“Challenges are what make life interesting and overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.”-Joshua J. Marine
There’s a potted plant in the lobby that’s screaming my name. It keeps saying, “Eric, come over, pick me up and smash me against the wall, you know you want to.”
My temper has morphed into an Italian sports car lately. It goes from zero to a hundred real quick. I don’t know if it’s the cumulative effects of 16 months on the road, or the constant language barrier I’m fighting against here in China. Maybe it’s just as simple as the fact that I’m just not that nice of a person. Whatever it is, I’ve got my foot on the throttle.
I lean over the front desk and say, “For the hundredth time.”
I clench my fist and swallow really hard before I keep going, “I don’t have my passport; it’s at the Vietnamese embassy here in Shanghai and it’s there for another three days. As I’ve explained, I had to leave it there so I could get a visa to enter Vietnam, which is where I’m going next.”
The Chinese receptionist shakes her head at me and says in her best English, “No passport, no check in.”
I insist that she takes another look at the piece of paper I gave her twenty minutes ago. It’s a crinkled photocopy of my passport and I keep referencing it.
“That’s all I have!” I lean over the counter again and begin to beg, “If you just let me check in with this, I will have my passport back in three days, and you can do whatever you want with it then. You have my word.”
“Photocopy no good.”
The concierge comes over and explains, “We need to take down information that’s on your Chinese Visa, which is inside your passport.”
My arms flail up in exasperation, “But the photocopy’s in color, doesn’t that count for something!”
I rip the paper out of her hands and I tie my long hair back in exasperation. Then, I hold the picture up to my face, “See! It’s Me!”
To be honest though, it doesn’t even look like me. The photo is about seven years old, but might as well be twenty. Back when this was taken my hair was short and I was clean-shaven. In the photo I’m in my mid-twenties and I might even be mistaken for handsome.
“The Chinese government is very strict. They check everyone’s paperwork and hotels here are not permitted by law to let someone check in without their actual passport.”
“But I’ve already paid you online for the room, what am I going to do? Where do you suggest I go? If your two dollar a night hotel isn’t going to bend the rules and let me check in, then nowhere is!”
I decide to try one last thing; I go into this big explanation about what I’m doing and about how I’m trying to go around the world without airplanes. I’m half tempted to say, “don’t you know who I am?” But no one does, and so I try to impress the hotel staff by telling them that I have a travel website and that I’m a photographer that specializes in hotel photography. I offer to show them my portfolio if they’ll just give me a second to pull out my computer, but they couldn’t be less interested. I tell them that I can do photos for their hotel and that I can even Photoshop the peeling paint in their lobby so that the place looks brand new.
“I’ve already worked for three hotels here in Shanghai and they have been very happy with the results.”
“Sir, if you go to the embassy and retrieve your passport we will let you check in.”
There are five clocks behind the concierge’s head all with different cities listed above them. I point to the one that says Shanghai and say, “Its 4:45, the embassy closes at 5! There is no way I can do that!”
I look over at the potted plant. It still seduces me; begging me to come over and smash it. My temper is fully floored by now. I don’t know what it is about me, but when I get really, really frustrated like this I want to lash out and kick or punch something that can’t fight back. Thankfully, I’ve never been in an actual fight with another human being, but I still have scars on my knuckles for taking a pop at a telephone pole and a refrigerator a few years ago.
I stop trying to convince the hotel staff to let me stay and I focus all my attention on the potted plant. I recognize it. It’s a poinsettia just like I remember from the Presbyterian church I went to as a kid. They always decorated the alter with them during their Christmas service each year. I used to distract myself from the boring service by drawing pictures of their pointy petals on the back page of my bible.
I envision myself picking up the ceramic pot the flowers are planted in and then smashing it down into a million little pieces.
I don’t know if I’ve ever felt such a mix of anger and frustration. It’s been a long couple of weeks in Russia and now China and the Trans-Siberian train ride from hell left me on the verge of pneumonia.
But since this is Communist China after all and I decide to take the high road. I don’t know their laws and even worse, I don’t know their punishments. I decide that kicking, punching or smashing anything probably isn’t the answer. The Chinese government even blocks Google for god sake so imagine what they’d do to me if I threw a potted plant across a hotel lobby.
So I grab my bag and settle for my dramatic exit instead. I turn to leave and give the receptionist the dirtiest look I’ve ever given anyone. On my way out of the lobby I scream at the top of my lungs, “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU@@@@@@KKKKKK THHHHHHIIIIIIIIIIIIISSSSSSSSSS.”
The echo of my voice rattles the lobby windows and I look like Godzilla.
I’m immediately ashamed of my actions. I honestly don’t curse that often, if ever, but I have a feeling I’m not the first American to lose their patience in China.
I spend the next hour in a constant state of agitation as I zig zag up and down Sichuan North Road. I go into every hotel I see, but the story remains the same, no passport, no room. I end up leaning against a lonely street lamp as day turns to dusk and it’s there that I can’t help but to wonder if hard times are finding me or if I’m the one finding them. I’ve been so worried about having exciting things happen to me so that I’ll have something to write about that maybe I’m the one that’s responsible for manifesting all of these problems. I wouldn’t be surprised if my subconscious is creating them just so I’ll have a story that’s worth reading about.
Every hero needs an obstacle to overcome. How boring would Luke Skywalker be without Darth Vader or Rocky without Drago? I mean one of the reasons Michael Jordan’s rise to greatness was so incredible is because he was cut by his high school basketball team. I was reading a friend’s travel blog last week and everything she wrote about was always, “great” and “wonderful” and the food she ate was always the most “delicious.” I was just thinking, that’s not real life and if it is, it’s boring as hell. Who wants to read a story where everything goes according to plan all the time? Who wants to live a life like that?
Having said that, I could really use a break from all of the obstacles and setbacks lately. It’s just been one after the other and I don’t know what it is exactly, but I just can’t stand China. It’s been a complete culture shock. The language, the odd shaped letters, the smog, the greasy food, the tiny beds; everything is just completely new to me. Not in that new and wonderful wanderlust kind of way, where it inspires me and opens my mind, but more like this annoying slog that makes just getting though the day in one piece a real chore.
I hate to say this, but the Chinese people are the thing that’s been turning the screw. They treat me differently here than anywhere else. I expect to be stared at, but not laughed at, which if it only happened once a day or so wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but when it happens about 30 times a day it’s just flat out annoying. When I walk by someone on the street they burst into laughter and then they stare, like really stare at me (even at the urinal). I don’t know if you’ve ever had someone walk up to you and laugh directly in your face for no reason, but after a while it just starts to rub you the wrong way. And while a day doesn’t go by that I don’t thank God for my height, I find myself hating it here. It’s become such an issue for me that I’ve reduced going out into public to times where it’s only absolutely necessary.
But let me just come to the Chinese people’s defense for a second, I do understand why they are staring. If I saw someone who was nearly twice my size, a different color than me with long hair and tattoos I would stare as well. I might even point and laugh and run up to them and take a photo without asking.
I’m sorry to say this too, but I have to, Chinese people just don’t have the same manners as other people I’ve come to know around the world. If I had a dollar for every time someone cut in front of me, blew smoke in my face, bumped into me without saying excuse me, or set the record for loudest conversation ever held in a public place, I’d be rich by now and I’ve only been in China for three weeks.
Look, I’m not the only one that feels like this. During a Garden Party in which President Xi Jinping attended at Buckingham Place last year the Queen of England was filmed saying Chinese officials were “very rude.”
Now of course this isn’t the case for every Chinese person, this is just a generalization of my experience here. Take Sue for example. She’s the manager at the last place I stayed, and one of the sweetest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. When I first emailed her and offered to trade my photography for a room she graciously accepted by complementing my work over and over and then welcoming me with open arms when I showed up sick and tired.
She put me in the best room she had and even ordered take out for me while insisting to pay just so I could rest comfortably. And when my camera short-circuited during our photo-shoot she put her life on hold to calm me down and told me not to worry about doing the photos and that I could still stay for free. She even found a camera shop that specialized in fixing Canon camera’s. When I found out it would take three weeks to fix she volunteered to pick it up for me once it was ready and ship it to me at my next destination.
But Sue’s not here now, no one is. It’s just me, my bag and this lonely street lamp.
Traffic is whizzing by and I have no idea where to go or what to do. I think if I actually had my passport I would head straight to the airport and fly home. I’ve had enough traveling, enough of China, enough setbacks, and my bones are just plain tired.
I reach down, grab my bag and run across the street through the rain and duck into a tiny café. I order an Americano, the cheapest thing on the menu, just so I can get access to the Wi-Fi. Once I’m connected I think through my options.
I have three. I decide to try the Yangtze Hotel first, which was the first hotel I worked at when I arrived in Shanghai. It was a beautiful hotel just a few blocks from The Bund and I took about 70 photos for them and made a short 2-minute film of their property. It was a 4-star hotel so the job was easy enough and they comp’d me five nights in return. I type out my predicament to my contact there and I ask Liz if I can come back for just one more night, which should give me enough time to figure out my next move. I think this might just work because they have my passport on file so checking in there shouldn’t be much an issue. Plus, Liz was really on board with my journey around the world, she even helped me plan out the route I’ll take across southern China into Vietnam.
Liz responds just a second after I click send, “Sorry Eric, we are all out of complementary rooms, and since you don’t have your passport, unfortunately we cannot let you check in even if you book a room.”
I think about emailing Sue and as great as she is, the hostel she runs is exactly the opposite, which isn’t her fault she just took charge a few weeks ago and is working with a non-existent budget. The hostel was like an infirmary, everyone constantly coughing all over everything, hunched over and shivering in the communal areas because the heat wasn’t really working and the rooms were infested with mold. And not just any mold, this mold has supersonic powers that defied the laws of modern mold. The odor this mold carried was ungodly, it went straight for everyone’s lungs and squeezed until you couldn’t breathe anymore. I haven’t been able to stop coughing since the moment I walked into my room there.
When Sue first showed me where I’d be staying all the windows were open and I immediately thought something wasn’t right, so I asked, “why are the windows open in the middle of winter?”
She kind of dodged the question and even though the windows were open and chilly air was rushing through I still smelled traces of the mold, but I didn’t put two and two together until the next morning when I woke up to an odor that made my skin crawl and my head spin.
I gutted it out there for four nights, only going to my room to shower and sleep, but it was so excruciating to spend the night there that even if you paid me, I just couldn’t go back.
So that’s out, strike two.
The second hotel I stayed at in Shanghai was a small four room Bed and Breakfast called Quintet. It was in the French Concession, which is where most expats tend to live in Shanghai. The streets were lined with cool boutiques and coffee shops and it would be great to go back there. I did a few photos for them in exchange for two nights and it’s possible that they might take me back for a night.
I look down at my watch and it’s 6:58. I remember that the owner Po leaves at 7pm every night and once she leaves there is no way to get a room. Each house guest has to check in before then and if you need something after 7pm then you’re out of luck. I quickly pull up my Skype account and dial her local number.
Of course the call doesn’t go through. I look down at my phone and quickly realize that I forgot to set the country code, it automatically defaulted to the United States. I try it again, but this time I type in +86 in front of the number.
The call goes through and starts ringing.
“Damn, I bet she left already.”
If she doesn’t answer, I honestly don’t know what I’ll do for the night. I think about what it would be like to spend the night on the street. I look out the window; it reminds me of London, gray and raining. The only difference is there’s a neon bowl of noodles glowing across the street.
Ring, ring, ring.
I gnaw at the edge of my nails and I wait for someone to pick up. Please pick up.
“Hello, Quintet B&B.”
I can’t help but ramble, “Po, oh Po, thank god you answered. This is Eric, I am the really tall guy that stayed at your B&B last week. The photographer. I don’t have my passport it’s at the embassy and none of the hotels in Shanghai will let me check in without it. I don’t have anywhere to go tonight and I’m hoping you have my passport on file. Do you think you could give me a complimentary room again tonight?’
“Well we have one room open but we cannot comp you again, we can give you a discount though, how does 650 yuan sound?”
I quickly do the conversion in my head, that’s about 100 dollars.
“Well Po, thank you, but I really can’t afford that. What if I leave first thing in the morning, could you go even lower?”
“Hmmm, 500 yuan is as low as I can go, but I’m just about to leave for the day, can you get here right now?”
I do the conversion, that’s about 80 dollars. I’m out of options and even though this is more money than I typically spend in a week, I agree.
“Okay, thank you. Are you sure that I can check in without my passport?”
“If you get here in the next 15 minutes you can check in without it, we still have your info on file.”
I hang up and take a deep breath. I grab all of my things and sprint out into the Shanghai night.