So, the journey continues (check out Part 1 and Part 2). I am landing in Beijing, watching fireworks going off all around. After months of planning and various bumps in the road, I am finally in China! It is hard to get across the excitement at this point. I am setting off on a huge adventure. I am thousands of miles away from any support network. I am truly alone and testing myself beyond anything I’ve done before. For the first time in my life, I am truly free. Although I was an adult, this is a real test of whether I have grown up!
It has been about a 15-hour flight from Chicago. I didn’t sleep much, and I am probably not firing on all cylinders. I go through the motions of taking my carry-on luggage and exit the plane: next stop, immigration. I get into the foreigner line and wait for my stamp from the taciturn PLA officer in a green uniform. It goes smoothly enough. I even try out a few of my Chinese phrases. The officer wasn’t impressed as he stamps my visa. But, I don’t care because it’s official; I’m in-country!
I proceed to the baggage claim passing several money exchange outlets. Again, I’m on little sleep and momentarily forget that Chicago’s currency exchange storefront was under renovations and not open. At the time, I thought I would convert my US dollars to RMB in China. I had heard the exchange rate was better in China anyway, so it was a sound plan, but for some reason, with the little sleep and the hustle and bustle of being in a new country, I forget.
I get to the luggage belt and wait. I have two massive and very full suitcases coming. I will be living in a foreign country for 6-months, starting in the winter and transitioning into the summer. Baoding is very cold and dry in the winter and very hot and dry in the summer with a short rainy spring. I have no idea what to pack, so I pack as much as I can. I am 6′ 2″, at this point, probably 185 lbs with size 14 feet. Finding clothing (and certainly shoes) that fit in China to this day is a struggle. I also have things like an iron, coffee machine, power converter, etc. I have no idea what will be available and what will not, so I pack heavy.
One suitcase comes, a giant green LL Bean duffle bag on wheels bulging at the seems like some sort of pig (fit right into the stereotype of an American here). It has most of my clothes, so at least I will be well dressed. Phew, one down and one to go! I wait for the second, and I wait, and I wait. Nothing. Finally, the belt is empty. Shit. The other suitcase, with all my snacks and other things, is lost. What do I do now? I check the time. I’m already running late to meet my ride. Remember, I don’t even know if my ride will be here with any certainty and as I have already postponed my arrival, if I am very late, they may think I got cold feet and leave.
I rush to the lost baggage office to put in a claim. It goes about as smoothly as you would expect at this point. The line is long, and when it is finally my turn, English is a problem. They give me a form where I am supposed to fill in the contact information and an address in boxes that are way too small. But it doesn’t matter because I don’t know any of this information. I search through all my documents to find something. I discover a phone number, and they allow me to call (very reluctantly). I talk to perhaps the same young lady at the University I spoke with the day before, and she offers to converse with the agent in Chinese to help (I never found out who this savior was). Together we figure out what I need to put on the form. It has English, but it’s poorly translated, and as mentioned, the boxes provided are obviously for Chinese characters and super tight. I do the best I can, but I am beginning to assume that this suitcase is lost forever.
Finally, after more than an hour (I think it was about 7 pm), I stumble out of the baggage claim and into the mass of people. If you have never traveled to China, you have no idea what a mass of people truly is until you find yourself in some sort of Chinese station. Train stations are worse (around Spring Festival- forget-about-it!), but an airport arrival section is pretty intense. Everyone assumes you need a ride, especially if you seem lost and searching, which I am. Someone tries to take my suitcase, not maliciously, but very sure that they are the ride for me. I fight them off, only for another to make a grab. Finally, I see a familiar name on a board held by a gentleman that looks just like the basketball player Yao Ming and almost as tall (for those that were my compatriots at Hebei University, you will know who I am talking about). Standing around the gentleman is a group of older Japanese men that will become friendly strangers (also language teachers at Hebei, but speak little to no English).
I am beyond relieved. They hadn’t left me behind! I indicate that I am the person on the board. Yao Ming speaks no English, but luckily a graduate student who does is with him. She tells me that they’ve been waiting all day for my arrival as it wasn’t clear when I would get there (this is also probably why the Japanese group is thrilled to see me). We go to the van and start our trip to the University- an additional 2-hour drive.
We all file in (it is tight) and head out into the traffic. There are many laws in China, but there are no rules when it comes to driving. It is quite the experience. We get onto the highway. It is then I realized I never converted money. Shit. Ask them to go back? I can’t. They have been waiting for me all day, and we’ve already left the airport. Screw it (probably used more colorful words here), I will convert when we get to Baoding. How difficult could that be?
I hope you are enjoying my story! Check back soon for part 4 as I venture off into the dark in a van full of Japanese with only 5 RMB in my pocket!