Thursday, February 11, 2010

You are where you are.

Sometimes I find myself saying, “This is China.” Usually it’s in response to someone describing yet another weird event or circumstance that one would never find anywhere else. Yesterday turned out to be “This is China” day, with one thing after another forcing that phrase to the center of my mind.

Chinese New Year is this weekend and like last year I’m on the road to get away from the holiday. Last year it was a romantic encounter in Barcelona, this year it’s a romantic encounter in the comfort of my own home. Traveling this time of year here can be maddening – it’s called the biggest migration in the human experience and I suppose that’s true with 65 million people on the move. Thankfully only 20% of those are using the airports.

A key part of the holiday is the delivery of the “Hong Bao” or “Red Envelope” to the people who work for you. In my case, that’s limited to my driver Jiang. Deciding on how much to give is a challenge because it’s said if you give too much, they lose respect for you. Too little, and they lose face. Compounding it is the incredible importance the Chinese place on numbers – if you give anything with a “4” in it; you’re essentially hoping that they will die in the coming year. “2” is good because if means companionship. “8” is happiness and “9” is longevity. “6” is okay because it’s an even number. It’s all about symmetry and aside from “9”; the odd numbers are not great. I ended up giving 2988 because it’s not too much and not too little and the numerology is fine.

As I left Jiang at the airport yesterday I handed him a custom Hopi bolo tie, engraved with the Hopi Turtle and told him that cowboys in America wear these instead of neckties. Jiang loves cowboys and often complains of being tired from staying up too late watching westerns. We had a long discussion in the car one morning about American history and the role of the cowboy, but that’s a tale for another time. Today I explained that the turtle grants long life. I also gave him a nice silver bracelet for his wife, Guo Dan. He was very grateful and even more so when I handed him the Hong Bao and told him Xin Nian Kuai Le or, Happy New Year. As I left he insisted that I give the same greeting to My Lovely Wife.

Airports in China test even the most stoic person. And of course no one would say I’m among the most stoic. Every person in line every single time I try to check in turns out to be a special case. It’s not that they are, but they make themselves such. Yesterday it was the guy with the dolly loaded with dozens of cardboard boxes – food and wine that he was bringing to his family home for the holiday. And then the woman in front of me had some sort of child’s backpack that she was bringing as a gift. It was in a plastic bag, unlabeled and unmarked and she plopped in on the conveyor as though it would be fine in that condition. After a lot of arguing with the ticket agent, and some vindictive knot tying, it was allowed to go down the belt.

The next “This is China” moment came at the end of my flight to Beijing. It is not uncommon for the Chinese to get up and start shoving their way down the aisle before the plane has even come to a stop. Normally it’s some little guy stinking of cigarette smoke who begins to weave his way up to the front. Yesterday it was a woman with a screaming baby held tight in one of those front-mounted baby packs. I’m not sure where she came from but she got stopped by my friend Mike who had been sitting across from me. He told her to stop pushing and to wait and some man behind them yelled “But she has baby.” She managed to scoot by Mike and came up against me. Now, there was nowhere to go – the door had not yet opened – so I told her in Chinese “Where are you going to go? There are too many people. You are not able” and she looked at me as though she was about to burst into tears. I was also on the receiving end of a lot of “Ugly American” looks, but it didn’t matter – there was nowhere for her to go. I just turned my back on her and let the child scream into my collar.

One of the nicer things about airline status is that my bags get tagged with an orange “Priority” label. It means that mine come down the belt first and so I get to leave the airport before everyone else. The luggage from our plane came down the belt much slower than normal yesterday, no doubt due to the fact that we’d landed out on the tarmac and bused in, as well as due to an assumed shortage of baggage handlers. You see, at New Year, the average Chinese worker just walks away from their job and heads home to the country. It affects everything that happens here, and anything involving unskilled manual labor suffers the most. We stood and waited, watching all those brown cardboard boxes shooting out of the conveyor and down onto the carousel only to be grabbed by people waiting for them. A lot of mild arguments were breaking out around us as no one had bothered to mark their boxes with anything to tell them apart. Everyone was trying to verify the ownership of their box by checking it against the tiny numbers assigned to the baggage claim check. Eventually it all sorted out and the carousel stopped without delivering our bags.

Fifteen or twenty minutes later it started up again and after a last flurry of boxes (which by now made me wonder if we’d been on a cargo plane), the bags with the priority tags started to appear. Apparently on this day in China, “priority” meant “get them loaded on the plane first” and not what it was supposed to mean.

The last moment came as I returned to the hotel after a nice dinner. Marriott offers a nice deal for people like me who hate sleeping on down pillows – a “feather free” room. Normally this means reasonably comfortable foam pillows. Last night it meant cubes of egg-crate closed cell foam with a consistency just short of Styrofoam. I tried to use one, even falling asleep for a bit before awakening and realizing there was no way. I turned on the lights, scavenged the room and built a composite pillow out of a throw pillow from the couch and a bolster pillow that was stored in the closet. How someone ever thought that anyone could use the foam version was beyond me. Perhaps I’m expecting too much from a country that used to use a carved wooden table for that purpose. I don’t know, but one thing that is plain as day – “This is China.”

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