Chapter 8

Reflections in the air

China Eastern Airlines is no Cathay Pacific. As we reached cruising altitude, I began to notice the differences between my previous flight to Singapore and the one I was on now. The flight was a full one, the seats seemed smaller, the food and beverage service was not nearly as good, and I began to realize that this would not be a relaxing 19 hours to Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport. 

Sitting next to me on the left row of seats was a young couple who were on their way back to Wuhan, where Jing was from and her American fiancé, Jeremy, was an English teacher. They were returning from celebrating Christmas in southern Illinois with Jeremy’s family. I marveled at how many times in the past eighteen months I had met others who were teaching English abroad. 

Beginning with Emmy who first planted the idea in my head back in 2015, I encountered perhaps another dozen intrepid adventurers who left their home countries to make at least a temporary life in another country working in classrooms sharing their knowledge of their mother tongue. Included in this number was a guy from New Zealand who I hosted for a couple of days. 

Nick was teaching English in Moscow, and he had told me some pretty interesting stories of his life there. Julia, from Boston, who ended up becoming my final roommate when she moved to Chicago right after Labor Day 2016. She had recently returned from teaching the language in Japan, and had nothing but encouraging things to say about her experience.

It was as if the Universe or whatever had been placing people in my path, guiding me to what now seemed an inevitable decision to leave my familiar existence behind and venture off into a world that I knew very little about. Meeting Jeremy and Jing helped to cement the idea that I was on the correct bearing and to allay most of the remaining fears of what lay ahead for me. This, coupled with the words of the soothsayer in New Orleans, which I now desperately wanted to believe, I felt certain I was on my way to where I was supposed to be. 

Flying west across the Pacific is generally flying into the past, then abruptly into the future. When we crossed the International Date Line somewhere over the Church Sea between northern Alaska and Russia, we passed from December 30 to New Year’s Eve instantaneously. About halfway through the first leg of the trip, I was spending my time watching movies on the screen in front of my seat while Jeremy and Jing slept, embracing each other. It was such a sweet sight that I forced myself to hold my bladder at bay until they woke up so as not to disturb them. 

When they did begin to stir, I apologetically slid past them to go find the toilet. I needed a good stretch, too. Near the amidships galley, there were a few other westerners standing and chatting in my native language. I joined them to help give my seat mates a bit more private time, and to keep myself awake. I was attempting to beat the jet-lag and adjust to the time zone that I would be entering. 

Sipping a cup of hot coffee supplied by one of the flight attendants, I took my turn explaining the reasons for my trip to the other three people standing next to the bulkhead. Sure enough, one of them, the lone woman in the group, was also teaching English at a small school in a Chinese province I had never heard of. 

I remember asking her age, and she was in her late 20s, which was at the higher end of the demographic of the other teachers I had met. I was halfway through my 49th year. Most of these “kids” were literally half my age. I would guess that all of them possessed at least a bachelor’s degree from university. This made me a bit of an outlier. But I decided not to let that bother me right now. 

When we touched down in Shanghai, it was about 7:30pm. I was facing a 14-hour layover before my next flight to Bangkok the following morning. Getting through customs itself took quite a while and I was quite disappointed to learn that I was required to retrieve my luggage from the baggage claim area, then re-check it in for the Bangkok flight. 

Trying to locate and grab my suitcase and backpack off the carousel was a chore, because everyone crowded around the moving belt like they were watching a cockfight. I helplessly witnessed my suitcase going around twice before I was able to muscle my way into the crowd and grab it before it took the long, circuitous journey one more time.

Of course, the check-in counter was closed until morning, forcing me to pay to store my suitcase and large backpack. I was propositioned by a local man who told me that the bag storage was prohibitively expensive, and that it would be cheaper to book a local hotel and take the free shuttle there instead. But I’ve been conned before, so I told him I’d let him know if the bag storage idea didn’t work. I was correct. He was playing me.

Then came the issue with paying for the storage. It was cash only, and the only cash I had was Benjamin Franklins, which didn’t work as well for paying for things over there. They liked pictures of different guys on their currency. So began the ordeal of trying to get RMB, or Chinese Yuan, to pay the fee. The currency exchange booth shut down early, the ATM next to it only worked for Shanghai bank cards, my new Chase Sapphire Visa card didn’t work in the upstairs international ATM (and the toll-free international number on the back of the card wasn’t in service), so I finally just swiped my debit card and took out 300 Chinese RMB (yuan), foreign transaction fees be damned.

I had been in the airport for over two hours at this point, and was way behind my schedule to meet up with another couchsurfer who had connected with me online a few days before. Ming, from Taiwan, had a similar lengthy layover and I had hoped that she would join me to meet a couple of friends of mine who lived in Shanghai for a late dinner. However, those hopes were dashed when I discovered that the trains would stop running long before we would have been able to make a return to the airport. I was still a bit of a neophyte at international travel. 

The next “emergency” I encountered was finding out that my internet access was extremely limited, even with the airport WiFi. China blocks Google, Facebook, and a few other websites and applications. This rendered my Android phone, which operated on Google Chrome, practically useless. There was no way for me to contact Ming to try to meet up in the international terminal. 

Disappointed, I walked until I located a fairly empty area of seating and began to unroll my small inflatable sleeping pad and camping blanket which I had used successfully in airports in the past. Then my phone chimed an unfamiliar sound. It was Ming. She had found me on the WeChat app, which everyone in the most populated country in the world uses for almost everything in their lives. I had forgotten that I installed it to connect with my friends who were living there. 

She had just gotten a cab ride to a hotel not too far from the airport, and asked if I wanted to share the room with her. Laying on a floor in a public area versus a comfortable hotel bed with hot shower facilities was not even up for consideration. I repacked my sleeping kit and walked out to the taxi stand, showing the driver the location on my phone. 

As we set off on the 15-minute ride, I cracked the window for some fresh air. Then I closed it almost as quickly. Shanghai had a horrible stench. The only places that I recall that smelled as bad in my experience were Elizabeth, New Jersey and Panama City, Florida when the paper mill was operating. 

When the cab dropped me off, Ming met me at the hotel check-in counter. I gratefully gave her my half of the payment, then took a long, hot, relaxing shower to wash off the previous day’s travel funk. I stepped out of the bathroom wearing fresh clothes, with about five minutes to midnight.

There wasn’t a mini-bar in the room, so my new friend and I made do with the two complimentary bottles of water and did the requisite “cheers” as the clock took us from 2016 into 2017. We forwent the obligatory kiss, and instead went out into the new year to find a nearby noodle shop that was still open, and to our delight, also serving beer. 

We returned to our room and separate queen-sized beds, staying up talking until about 2am. I woke up three hours later to shower again and go back to the airport, as I needed time to collect my bags and check in two hours before boarding. Ming was still soundly sleeping, so instead of waking her, I wrote a goodbye note on the steamed-up bathroom mirror, hoping she would be able to read it after her own shower. I never found out if that worked or not. 

When I was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, this situation would have gotten me kicked out of the religion. The leadership is so obsessed with sexual ‘sin’ that they simply cannot accept that platonic relationships really exist. If a man and a woman who are not married or very closely related spend the night alone in the same house or room, it is assumed by a judicial committee that  sexual sin must have taken place. Denials by either or both parties will be met with extreme skepticism.

After leaving all of that behind, I eventually hosted many single women travelers in my apartment without even a hint of romantic interest or entanglements. My very first guest was a Chinese woman living and working in Switzerland who had come to Chicago for a conference. 

I will admit that I felt a bit strange about hosting her due to the years of conditioning I received informing me of the dangers of being alone with a member of the opposite sex. But nothing happened, it wasn’t awkward, and I was soon able to dismiss that ingrained religious programming.

After arriving at the airport, collecting my bags and getting through the ticketing counter was a breeze. Then I completely failed at being a traveler as I passed through security. Though I did a great job unpacking my laptop and tablet to be scanned separately and removing my belt and jacket (shoes weren’t a requirement there), I proceeded not once, not twice, but three times to set off the scanner. I forgot that I was wearing an RFID-blocking money belt, forgot my cell phone and wallet, and forgot the change jingling around in my front pocket. I thought the Chinese TSA-equivalent lady was going to brain me with her wand.

I still had about 40 yuan left to spend, and so I grabbed a nice breakfast in one of the airport cafes, joined at the table by a delightful young woman from Hong Kong, who was living in NY while going to university. Yu, as her name turned out to be, hadn’t said anything to me, but then let on that she spoke English when she had to translate to me the question from the waiter, “tea or coffee?” 

We began discussing what we both liked about Hong Kong, where she was headed to visit family and friends, and about New York, where she didn’t like the pizza. 

After boarding, I had planned to catch up on sleep as soon as we left the tarmac, but I was unable to do so immediately because of the inflight entertainment happening live in front of me. 

The passengers on the airplane from Shanghai to Bangkok were mostly Chinese mainlanders, and many of them were obviously first-time flyers. I watched in amusement as the flight attendants repeatedly had to tell some of them to buckle their seats and put their window shades up before taxiing to the runway. Once everyone was cooperating, the crew strapped themselves into their jump seats to prepare for the forceful acceleration down the tarmac before the pilot pulled back on the yoke to rotate the craft into the skies.

My seat mates, however, were westerners with at least some flying experience. But the smelly couple sitting beside me in the exit row of the plane promptly kicked off their shoes and passed out as soon as the flight attendant finished asking us if we were able to assist in an emergency. 

The two European idiots across the aisle proceeded to pull out a large container of Baileys Vanilla/cinnamon-flavored Irish Cream and began swigging directly from the bottle. They went completely unconscious in flight, not even noticing the fat Chinese man with the short legs and big fanny-pack who later had to climb over them to get to the aisle. It was almost comical to watch, but god help us if we had had to ditch the plane, because I believe this was the most useless group of adults in an emergency exit row that I had ever seen.  

Nobody else seemed to understand or care about the safety rules of flight either, because more than one person actually unbuckled their safety belts and began trekking uphill towards the lavatories while we were still in a steep climb to altitude.

I waited for the flight attendant to go apoplectic, but she just calmly grabbed the microphone and said something in Mandarin, then continued sitting in her jump seat smiling sweetly while she stared daggers until the wayward passengers finally made it back to the safety of their seats. 

I remember looking down over the mountains as we passed over southern China, Laos, and into Thai airspace. I pulled out my phone and began to write a blog post to be uploaded later when I was connected to the internet. Then I waited in eager anticipation when the pilot announced we were beginning our descent to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, where my friend Titima would be meeting me with her car after I passed immigration and baggage claim.

The plane touched down at 12:30pm on New Years Day, 2017. A fitting day for me to begin my next new life.