There was no sadness in leaving China; that is, I was ready to leave. Six days in China now seem like enough to last me a lifetime.
To be fair, I wasn’t well versed in Chinese history or culture upon my arrival. I knew a little about the emerging economic power, extraordinary population, and the national framework of communism. What I had never thought to study about though, was the interpersonal and intercultural communication practices of the Chinese with foreigners, and particularly people of the African diaspora.
My reflections on China, nor in any foreign land, are in no way meant to essentialize an entire population. They are just reflections on my personal experiences.
Arriving in Shanghai felt like arriving in any other city, yet there was a certain stiffness to the air—literally. Semester at Sea advised us on issues of air quality throughout China, but stepping off the ship and experiencing it organically was the only way to truly understand just how much of an environmental issue it is.
Off the ship, we immediately headed out to find an ATM and currency exchange places. In some ports the terminal provided a currency exchange desk. This was not the case here. Most banks, and all the currency exchange venues we passed, were closed in observation of the Chinese New Year. Lack of access to currency was a consistent theme and challenge throughout my time in China. Considering the substantial role of China in the global economy, I couldn’t quite understand why many establishments did not accept international credit cards.
After eventually finding some cash, we headed to an area called the Bund. It was a rather nice walkway on the water, with several vendors and stores around the area. This is where I could most appreciate some of the technological beauty of Shanghai. On both sides of the Bund, which was split by water, sat skyscrapers. Many of them were designed in unique shapes and contours that I had never seen before. The Bund offered an incredible skyline, but my experience was dampened in that I began to feel like an animal.
Everyone stared at us. Some tried to do so in a coy fashion, other people were very open and blatant with their acts. If I had to characterize my time in China in one theme, it would be staring. People stared everywhere. I honestly felt like an exhibit in a museum or like a tiger in a zoo.
I’m a rather open and flexible person, so I could deal with the staring at first. My friend Deja and I branched off from our bigger group to explore and to draw less attention to ourselves. We headed down a main street filled with people, malls, and festivities. We spent around an hour looking for a place to have lunch, which was a rather exhausting process. Lunch took us to a quaint spot in a mall. We chose the restaurant because we heard Justin Bieber playing in the background and assumed people in the restaurant spoke English. Our assumption was wrong, but we still managed to order.
After lunch, Deja and I went back out into the madness to do more exploring. We ended up walking a mile or two before we reached a big festival of lanterns. Many, many folks were celebrating the Chinese New Year, so we joined the crowd and proceeded to the festivities. There was little room for movement. It felt as if we were actually just gliding on air and moving with the crowd, shoulder to shoulder, body to body, as we made our way through the small allies decorated with colorful celebratory ornaments. To our surprise, we ran into some SAS friends from earlier in the day. The whole group found a corner to huddle in while we planned our next move—big mistake.
Almost immediately after linking up, we were approached by someone seeking a picture with us. In good spirit, we took the photo, but eventually people started to line up for more. We moved, and continued to browse while trying to avoid the paparazzi as much as possible.
That night, I had an interview for a fellowship I applied to: the Mount Vernon Leadership Fellowship. Throughout the day, the interview lingered in my mind. It was originally scheduled to be a video conference, but internet access in China for me was scarce at best, so we held the call via telephone. A 13-hour time difference between Shanghai and Virginia made the interview a bit challenging to schedule, but I am pretty satisfied with the end result. Even making it to the interview pool was an accomplishment for me. By the time the interview finished, I was beat. That marked the end of my first day in China.
The next day was a bit more calm. I slept in, and headed out a little before noon with my buddies Deja and Summer. We weren’t sure where we were going, but we headed to the nearest subway station anyway. After a bit of internal deliberation we settled on going to the Shanghai Zoo.
The zoo was ok at best to me; Deja hated it. I’ll admit, it wasn’t the cleanest nor did the animals look pleasant in any way. Patrons threw food and trash into the exhibits, some of the displays did not look like they were cleaned regularly, and it just gave an overall bad vibe. Generally speaking, the zoo was less-than-positive for us; by the end of the path we couldn’t wait to leave.
After the zoo we didn’t do much besides explore Shanghai some more. Finding food in China proved unexplainably difficult for us. Deja has an extremely particular diet, so finding food that fit within her dietary preferences heightened the challenge. That night, though, we went out to explore some of the nightlife. Shanghai is a big city, so I wasn’t surprised by the abundance of opportunity to dance and socialize. Following a late night, the crew and I ventured back to the hotel to wake up for a very early morning.
Off to Beijing—we met up at 5:30am and headed off to the Shanghai Hongqiao train station. Bags were scanned every time we entered a mode of transportation. Besides that, though, everything was pretty easy to navigate. Signs were clearly marked in English, and getting on the bullet train to Beijing was a simple walk on process.
Arriving in Beijing, we were immediately preyed upon by folks looking to take advantage of us as travelers. In the taxi line at the train station, we were approached by two men offering to let us skip the taxi line. However, they gestured towards a black van with tinted windows, and were clearly not associated with the registered yellow taxis lined up waiting for passengers. Not being the fools they mistook us for, we sternly declined and waited in line for a regular taxi.
Having a group of five (I now suggest groups travel in even numbers), we split into two taxis toward our hotel. I booked our room for Beijing, and we stayed at a beautiful hotel: the Grand Hotel Beijing. Weirdly, it was one of the highlights of my trip. It was a 5-star hotel at an extremely affordable price. The staff was courteous and extremely helpful. Most taxis would not stop for us—many would slow down in front of us, assess us, and then pull away. The hotel offered to call taxis for us, which proved to be a lifesaver in many situations.
After settling into our room, Alex and I decided to go explore the area around our hotel. We were just a few blocks away from the Forbidden City and Tianatnmen Square. The sites were actually rather beautiful. Bright lights illuminated Tiananmen (and yes, a giant portrait of Mao). All was good until we were approached by two women, both speaking English very well. They introduced themselves to us and we made acquaintance. At this point, Alex and I were already heading back to our hotel. The two women began to walk in that direction. Both women were in their 20s and university graduates—one of them was allegedly in town visiting her friend. She was a school teacher (teaching English, allegedly) and was in Beijing to celebrate the new year. Alex began to get comfortable with the women, and accepted their invitation to join them for dinner. As we walked towards the supposed night market, the women asked us to stop for coffee and tea with them at this local karaoke bar, and with Alex’s approval we did.
Note—I was hesitant throughout the duration of these affairs. I alluded to this hesitancy several times. But, because Alex seemed so comfortable and willing, I accompanied him. At one point one of the women uttered something along the lines of “Alex you seem so kind and friendly; Kameron you seem so serious and honest.” I laugh at this now, because I probably came off that way due to my distrust of the situation.
In the karaoke bar, we shared some tea and the ladies ordered a few drinks. We sang a bit of karaoke, and eventually the hour passed. Ready to leave, we suggested that we begin to pack up. Then the bill came. $558.32 American dollars. We were beyond confused. Apparently the wine that the two women ordered was extremely expensive. They reckoned it was a celebratory occasion, and gestured that “in China the men usually pay.” Confused and feeling betrayed, we quickly payed (to their disapproval, we split the bill four ways) and immediately jetted back to our hotel.
This situation upset Alex a bit more than me. I’ve always been a rather cautious person, and am hyper-cognizant of situations with strangers. However, this is Alex’s second voyage on Semester at Sea and he said he’s had multiple encounters like this—being approached by seemingly kind Samaritans—and they’ve all ended positively. I think this has really affected his world view, but I refused to let this ruin the trip.
I should also say that there is a possibility that these two women were not meaning to “scam” us in anyway, and that their stories were completely true. The wine was expensive because it was a special occasion (meeting new friends and the Chinese New Year). The women didn’t seem to be in on anything with the manager either, so it really could have been one unfortunate and expensive misunderstanding.
The next day brought slightly better experiences. Somehow, after a confused taxi-cab and a long train ride, we made it to the Great Wall of China at Badaling. This excursion took up most of our day, but the wall was just as magnificent as I imagined it would be. Unfortunately, we weren’t the only tourists at the wall. Because of the holiday, the wall was actually filled to capacity with visitors. We were essentially harassed for photos whenever we would stand idle, so we kept moving throughout the day. That night, though we made it to dinner at a fantastic Tibetan restaurant.
After meeting in my classes post-port, I was able to peel back some of the layers of my experience. Some folks said that many of the tourists visiting the same cultural sites as my group were actually visitors from smaller localities, and that they had different cultural behaviors than those of folks from more urban areas. This made sense, yet it didn’t ease the, to say it kindly, annoyance of the situation. One student from China told me that I should visit Hong Kong which would offer me a better experience. This may be true. Who knows? I could be back some day, but I’m not planning it anytime soon.