ARRIVAL Sunday April 6th, 2008
We arrived to the international airport in Shanghai late afternoon. We emerged from the plane in a bit of a daze. Just as we often stood out in Africa, we also stand out in China. While I do not feel threatened or exposed, I am very conscious of the many eyes that watch me as I wait for my suitcases. Some stare in confusion, some smile shyly and others giggle and avert their gaze as I pass.
Despite the throngs of people, the airport was spotless. A pungent smell slowly unveiled the truth behind the initial appearance and I was hit by a wave of commercial bleach coupled with the odor of decaying rags. (With time we would find that – cliché, cliché – things were not always as they appeared in China.) To my right a man drinks his soda eagerly and then shakes it a bit. Empty. He tosses it to the floor and I watch, astonished, as a woman dressed in a generic issued cleaning outfit scuffles over and discreetly scoops the can into her garbage sack. While waiting for our suitcases I realize that he is not an anomaly and that many people drop their garbage on the floor, not even feigning interest in finding a wastebasket.
We swam along in a sea of people, not exerting any effort to move forward. This was slightly amusing and culturally mesmerizing until I realized that I was stuck, I had lost sight of Andy, and a stranger was grasping onto my belt buckle. Was he tickling my waist or was I being paranoid? As a New Yorker, I am not a stranger to a bit of scuffling on the streets when people are eager to arrive at their destination. In this airport however, I was taken aback by the aggressive bustling-forward-pushing-shoving-butting-and-grunting that took place. I quickly saw that the street rules that apply in New York - flash an abashed smile and mouth excuse me towards the person you pushed as you race past - do not translate, culturally or linguistically to China.
I am a character in a cartoon, simultaneously dodging elbows, suitcases, and strangers intent on passing me. I take refuge near the wall when I realize a group of migrant workers, heaving forward sacks of rice and boxes tied with twine, are barreling towards me. Children are being dragged behind, one holding onto the coat tails of the next but they dawdle upon seeing me, leading to a barrage of curt shouts from their impatient parents. They are not smiling. And in fact, I am plastered to the wall.
People in uniform mill about but their function seems limited. Does each headshake, nod and glare hold a cryptic yet authoritative meaning to which foreigners are not privy? Even those who were not wearing official costumes seemed to be officials of sort. I wandered off in search of the toilet, following the universal signs, and entered a narrow passageway towards the back of the airport. I giggled when, in the distance, I spotted a tall Aryan man who stood out just a wee bit.
Breathing deeply I felt as if I had been transported back in time to Eastern Europe during some of its darker days of communism. My shoes click clacked and for some reason, I began to walk on my tiptoes down the dank and gloomy hallway. The hallway was lined with tiny windowless offices packed with women frantically typing on their keyboards. I stood at their door for a moment but no one even glanced in my direction and I wondered if anyone had even noticed me. It was a bit surreal.
The rest room heralded three Western style toilets and three Turkish style toilets. The doors to the stalls of the three Turkish toilets were open and women were squatting and conversing with their friends, pausing occasionally to concentrate on their endeavor. I opened the stall door to one Western style toilet and a woman was crouched on top of the toilet seat, pants around her ankles. When getting a sense of the other two Western toilets I realized that her improvisation was actually quite hygienic and well, her pant cuffs would not get splashed. But, as one woman sat down in front of a squatting friend and handed her a bucket of water in a plastic orange bucket, I suddenly found myself rushing out walking backwards from the loo.
I simply shook my head at Andy since some things are better left unsaid and some images should be deleted from ones memory base. Our driver was waiting outside for us and we entered the car, ready for adventure.