Thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway! I loved reading your stories about unusual foods that you have tried. Apparently my family has a tendency to try possum. You might be from Arkansas if… The winner of the giveaway is Sara Thomas! Congrats!!
Fourteen hours. I had just spent 14 hours on a plane and many more hours traveling. Really for such a long flight it had not been terrible. I am tired, sure, but mostly I am excited as I clear Chinese customs and walk expectantly into the chaos of the Shanghai airport. I run over the previous day’s itinerary in my mind, trying to make sense of the time change:
3 am in Oregon: I reluctantly wake from an all too short slumber in order to get ready for my first flight.
5:30 am: After a friend drops me off, I quickly make my way through check-in and security at the Medford airport (oh the wonders of a small airport). I desperately seek coffee.
6:30 am: My flight to LA takes off.
8:45 am in LA: After an uneventful 2-ish hour flight I arrive at LAX. I get lost trying to find the correct terminal while navigating the multiple construction zones. But I eventually make it to the appropriate destination in sufficient time to consume another dose of caffeine prior to boarding.
11:00 am: I blissfully discover that the flight is about half full and the seat next to me will be empty. Win!
I spend the next 14 hours trying to sleep, wearing sadly necessary and entirely unfashionable compression socks to prevent my ankles from swelling, eating mediocre food (although there was edamame and a quite delicious brownie), reading, and listening to hoarded podcast episodes. I cross multiple time zones and the International Date Line. The flight is always in sunshine. Hoping for more than fitful sleep is probably optimistic despite the combination of exhaustion, melatonin, and wine.
4:05 pm in Shanghai/1:05 am in Oregon/22 hours since I have really slept: I arrive tired, but rather proud that I survived my first solo international flight.
4:45 pm: I make it through customs, not a small feat considering the only word I know in Chinese is ni hao (hello).
As I review this in my head, I cannot help but be mildly impressed with myself. Now all that is left is to locate my friend, Candi, who is picking me up from the airport.
As the glass doors open to the crowded line of people waiting outside of international arrivals, I begin scanning the crowd for signs of Candi, my cousin Justin, and their two kids, Jobie and Junie.
“Hmmm,” I think after failing to find them waiting among the crowd, “I can’t believe I missed them. Almost everyone waiting is Chinese – certainly they will stand out. Maybe they are waiting further down.”
I walk up and down the terminal, heavy luggage and fatigue in tow.
As someone who has made significant efforts to become a more efficient packer, I was unaccustomed to dragging around a checked bag weighing 49.99 pounds. Not to mention my carry-on, into which I had put the heavy stuff like, you know, a tortilla press and almond bark. What? Doesn’t everyone carry a tortilla press in her luggage when flying internationally? As I continue to walk around the terminal, both my anxiety and the perceived weight of carrying luggage weighed down with gifts from family in the US and items that are hard to find (or prohibitively expensive to buy) in China progressively increased.
I could not find them.
“Maybe I somehow missed them. Or maybe they went to the other terminal. I know I should probably stay in one spot in case we are missing each other, but I feel like I should keep looking for them.”
As I continue to repeatedly traverse the shop-lined and well-lit terminal, briefly venturing past the airport train station and across to the other terminal, I am repeatedly accosted by seemingly friendly individuals offering help and directions.
“Sim card? Taxi? Hotel?” they ask.
“No thank you, I’m waiting on a friend,” is my repetitious response, said in a mildly harsh and increasingly frazzled tone of voice, worried that, like sometimes happens at airports, these offers are some type of scam.
Despite my less than kind demeanor, several people offer to place a phone call to my friend. An incredibly nice offer and one likely to be helpful, if only I had thought to write down her Chinese phone number. I wryly recall the conversation we had previously wherein a statement along the lines of “I’m sure there won’t be any problems picking you up at the airport” was made. Oh fate, how we tempted you!
It is now 6 pm, over an hour since I had initially exited customs. I am tired, alone, and entirely uncertain about what to do next. My shoulders ache, I am nervously sweating, and I can feel myself about to cry.
The only reasonable next step is to go to Starbucks. Located in the terminal to the right of the exit from customs, the iconic green sign and familiar decor are a momentary, if futile, beacon of hope. Like misplaced objects recovered in a lost and found bin, if Candi and I cannot find each other, surely our mutual obsession with coffee would lead us both to Starbucks.
Alas, there is no Candi at Starbucks. I decide to wait there “just in case she arrives,” but the reality is, I simply want to be still. I attempt to connect to Wi-Fi, to no avail because to access it requires a code to be texted to my phone.
I stand, trying to look inconspicuous and somewhat confident, rather than like someone who is hopelessly alone in an airport in China, like someone who is trying desperately not to cry. For twenty minutes, I do nothing but stand, finally accepting that the people picking me up from the Shanghai airport – the only people I know in a country of over a billion people who speak what is, to me, an incomprehensible language – were not there. I had not just missed them. They were not just running a few minutes late. They are not here and I have no way to contact them and no ability to search the Internet for a Plan B.
Because for once in my life I have no Plan B.
I alternate between berating myself for being so careless and feeling quite sorry for myself. I unsuccessfully attempt to use international roaming to send a message through WeChat – a messaging app commonly used in China and through which I typically communicated with Candi.
I briefly despair.
And then I remind myself that I have, in fact, survived much more challenging situations. I have even felt far more isolated and alone than I do at this particular moment. I take a few deep breaths, spend a few moments mindfully observing the activity in the terminal, and then I begin walking again (because, let’s be honest, a single, white girl standing outside an airport Starbucks in China is anything but inconspicuous despite my best efforts).
I begin to problem-solve as well as someone can after 24 hours of travelling.
“I wonder how expensive it would be just to buy a plane ticket home right now? But that would be quitting and I really want to see China. And my friends! Plus, what would I blog about? I haven’t done anything else exciting lately. So, buying a ticket home is not an option. Maybe I should just go to the airport hotel desk, get a room, take a shower and a nap, and figure it out from there. Hmmm, not a terrible idea. I can’t believe this is happening to me! Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.”
About this time, I pass for the third time one of the ladies proffering sim cards, taxis, and hotels.
“You have not found friend?” she inquires with a genuinely concerned look on her face.
“No, I have not,” I stop to respond, the feeling of defeat apparent in my anxious face and stooped shoulders.
“You have phone number?”
“No, I do not,” I admit, again embarrassed by my lack of foresight.
“WeChat? You can buy sim card!” she hopefully suggests.
And that is when I find my solution. After inquiring about the price (100 Yuan – about $15; I am willing to pay much, much more) and accepting that perhaps my credit card information will be stolen in front of my eyes (a problem that can be addressed later if necessary because at this point I am desperate), I purchase a sim card, which she expertly puts into my phone. Moments later, I am reading Candi’s WeChat message:
“Hey I’m so sorry. We might be late. Our driver got in an accident so we have to deal with all of that junk! If you don’t see me when you arrive find the Starbucks and we will meet you there.”
I would later find out that the driver they had hired (because it was a relatively inexpensive, safer, and ostensibly easier option than the train at night) also took much longer than was necessary to drive to Shanghai, not even considering the accident. At the moment though, I feel nothing but relief. And perhaps a little smug about having correct instincts about Starbucks.
Candi, her friend Melissa, Jobie, and Junie find me waiting outside the Starbucks at 7:30, more than 3 hours after my flight landed in China. I am thrilled to see them, ready for my trip to really begin.
But, because this is China, my story does not quite end with a quick and easy trip to Shaoxing. All five of us, the driver, and my luggage (which is, as you may remember, not a small amount because it is lovingly packed with things from the US for Candi and Justin) must fit into the car. As we arrive at the car, we realize that because of the wreck, the trunk will not open. Our only option is to pile all of the luggage and other miscellaneous items into the front seat and for the three adults and two children to pile into the back seat. It should be apparent that China does not require seat belts, much less car seats.
The backseat is warm and surprisingly cozy despite bony legs and squirmy children. We talk about our mutually eventful days, discuss some of the things I can do while in China, and I stare out the window at an unfamiliar place. I marvel at my inability to find anything recognizable in the street signs, I wonder about what kind of life the people around me live and how it is different from mine, I feel grateful and amazed that within 24 hours I can fly across the world and be in a new place. I eventually doze as we make the 2.5 hour drive back to Shaoxing.
A little before midnight, we arrive at the university where Candi and Justin live and teach. The campus is dark and quiet due to the students’ 10 pm curfew. I gaze intently into the darkness and anticipate what I will see the next day when it is light. My luggage is soon taken upstairs to their apartment and I get my first glimpse into life in China. I am excited to imagine the possibilities of the day and week ahead. But at that moment, more than anything, I really want to take a shower…