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How I Feel Upon Returning to China

I don’t know why, but this is how I feel every time I come back to China.

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“You must leave the location! You must leave the location!” screeched a little middle aged Air China worker in English before repeating the command in Chinese.

The line of passengers waiting to check in looked at her in confusion. She was rushing from one side of the line to the other, frantically swinging her arms in busy body fashion.

WTF? Are we being evacuated? Why is this lady kicking us out? We just want to check in for our flight.

“You must leave the location!” the little women screeched again and walked up to a guy in front of me and assaulted him with shooing hand motions.

Both the Chinese and American passengers were befuddled. We were just standing in line at the check in counter, there was nothing out of the ordinary about what we were doing. The Chinese just pretended that they didn’t hear the obnoxious old lady, they just ignored her — which is something they are pretty good at.

Not following the directives of petty authorities may as well be a sport in China, and is perhaps a healthy reaction against decades of governmental micromanagement. They had a point here: these people made the effort to get to the airport earlier enough so they could be first in line, there was no way they were going to give up their place so easily.

But really, where else could we go? Leave the airport? Go pile up in front of the check in counter of another airline? We were in JFK’s Terminal 1, one of the most horrid terminals on the planet for F’s sake, there was nowhere else to go.

“You must leave the location!” she screeched again.

She was now successfully shooing some of the passengers away. Some broke ranks and plastered their backs against the far wall, others simply vacated the area completely. I just sort of stood there, amused by the scene. I watched how the woman cleared out a neat, civil row of politely queuing passengers and created complete disorder and disarray. It was all very Chinese.

Now satisfied that she has sufficiently cleared the location, the little woman then began rearranging the stands and belts that formed the rows passengers stand within. She unbuckled each belt, slightly moved each metal pillar, added some more to the mix, and then reattached them all. By the time she had finished the rows now opened up on the right side of the check in counters instead of on the left. Ultimately, for all the pains of the process, it created no real difference at all.

I then smiled, I was going back to China.

Now checked in and through security and I lined up to board my flight. I stepped up to the front of the line in steady increments as the various classes were called, and it was soon my turn to hand over my boarding pass and passport to the airline attendant for a final check. As I passed over my documents I suddenly stopped short. The woman whose hand reached out to grab them had an old napkin wrapped around a recently injured finger. Blood was seeping through it.

I walked over to the front of the other line and made to hand my documents to the other inspector. The rejected one squealed, yelling at me to come back to her. I ignored her, preferring not to have my passport speckled and stained with her blood. She kept yelling in that overly excited, extremely pushy way that countryside-reared Chinese women do. I snapped, it occurred to me that I wasn’t back in China yet and therefore didn’t have to tolerate such an irritation. I yelled back, “Your hand is f’cking bleeding!”

I enjoyed the final use of an English language expletive that I will likely fling at a customer service representative for a long time, walked through the jet bridge, and boarded the plane.

I then smiled, I was going back to China. 

At some point near Beijing I realized that I had a seemingly impossibly short layover before my next flight. The flight out of New York was lagging a little, and I would need to make it off the plane, through immigration and security, then board my next flight in roughly 20 minutes.

I cursed the airline for doing this to me. Seriously, they were going to make my family and I get stressed, run through the f’ing airport, and scamper through immigration and security on the thin hope that we can make it onto our flight.

My wife had an idea: why not ask a stewardess to move us to the front of the plane. Apparently, people do this. I flagged down one of the almost impossibly tall, thin, beautiful, be-skirted women who run these planes and told her of our woes. She showed empathy. A few moments later a steward arrived and told us that we could move to the front. We were seated in first class for the landing. I can’t say I’ve ever been in there before. I was impressed that Air China’s staff would do this.

So the airline did what they could do to ensure that we stood the best chance to make our next flight. When the plane landed and the doors opened up we raced out and began running the redundant obstacle course that transferring flights in Beijing entails.

We ran up to the special immigration counter that transferring passengers must be inspected at. This is a rather unneeded formality, as we were just getting on another flight in the same terminal that was bound to (technically) take us out of the country (Hong Kong). What point did it make for China to check our passports and give us a transfer stamp? I knew that was a pointless question.

Anyway, I explained to the official that we were very close to missing our flight and could he please hurry. He nodded, and then responded by slowly flipping through the pages of each of our three passports. He hung out for a while just lazily gazing at our pictures, checked out what it said on his computer about us, hung out some more as he browsed through our stamps and noted our previous travel history. He stared at our residency permits as though they were interesting exhibits in an art museum. Basically, the guy did everything he could to take all the time he could.

The petty official’s revenge.

We then had to go to another immigration desk to have our photos taken. There, the official languidly checked the stamp of the previous official, and snapped mugshots.

Then we went through security. I explained to the guard that we were in a hurry, that we were going to miss our flight. He reacted to this by sending my bag through the x-ray machine multiple times, removing a few more of its contents for each run. I probably should have learned my mistake the first time and just kept my mouth shut.

Once through the ridiculously excessive immigration and security formality I flagged down one of those utility golf carts that drive through the airport. I thought that maybe I could explain the situation and the guy could drive us to the gate. I tried. “Ok,” the driver said, “I can take you to your gate, if you give me money.”

We ran instead.

I was back in China.

The guy sitting in front of us on our flight from Hong Kong to Xiamen apparently had to puke. No, he just had to spit, no, maybe it was vomit. No, it was just a big f’ing loogie hacked up right into the puke bag. It was such a giant loogie, in fact, that it necessitated him to emit a thundering hacking, death rattle sound from his throat that drowned out the sound from the headphones of all TVs and personal electronic devices in a ten row radius to try to jar loose. The self-strangulation went on for the better part of two minutes, and eventually required the assistance of his buddy to pat him on the back so he could expel the goober without asphyxiating.

It struck the bottom of the bag with a very audible, solid, wet thud, that sounded something like a heifer with diarrhea relieving herself upon a concrete floor.

I looked at my wife, her face was twisted, her lips shaped like a buggered muppet.

“I can’t f’cking believe I’m actually coming back here.”

We were back in China.

We made it through immigration and customs. We were out on the curb in front of the Xiamen airport. It was late at night, the line for taxis was roughly half a kilometer long. We dragged our bags and our tired selves to the rear of the line. We wait, we eventually get a taxi, we go back to our apartment.

It was untouched. Cool.

I sit down on the couch. My wife is to my left, my daughter just beyond her. We’d just taken four flights sequentially and put in 24 . . .48 . .. I have no idea how many days of travel. We made it.

I look at my wife.

She’s crying, tears streaming down her cheeks.

“I can’t f’cking believe I’ve agreed to be back here for another year.”

She was back in China

The following morning I wake up early and step out into the streets alone. I look around, I shake out my shoulders and stretch my arms. I feel the pressure of flying, the family visit, being in other countries besides China flow out of me. I breath in, I breath out, I relax. I’m back. There is something familiar here in China, something approaching the feeling of the quintessential idea of of home. I’m not sure what it is.

Every time I take my first steps back on Chinese soil I feel overtaken by this strange calm. Everything around me is chaos, there are so many annoyances, so many jarring sounds, disgusting sights. But I move through this storm as though in an impermeable bubble that keeps all pernicious elements at bay. I look around and breath in the scene. For a few moments I feel nothing but happy.

It’s the feeling of knowing that there is no place in the world I’d rather be.

I smiled, I was back in China.

This is how I feel when I return to China

This Laowai Comic shows exactly how I feel each time I return to China.

laowai-comics-returing-to-china laowai-comics-returing-to-china-cont

Read the Laowai Comics archive here! It’s the real China experience.


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Filed under: Air Travel, China, Travel Diary

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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