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Hubris and Wonder in China, 1986 - #2 - Screaming Through a Hole in the Window

This is the second of three posts on my initial trip to China in 1986 -- light-years from the China I'm about to see in September, 2016...

Part #1: A Trio of Maps and a Challenge
This post, Part #2: "Screaming Through a Hole in the Window"
Part #3: Bobble Heads and Beijing Lessons

With our money in hand we headed out to make reservations to fly to Beijing. Our driver to the Waste Garden had told us it was very important to get the reservations right away and to be sure to go to the foreigners and diplomats line – both pieces of advice that I would never have taken during European travel. We got lost again looking for the main travel bureau, still operating under our American assumption that important things have big buildings.

The building we ultimately determined to be the main ticketing hub for all of Shanghai was tucked behind a cluster of abandoned buildings. It was a one-level, low-ceilinged building with half-dome roof tiles. When we stepped inside, it was filled, wall-to-wall, with men standing shoulder to shoulder (in matching Mao outfits of course.) There was no way to know which window to go to within the large general area and so I broke my own rule and went to the diplomats and foreigners window in the corner, the only sign in English. I bent low and talked through a hole in a plastic window to the woman to make arrangements – this was how I did all of my business in China, trying to communicate with women who were shouting at me through holes in plastic windows. To get to Beijing we had to rearrange our flight back to the US --back and forth numerous times. Had there been someone to help us translate? Did the driver help us? Doubtful. I was exhausted, riddled with anxiety over the struggle to arrange it.

But upon the successful conclusion of the reservations, they did not hand the tickets to me but motioned for us to go around to the central room, back to where we had come, into the sea of people, and wait to pay. As she passed the tickets to the women at the other counter my heart sank all – more struggle ahead. Suddenly it got worse – she told me the total price and I gulped – we were short a little bit of cash. I had no idea if any of the counters in the main room were a cambio, or money changing location, and since I was in the room that had no lines or cues there was no telling how to get from the back of the room up to one of the windows to discover if it was a place to change travelers’ checks. The prospect of going back to the Central Bank of China and then starting this whole thing over again was more than I wanted to deal with. We stood in the back of the room with easily 100 or 150 men in front of us. My traveling companion was convinced that pushing me from behind would make it possible to get to the front of the line (not understanding that queues and lines were not the way it was done in China) but all it did was increase my claustrophobia and anxiety. It seemed foolish to leave the building, to leave the crush of people. I looked around the room for cues to what I could do: the men in the room were holding their money rolled up in their fist like a little tube. The best way to get things done when traveling is to mimic the activity of people around me; and knowing that I was a little short of cash I took a travelers’ check that was worth far more than the discrepancy and put it in the center with the Chinese of bills wrapped around the outside. We didn’t seem to be moving forward despite my traveling companion’s pushing.

After about a half an hour of standing there I finally realized that the woman through the little hole in the plastic window was shouting out something that would be repeated by a man in the room who would then hold his tube of money up and rush forward to the little window. I realized that she must be calling people’s names. Okay, the system was clear now, I just need to wait for my name to be called. After another half hour, though, I realized that the tickets had already been issued and were sitting there on the counter, probably being neglected because she didn’t know how to pronounce my name. Taking a deep breath and mustering up my courage, I shouted from the far end of the room “two tickets for Wells!” and the sea of men parted. I rushed forward toward the hole in the plastic window, holding my tube of money out as I had seen others to do and I thrust my money through the window. “Two tickets for Wells!” They were shocked at the sight of me. (Was it the short hair? The white skin? A woman in an all-male place? Was it surprise or disgust? Or was it the use of English?) The woman whose face appeared framed by the hole in the window searched the countertop and picked up our tickets that had clearly been sitting there for a while, passed over and pushed aside.

Now came the real difficulty: she took the tube of money out of my hand, licked her finger and started to count. What was this, she exclaimed as she discovered the travelers’ checks. And then the screaming began, the protests, me trying to placate her though she spoke no English and I spoke no Chinese. You can have them, I told her, the extra money, I don’t care. No, no she protested, not understanding what I was saying and she repeated the amount of money I was missing. Her coworker wrote it down on a piece of paper. It amounted to about six dollars and I was giving her a travelers’ check worth 10. I was not about to leave my place at the head of the line. I continued to protest and I was clearly taking up more time than I was allotted. The crowd around me became agitated, complained to one another. A man in a business suit standing next to me – not the latest style but not a Mao suit either – shook his head. I imagine him saying to himself oh, for crying out loud, as he reached into the jacket of his suit and pulled out his wallet. Here, he said handing me the money. Oh thank you, I said, how can I pay you back? He put his hand up. ‘Just go,’ he said, ‘just get out of the line,’ happy to pay six dollars for the process to move ahead. After we got out of there with tickets in hand, I sat down on a stoop just outside the building and burst into tears.

We decided that we deserved a cocktail after a day like that and the only place to go was one of the tourist hotels. Back then you didn’t have a lot of choices but this hotel had a bar up on one of the top floors – dark, un-refurbished, a throwback. There was a Chinese band playing old style New Orleans jazz with the over-studied technique of people who are adopting something foreign or like the stiff precision of someone speaking a language not their own. Swinging jazz that did not swing. The clarinet was held together with green rubber bands and there were two Caucasian businessmen sitting at another table nearby, one of whom was so drunk that he threw up on his own shoes. I got the feeling that you didn’t really want to be posted here; these two men had the look of the last Englishman in India, a foreign legionnaire left behind.

Next time, “Bobble Heads and Beijing Lessons”

#travel writing, #JessWells
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