Upon checking out of my hotel room in Shanghai, I thought, let's try a little tracking. Let's see exactly how long it takes to go from door to door. My journey would involve: One taxi, Two Flights, One Uber, and One One World lounge.
For those of you playing along at home, yes, that's almost 25 hours of travel. Wow! And the funny thing is, a few years ago, something like this would have been mentally impossible for me. But as I thought about it on the way over (just one hour shorter), it dawned on me that they more you fly, the shorter the trips become. Meaning, after miles and miles of airports and security checks and "Flight attendants, please prepare the cabin for landing," you sort of stop noticing how long the flight is, but start looking at it as "How long am I going to be offline/unreachable?" and "How long do I have this uninterrupted time of catchup on work that I've been meaning to get to?"
The Chinese Visa
I'd like to say that my time in China was awesome. I'd like to say that I'd encourage everyone to go there. But between me and you, dear reader, this wasn't the case. I guess the first red flag (perhaps with a few golden stars?) should have been the visa application process. Not only was it cumbersome and intrusive, but the employees of the Chinese Visa Application Centre were anything but helpful.
I received the last appointment of the day, literally landing from a delayed flight in Bergen, Norway, and running to the application centre, I was a bit flustered, and when the agent asked for some further proofs, I had to access my email, a true challenge inside a building with censored internet access (e.g., getting to gmail was impossible). With the clock ticking down (and my one and only shot to apply for the visa), I politely asked an agent how the printer worked. Her response, "Instructions are on the table." Not a, "Ok, here's what you do." The impression I got was simply, "I don't give a shit about your problems or stress. It's your problem. If you don't make it in time, fuck off." Lovely.
Upon arriving in Hong Kong, I quickly discovered that Hong Kong and mainland China are two very different places. Switching on my phone, I was delighted to see that Hong Kong was covered under my Three global roaming, thus allowing me free roaming data and access to my regular favourites including Google, Instagram and Facebook. Woo hoo!
As my connecting flight to Shanghai had been canceled, having Silver Status with One World has it's advantages, and an agent was waiting for me at the gate. She led me to the transfer desk, and everything was taken care of for me, including a new boarding pass. Nice service, One World, thank you!
And then the fun began. What started out as a 2 hour delay, turned into an 11 hour one. Yeah. I should have arrived in Shanghai at 6pm that evening, plenty of time to get my bearings and catch up on some much needed sleep. At the end of the day, I finally got to my hotel at 4am, and had to be at a breakfast meeting just 3.5 hours later, and then shoot all day.
I'm not exactly sure how I did it, but that's exactly what happened.
Now on mainland China, things started to get a bit "different". Google, Facebook, Instagram ... forget about it. Not happening. And as someone who uses services like Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp to do a lot of business and personal communications, this left me completely cut off.
Beyond the censored internet, what really struck me was the cultural attitude. With over a billion people in one population, there's bound to be some crowding. I get that. But perhaps what that crowding precipitates is a, "fuck you, get out of my way," attitude. One that I experienced time and time again.
The overall sense that I picked up on was the Chinese attitude is, "do it, and if you get called on it, apologise with a sheepish and most insincere smile, and carry on."
A prime example, and this was in Hong Kong, mind you, I was in the One World lounge getting myself a drink, opening the refrigerator door. Before I could even get my hand on a can of Diet Coke, before I knew it, there was a Chinese woman directly to my left, reaching over my incoming hand and grabbing a Diet Coke off the rack. No queuing, no remorse, just simply a, that's what I want, I don't care if you're here first or using something, the door is open, I'm getting what I want, fuck you."
This attitude was expressed time and time again. The common phrase of, "We regret to inform you ... bla bla bla (insert inefficiency here) .. we apologise for any inconvenience." Bullshit.
Lost in Translation
Another series of fun moments in Shanghai were the stares. Now, I realise it's tough to be a rockstar, and that everyone wants something from you, but it got to be a bit much. The event that I was there for photographing had a well rounded mixture of Easterners and Westerners, so I didn't really stand out too much.
My day spent on the streets of Shanghai, not so much. While I had picked up on a few things in my periphery, I wanted to conduct a little experiment and see if I was just imagining it, or if it were true. I purchased a coffee at Starbucks (the only decent coffee to be found, as a latte seems to be a foreign concept (literally), and the regular coffee to be found simply tasted horrible), donned my mirrored aviator sunglasses, and had a seat on a shopping street bench.
Within the course of just one minute, I counted no less that 22 stares. And these weren't just, "Hey you look different," stares. They ranged from, "Wow, I've never seen anything like you" to "What the fuck are you doing here?" moments. As a Western Caucasian male, this is not something I'm used to, and to be honest, was a bit sobering. Meaning, this is what it must feel like to minorities everywhere. Definitely food for thought.
Every place that I travel is a new adventure. Some better than others, but always worth the effort, as life is nothing more than a series of experiences chained together. And I'm happy and proud to say that I've been to China. I've put my boots on the ground and experienced what it means to be there.
That doesn't necessarily mean that I enjoyed my time there, and while sitting drinking my coffee and counting the stares, I chuckled to myself that I really am a Westerner, and enjoy all the good (and sometimes bad) that goes with it.
That doesn't make me any better or worse a person, just like it doesn't make the Chinese experiences that I had any better or worse. Just different. What a society and culture deems as perfectly acceptable, may turn out to be, in this case, completely foreign. And vice versa.
But with every travel experience I have, at the end of the day, I still keep coming back to the distillation that we all really want the same thing at the end of the day - a good life, a better life for our children. The ability to share a laugh and love a love.
For me, Shanghai, China, was a sobering lesson in the fact that although I truly believe we do want the same thing in the end, there are vastly different opinions and ways about achieving it.