The Nissan transport van took a slight right to exit the freeway and we continued down the off-ramp at the same speed, which from what I could see was about 80 kilometers per hour. As we careened towards the intersection that displayed a green light, the driver was honking the horn like a mad woman. As I felt the vehicle slow down slightly, I finally exhaled; the relief was short lived as I made out why the driver was beeping as if to say “Clear the way! We have no brakes!”. The intersection was a free-for-all. Cars, trucks, bicycles, motorbikes, and pedestrians were crossing from the opposite direction in between the vehicles that were turning in front of us, much like a daredevil game of Crossfire with humans and vehicles instead of small steel balls. The driver continued to honk, while slowing down to 45 kilometers per hour. As we made our looping left turn, we narrowly avoided colliding with two pedestrians, a motorbike and two cars that abruptly stopped just short of our path, along with an old man on a bicycle who had continued on in front of us, pedaling as if he was taking a lovely ride along a beach boardwalk. The driver then slammed on the brakes as we entered a huge stop and go mass of traffic.
The driver edged up on the far right shoulder of the three lane road, cutting off a car behind us, and inched by the truck in front of us, sped past and ran parallel with a human sardine can on wheels that I deciphered to be a public transit bus. Cars beeped. Trucks honked. I heard the low din of masses of people, like I was approaching a football stadium down the block. The road narrowed ahead to two lanes with street vendors and pedestrians milling about only 100 yards ahead, and yet the driver accelerated. As we approached the end of our lane, traffic stopped and we were side by side with the bus, so that each driver glared at one another accusingly. An old west showdown here in the Far East. My driver, a middle aged Chinese woman with a stern expression and hair held up in a bun with two pencils, edged forward in front of the bus at a 45 degree angle, honking the entire way, as if she was incredulous that the bus driver had not yielded to her! Maybe she was incredulous. I think she was incredulous, because she opened her window and leaned her head out to stare back at the driver. All the while we were keeping our creeping pace.
This all happened so…naturally, that I never really felt worried for my wellbeing. I was shocked, for sure, but it had the feeling of just another day in Shanghai. As we started and stopped along the street, I saw people, Chinese and only Chinese, milling and mingling about all around on each side. The left side had an open public space where there was some kind of concert, or demonstration, or I don’t know. There was a large crowd listening to a man on a stage who chanted out indecipherable phrases set to a rhythmic bass line and percussion. On my right was a wide alley lit by street lamps, which illuminated stalls and cart vendors crunched side by side with different foods and produce, along with locals moving from one to the next. It resembled a colony of ants, marching in tune to their steps and fulfilling their roles; but this was a different species from which I was accustomed, and for the time being I was being given a tour in the glass encapsulated vehicle in order to observe the peculiar patterns.
The van began a slow right turn onto a side street. Pedestrians stopped and/or jumped to the side to avoid be bumped by the van. There was a small shop with men standing outside smoking, peering at me with solemn faces, the exhaled smoke swirling around their faces, giving me a gangster impression. The street was a dead end with a five story white building on the right with illuminated neon Chinese characters running up the side. The van pulled up in front and stopped. A man smoking a cigarette took one last hit and threw it to the ground and walked to my side of the van.
Where was I? Who was this character? Did I just get scammed? Am I safe? What the hell should I do? How the hell did I get myself into this in the first place?
Ah, yes. The last question. After I had beat Chinese immigration, I retrieved my large pack from the baggage claim with no problems. I consulted an information desk where I could access wifi and was told to head to one of the airport’s restaurants. I had not made any lodging or transportation plans. My thought was to see how I felt after the marathon plane ride and determine the best course of action. I had also been connected with a friend of a friend living in Shanghai the previous day and was to check to see her response about suggestions and the possibility of crashing on her couch. I ordered a beer and set out to connect to the internet. Shit! I had only left 27 minutes of battery life. Time was of the essence. My laptop struggled to connect, facing problem after problem. Tick, tock. After getting some assistance from a waiter, I finally connected. I was sweating bullets, literally and figuratively, trying to not think about the implications of a dead laptop. I would have charged it, but I failed to purchase a power adapter to fit my U.S. plug into an Asian power outlet. I actually didn’t even consider it. Did I mention this was my first trip outside of the U.S.?
The connection was slow, but at last my email page loaded and I saw the bolded response from the acquaintance with the preview of the email stating: “Hello, Jameson! I’d be happy to offer some insight/suggestions.” I clicked on it and whispered: “Go, go, go!” Suddenly, I stared at a black screen. As the sand of the hourglass on my screen sifted from top to bottom, so too did the invisible battery life hourglass, with the last sands slipping away before the email could load.
“You fucking idiot. How could you not think of the power outlet adapter? Why did you have to run the juice down so low? Why didn’t you make some plans for Shanghai, or at least research the damn city?” I scolded myself. I felt far, far from home. The world around me felt like it was closing in, collapsing like a slow leaking punctured balloon, and folding down upon me. Anxiety, alienation, and isolation, my three unwelcome, but inevitable, companions had now joined me on the trip. I sat in a stunned, sweaty silence sipping my Kirin Ichiban. After I finished my beer, I methodically closed my laptop and returned it to its place in my daypack. I watched my hands and felt my feet push the chair from the table. I allowed my legs to lift me up, knees cracking as usual. I walked out of the restaurant, noticing how soft the carpet felt. The carpet: faint blue, red, and white squares intersected with triangles. The waiters, waitresses, business travelers, couples, and families all moved their mouths and displayed shifting facial patterns, expressions. But I didn’t discern meaning. I allowed myself to be pulled along, back down the escalator. I walked down the long corridor, looking at, but not seeing, the different signs. I about-faced and retraced my steps. I stopped. I stood. I was lost.
“Here you are right now. This sucks, there is no denying that. But it’s your reality. Accept it. Deal with it. Your positive energy is sapped, so just figure out a way to get to a hotel and rest up for Bangkok.” Private counseling.
I returned to the same information desk and asked the same woman for information on hotels. She asked me to wait a moment while she called someone. Soon another woman, an older woman, presumably an authority figure appeared and asked me to come over to her desk. She gave me a laminated sheet with two columns, bearing two choices. I looked over the sheet, but was still somewhat stunned and did not comprehend what I read.
“Would you like stay here by airport or in city?” She inquired.
“Close to the airport.”
“Three star or four star?”
“What’s the difference in price?”
“Four star is 635 Yuan. Three star is about 300 Yuan.”
“Ummm…what is that in American dollars.”
“Four star is…about $100 American dollars. Three star is about $50. You get free shuttle to airport from three star, too.”
“Okay, give me the three star.” I responded without hesitation.
“You go wait over there. I call. They come soon.” She motioned me off to the row of chairs in the middle of the atrium.
I immediately began second-guessing myself, thinking I should have just picked the four star, given the Chinese interpretation of three and four star hotels may be vastly different than mine. But before I could do anything about it, a man carrying a cellphone from the 1990s and a shoulder bag approached me. “We go”, he stated. This man led me up an elevator and out of the airport to the Nissan transport van, which was more dirt and grime gray than white, with no hotel logo or signs at all. Just a plain van with a female driver wearing a pissed-off-at-the-world facial expression. Little did I know at that time she apparently was, indeed, pissed off at the world, and I was just a new minor inconvenience to transport from point A to point B, pick up man to drop off man.
The drop off man opened the door and reached out to grab a bag. I handed him my daypack and shimmied out of the van with my large pack. He extended his arm out, palm up, towards the entrance to the white building, apparently my hotel. I hesitantly walked into the lobby. Two men sitting on a beaten leather couch, smoking cigarettes, stared at me as I entered. A squat coffee table sat in front of them with an ashtray full of butts. A couple appearing to be my age or younger were at the counter, which was staffed with two young women in secondhand polos. The couple turned and glanced my way and said a few words back and forth, letting out a hushed laugh and turned back with smirks on their faces. The drop off man stood off to the left near the passage to get behind the desk and spoke to the receptionists and pointed to me. Everyone in the room laughed. It was the most uncomfortable wait. I launched plots of escape across the spaces of fear and worry in my head.
Should I ask for a taxi? Walk out? Ask if I was in the right place? But, no, no, just ride this out. No time to act rash. This is your reality. This is your fate. Accept it. Embrace it. Feel the awkwardness. Feel the alienation. Believe in the goodness of people and not the irrationality of your fears and worries. Now you know how it feels to be a minority in a white man’s world. You’re on the other end. This is what it feels like? My god, this is uncomfortable. I feel belittled; mocked; less than. And I can’t communicate with them; I don’t speak their language. This is their world. I am expected to sit back, remain quiet, and keep with the program. And this is just a tiny shred of the minority experience.
Compassion welled up inside of me and overtook the anxiety, the worry, the fear. This is why I am here, at this moment, right now. To experience this. To feel this. To dispel my worries, my fears. All of the work on being empathetic and cultivating openness and tolerance to others of different races and cultures…all of the work in the education field for equity…all of that shit…all of my experiences in the States had never put me here: the minority in their world, living by their rules. All of my white privilege bullshit was gone here. I was thankful for the humbling experience.
After the couple paid up, they walked past, glancing my way with those same smirks glued to their faces. I approached the desk and asked for a bed for one night. I returned the girls giggles with a smile. Both of my credit cards did not work, they said. I pushed out thoughts of being ripped off and asked if they took American dollars. They did. I paid my $50, was given a room key and directions, and off I went, laughing and smiling to myself, at myself, for being pulled into this situation, and the entire learning process that happened.
I took the elevator to the fourth floor. The halls smelled of stale cigarette smoke and floral air freshener. My room was directly to the left. I entered the room key, and opened up to walk into a narrow hall, with wood floors. I laughed throughout my entire tour of my digs for the night. Paint chipped off the walls, which also had some nice touches of water stains. Outside of the window, an enormous neon sign advertising a restaurant glowed, making me feel I was walking down the Vegas strip and not a hotel room. The bed was low to the ground and stiff, completely stiff. The bathroom had sliding glass doors, with a design of a half-nude woman on the tiles of the left wall. The shower had a thin curtain, replete with mildew stains at the bottom. The constant gurgling of water running through pipes overhead, dull roar of a large crowd, intermittent beeps and honks, and occasional shouting in the hall outside my door serenaded the room like a skid row tenement orchestral piece. I laughed as I listened and reminded myself. Roof over my head, hot water, running toilets, bed to sleep in. It’s all good.
After reading and writing a bit, I laid down in bed around 8 PM. Given all of the travel, it didn’t take long to fall asleep, even despite the neon haze and urban racket. Aside from waking up around 1:00 AM to a commotion of men and women arguing and yelling directly outside my door, and again around 3:30 AM to an itching sensation (followed by brief paranoia that there were bedbugs – there were not), I slept just fine. I woke around 5 AM and felt refreshed, and accomplished, and one thought: Well, that was an experience, man.
And then, oh shit…I fly to Bangkok today. Bangkok, Thailand! Strange journey, indeed.