'm going to America. I'm also studying Japanese, see? (My phrase book also has some Japanese in it.) "日本!" (Rìběn! Japan!) He says. I say "我学习日本语、学习中文." (Wǒ xuéxí Rìběnyǔ, xuéxí Zhōngwén. I study Japanese and Chinese.) "我的中文不好, (Wǒ de Zhōngwén bù hǎo. I'm not good at Chinese) but I want to study more." I look at my watch and it looks like two hours had gone by. I tell the man "I have to go. My flight leaves soon." I grab my phone, put my charger in my bag, and I grab my luggage. I look back and I tell the man, "谢谢 (xièxie), Thank you for earlier!" He says "不客气!" (Bú kèqi! That's "You're welcome," in Chinese.)
On My Way, But China Still
I get back to the long line for the United check-in counter, and after being accosted 3 more times or so for money, I'm finally attended by the staff. The staff takes my passport with a smile, scans it, slaps a label on my luggage, gives me my tickets for my next flights, and I was good to go. There was only immigration, and one more security checkpoint left before arriving at the gate for my flight out of China. Those go smoothly, and I'm finally at the waiting lounge for the gate where I would board the jumbo jet that would fly me to America, where I would take one more flight to Richmond. The waiting lounge is strangely quiet. No music. Just the quiet hum of fans and air conditioners. People waiting to leave were all quiet. I want to get a drink of water before sitting down. I find a water dispenser right next to a vending machine selling SIM cards. It's strange, but all the water dispenser seems to offer is hot or warm water, not cold. Also, it's not like a water fountain at airports back home; it's a dispenser, complete with cups. I settle for warm water. At this point my mouth was getting dry and anything would do. On my way to the gate waiting area, I notice that the name of the SIM card company is something like "Snail Mobile." Not exactly the name of a company I'd like to purchase mobile phone products from.
When the time comes for passengers to board the plane, the gates open and I'm boarded without a hitch. Because I'm flying on a rescheduled flight, I don't exactly know what kind of seat I'm getting. When I board the plane, I'm slightly delighted I'm getting one of those seats close to an emergency exit. And I say "slightly" because the drawback to that was that my seat was the middle one in the row. The leg room is great, but not being able to lean on the window is kind of a bummer, especially on a long flight on seats that barely recline. I put my carry-on luggage in the overhead compartment and I sit down, accepting the compromise because hey! At the very least I'm flying out of there without having to pay any extra charges. I had a great adventure, AND I'm going to make my friend's wedding! What more could I ask for? More well-behaved passengers, that's for sure.
So I'm sitting in my middle seat in the row front of the emergency exit, and the plane staff is running around trying to get everyone situated. All passengers had two or more carry-on baggage items, and they all wanted to put them in the overhead compartments. In between sitting people down and stuffing luggage above, the staff comes to our row to confirm that in case of an emergency, we're expected to help. We're all happy to oblige, and the staff concentrates on sitting people down. It's simply incredible to me the audacity with which some Chinese passengers behave. It is clear that the plane is on a schedule, everyone must be seated and their luggage properly stowed before the plain could take off, but clearly some people couldn't be any less concerned with that. Some passengers were insisting on having their roll-on carriers right next to their seat, right in the middle of the aisle. The staff would try to tell them and gesture in Mandarin that their luggage must be properly stowed above, or elsewhere, and some passengers would outright just start yelling at the staff, and since I can't understand, I can only assume they were protesting or yelling obscenities, as if to say "What do you *mean* I can't have my luggage with me! My luggage is staying right here beside me. It's not moving." "I'm sorry ma'am, but you can't have that luggage there during the flight. You must stow it above, or we can stow it in a different room for you," I could imagine the flight attendant saying.
Finally, we're all situated and ready for take-off. It took some work, but we're finally ready. As the captain makes an announcement, and the flight attendants dutifully explain the safety features of the plane, I'm sitting there thinking to myself "This Chinese adventure is almost over. Only 14 more hours before I can say it truly is, because now I have to survive the flight with scores of Chinese passengers." The captain was explaining in English AND Chinese, that seats were to be put in their default, upright position for take-off, and to turn off all electronic devices until the plane had finished its ascent. And what were the passengers doing? Most of them were already reclining, letting their children play with mobile devices. Once again, the flight attendants have to fight with the passengers to have them do as the captain just said. You could see them walking around from chair to chair asking the passengers to comply, and once again, you can hear the angry protest of those passengers who did not want to be instructed what to do. "Geez! Are these people crazy? I must be in the friggin' twilight zone!" I thought to my self. Every single thing the captain said, it seems passengers wanted to do the exact opposite. To make things worse, the captain announces mid-air that it seems the entertainment system on the plane is broken, and that there will be no entertainment for the flight. This is going to be a long, long flight.
14 long hours elapse, and now it seems we are arriving at our final destination in Newark. I couldn't wait to finally be stepping on US soil. But the flight is not yet over. We still need to land, go through customs and I still need to make another connecting flight. But this is the one plane I seriously just want off ASAP. As the plane makes a smooth touch down, I feel excitement to feel the wheels finally make contact with the runway below. I clap my hands with joy. "Yay!" I say out loud. The passengers on either side of me look at me funny. Finally the plane slows down and the captain makes his final announcement. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived... blah, blah, blah." I breathe a sigh of relief. "Please keep your seat belts fastened, and do not get up until the plane has arrived at its designated gate, and has come to a complete stop." And what do the Chinese passengers do? I'll leave that up to the reader to imagine. Once the doors of the plane finally open, people all push and shove to get out, and at long last, I'm shat out of that plane, ever eager to move on to the next stage in my trip. I still have one more connection flight to make, but thus ends my interesting Chinese adventure.