From take off to landing, my gut was in a knot. I didn’t have my boarding passes, the agent working the Air China desk had ripped them up, back in Busan - some policy that Chinese customs had, or so I was told. I still don’t know, at this point I really don’t care, but at the time it was truly beginning to bore a hole into my stomach, the pressure of it all. I love the destinations, but I loathe the traveling, especially when I don’t have my tickets.
As layback as I am, I’m still my father’s son, I’m a Williard at heart. You can’t spell Williard without a big ole’ capital Type A, it’s my birthright.
What would happen? Would I miss my connections? Would I even make it to Kathmandu? I didn’t have my itinerary saved to my phone, which was a big mistake, so I really had no idea what to expect when I stepped off the plane. And, from what the Koreans back in Busan told me, who are notoriously xenophobic with hints of truth, the Chinese are a really full-on bunch.
Hell, just the other day, I watched a YouTube video of a Chinese lady burying her daughters used diaper on a crowded public beach. I guess that says more about me than it does her, or China as a whole, but I’d say that I now have a newfound appreciation for the video. I really don’t give a shit where you’re from, or what race you are. If you do that, it’s disgusting. Yet, there are different standards on Mainland China compared to the rest of the world, one’s that I’d soon come to discover during my healthy fifteen hour layover in Chengdu.
Stepping into PEK International Airport, Beijing’s main hub, I was immediately drawn into a massively unorganized swarm, unlike anything I’d experienced before. The entire crowd was rushing their way to the custom’s gates. Now, I’m not saying that airports, in any country, are places that are particularly considerate of the individual - they’re places where we tolerate each other, but that’s about it, however, China was a new beast. The people were yelling at each other. The crowds were weaving their massive airport luggage carts next to, behind, and everywhere between innocent bystanders - ankles be damned. The whole while, nearly every person I passed would take a moment to step outside their hurried tempo and turn for a second glance at me; no smile, no social acknowledgment, only bewilderment laced with resentment.
With all of the America Vs. China trade war bullshit being pumped out to either corner of the globe, I can say it was a particularly unfortunate time to pass through. I was not particularly welcomed.
“Whatever, this is just another part of the whole experience,” I thought. And, from my seemingly short twenty seven years, most airports are like that - except they’re not. In the US, at least, we have an unspoken arrangement, one which keeps us at a healthy arms reach from one another. Some may call this personal space, some may call it social courtesy, but I assure you, it doesn’t exist in China. If there’s an inch between you and wherever the person walking beside you wants to go, just assume they’re going to B-line it to that inch gap. There’s no waiting. There’s only them and that place they seemingly need to be. I imagine the inner dialogue to go something like this, “you’re in my way, so move, or else I’ll mow you down with my rolling luggage!”
But the reality is, it isn’t malevolent, it’s just the way it is there. They aren’t singling you out, they’re living their life the way that they know how, but the contrast was rather abrasive and I count my lucky stars I chose teaching in Korea over China.
Then, as soon as the flurry of people formed, we arrived; preprocessing - the purgatory before customs. It’s another layer of added security to catch all of those international spies trying to steal state secrets. Really though, the amount of security checkpoints in a Chinese airport puts TSA to shame.
With eyes peeled, I spotted the Air China help desk, which was an amalgamation of all other airlines. Each logo was stitched together at the top by the faint glow of a flickering backlight. Behind the desk sat one very uninterested clerk, but she was the gatekeeper and I had to step up to the plate. So, with one deep breath, preparing for a stone wall of a language barrier, I gave her a smile, which went unreciprocated, as I walked up to the counter to explain my situation. Barely finishing my hello, she pointed me to the transit visa desk - “you need a Visa before I’ll print your boarding passes.”
While this was my first time trying to figure out what the hell I was to do, I was probably the hundredth person today requesting the same thing of her.
After waiting in the new line for twenty minutes, getting cut off by a family of six from Korea in the process, the officer on the other end of the desk said he’d need my boarding pass before he’d consider issuing a transit visa - mind you, I have no idea when my connection is, or at which gate. My tickets were sitting in a waste bin, so that knot in my stomach was only growing. I only had a vague memory of my ticket showing a two hour layover, but was that taking into consideration the time difference, or maybe we took off late, I really didn’t know. The only thing I did know was that I’d just wasted a half hour and I’d still hadn’t made it through customs, or the pre-boarding security check for my connection.
I was certain that I’d miss my flight.
“Fuuuuck this” I reflexively let out. The line went silent as the Chinese Police Officer, the one who’d told me to go back to the previous desk, eyed me down. I realized that I’d immediately put a target on my forehead, so I shuffled back to the airline help desk for the second time, doing my best not to make any more waves.
Without lifting her head from her computer, the woman asked “so you have your transit visa now?” I didn’t say anything, until she looked up, and then I replied “no, he wouldn’t issue it without my boarding passes” a slick coat of poison dripped from each of those words, I made sure of it. She got up from behind her desk, annoyed at my inconveniencing her, and said “ok, come with me then.”
With my official itinerary in hand, the one she’d looked up while I was waiting in the other line, she led me straight back to the same officer I’d inadvertently told off. She shoved my flight numbers into his hands and gave him a look that said “get this guy outta here” - it was the thing I wanted all along. He wasn’t amused, neither was the line I’d just cut, but I couldn’t have been happier. anI’d be damned if I wasn’t gonna give them the American they expected.
Holding out his hand, he said “passport.” Snatching away my navy blue booklet, he stamped his thumb down, adhering a tiny sticker to one of those few back visa pages, the 5 point font of Chinese characters was barely legible. Not that I was able to read it anyway, but my foresight told me it still might be a problem. Thankfully, I’d finally gotten it. They’d issued me my twenty four hour transit visa and I’d get to move onto the next level of this increasingly strange trip.
Stepping up to the customs lines, with only two people ahead of me, my anxiety melted away. I knew if I rushed, I’d be able to catch my next flight to Chengdu. I was only down forty minutes now, so if I didn’t get lost inside the belly of Beijing’s airport, I’d make it. I was planning my next steps so far ahead that I’d completely forgotten I wasn’t yet through customs - that is until the customs agent deadpan said “that picture isn’t you, you have short hair in your passport book, I don’t believe you.”
My eyes rolled, I wasn’t going to waste my breath explaining to this woman how hair works, so instead I simply muttered to myself “you have to be fucking kidding me.”