*Peeks head out*
I’m doing this. I’m actually doing this. Wow. The vacation time was approved and my plane tickets, visa, passport, and new driver’s license was all in order. I’m packed and on my way to LAX. I can’t believe it. I’m actually going.
I’ll be fine. It’s going to be fine.
ANYONE who truly knows me knows that I prefer to be…not with people. If we are friends, then you know I don’t do the regular chatty text chain messaging throughout the week. It’s perfectly normal for me to fall off the radar and maintain radio silence for weeks, months, even. So, I was taking a major left turn from my normal routine of introverting and flying across the world to be in one of the most populated countries. Thankfully, my travel buddy is someone who understands that silence (or the right playlist) and a book at the end of the day is necessary.
This was going to be my first proper grown-up vacation. I saved my pennies, I earned my vacation hours and was actually going on an actual vacation. Arriving at LAX I made my way easily through the motions of checking luggage, security, and boarding my flight. 14 hours later I had arrived in Shanghai. This trip was going to be just what I needed, a chance to reset, relax, recharge, reconnect, and reclaim myself. The ultimate introversion excursion. *Dibs on the blog name*
Arriving at Shanghai-Pudong International (PVG) I was confronted with my first obstacle. The language barrier. Let’s set the scene. I had not slept in the 24-hours prior to boarding my 14-hour flight, my tall frame in economy seating didn’t encourage much in-flight sleep, and I had to get through customs. That wasn’t the problem though, a large tour group thwarted any chance of a speedy entry into the greater PVG airport. As I stood in line I thought to myself, there is no way I’m going to reach baggage claim in time. Sure enough, the assigned carousel for my flight was no longer in motion. I scanned signs and screens. Finally, my eyes landed on something akin to, ‘Baggage Inquiry’. I walked up to the counter and having learned absolutely no Mandarin and the nice young woman at the counter having limited English proficiency we clumsily established that I needed to go to another counter entirely.
Not even 60 minutes into this new country and I was already failing as an applied anthropologist. I had known for months that I would be taking this trip and yet, uncharacteristically, I didn’t prepare. I had completely thrown caution to the wind. Something my friends and family know is unlike me. The language barrier made it so that I was erroneously sent to the wrong queues and my attempt to just slip under the rope to claim my bag was met with a stern denial by an airport employee. I could see my suitcase, I just couldn’t get to it. Anthropologists know that even copious planning cannot prepare you for the unknown, here I was, the other in the unknown. Being in new surroundings and not speaking the languages I had my first obstacle to tackle.
Finally arriving at the proper counter, I was cut off by another traveler, male, middle-aged, and entitled. His attitude with the woman at the counter made my pending interaction with her less hopeful. The man left in a huff and the woman behind the counter glared at me, daring me to step forward and ask for whatever I had come in search of. I was over it, she was over it. Without taking a step forward and not caring if she understood my English or not, I stated matter-of-factly, “I see my bag. Can I just take it?” Without skipping a beat, or bothering to confirm my tickets, she said yes. I gladly took my suitcase and headed for security. 60 some odd minutes after landing I was finally out of customs with my possessions and heading to meet Bri.
I met Bri at arrivals and we were heading off to Kunshan. Honestly, the subway, train, and DiDi rides to her apartment were the perfect windows of opportunity to be abducted, as at this point, I was flowing in and out of sleep. Liam Neeson is not my dad so thankfully I made it to Bri’s apartment and am now writing this blog post.
Being in a country where you don’t speak the language can be an incredibly isolating sensation. It’s also an opportunity to be opportunistically reflective and ponder simple daily-living activities one takes for granted at home. One of my questions to Bri, as we were sitting in a train station, was, ‘How did you manage to navigate when you first arrived?’ Bri explained that you learn through trial-and-error, over-plan your route/destination, and practice the questions/phrases you will use when arriving at key travel junctures. Taking in Bri’s response I considered this and stored it away as I would like to one day live abroad myself.
Our 5-day excursion was incredible. Visiting places I had only previously seen in books and on screen was a fantastic realization of travel dreams my inner-explorer finally unleashed in the world. For my entire life, it has been a dream to travel and see as much of the world as I can. This trip enabled me to finally put those dreams firmly in reality.
I had to refrain from becoming over-excited in capturing the passing country-side as we traveled down tracks leading us from one destination to another. Apart from the destinations themselves, the best part of this trip was engaging with the people we met at each place. Even though I could only communicate very poorly with language, there are the universal human conditions that make interacting beyond language so meaningful. I was most often the passenger of conversations as Bri communicated most of the time and translated for me.
My short stay in China also gave me a glimpse into daily annoyances and struggles of being the other in the most absurdly plain way, being a woman of color in a place like China. For one, comically speaking, Bri and I are going to stand out no matter where we go together as we are so dichotomously paired. Bri is slight and lean while I am decidedly not. We also stand a full 12 inches apart in height. Casting this aside, on my first day over school lunch I asked Bri, “So is being stared at a thing here?” The answer was a resounding, “Yes”.
On one occasion riding around Kunshan, our Didi driver took the liberty of turning his body around and staring at us while we waited for a red light to turn green. He mumbled something and Bri fixed one of her perfected stares his way and told him to return to driving since traffic had begun to move again.
On one of my last nights in Kunshan, as we sat outside on the curb of a store observing the nightly women’s dance group the vibe was decidedly more neighborly. Dancers and observers alike were curious to know about Bri and I as people- Where were we from? What were we doing in China? Were we teachers or students? How did I like the dancing? These are the interactions that you carry with you and remind you that time, distance, and space is no match for the common thread that ties people together, community. I’ll carry my experiences and memories with me. Continuing to pursue that anthropological life of discovering and unpacking the meaning of what it is to be human.
You can see all of our trip here: