The Best Laid Plans: Part II

Travelling the Silicon Road
XIAMEN, China — Well, we hit the first serious snafu of the journey last night trying to leave Xiamen for Chengdu. Serious enough that as I write this, it is a little before noon of the next day, and I’m still in Xiamen.

There is one nice thing about being in a foreign country: you can swear out loud a blue streak of every English curse word and phrase you can think of at the Air China employee in front of you, smiling and nodding the head the whole time as she complicates your life, and she is none the wiser.

Although I did shock a few people in line behind me, who understood at least part of what I said, and the thought occurred to me that I wasn’t being a very good ambassador of the West at that moment.

But when it looks like your luggage is going to go to Chengdu without you — and that’s the only flight to Chengdu — and you are beginning to wonder if you and your interpreter are going to spend the night in a gulag, well, diplomacy goes out the window in favor of satisfying, albeit not very helpful, four-letter words and colorful phrases.

The problem stemmed from the fact that the American Express travel service Reed Business uses issued the plane tickets for my interpreter, a Chinese citizen, and me. Naturally, the tickets along with Tony’s name (Tony is his chosen English name), Che Zihke, were printed in English.

So when we got to the ticket counter about 20 minutes before boarding time, the woman at the Air China counter suddenly asks to see Tony’s passport. Tony has never traveled outside China; up until we flew from Shenyang to Shanghai a week and a half ago, he had never even traveled by plane, and has no passport, just his Chinese ID card, which naturally is in Chinese.

To make a long story short, the crux of the matter was that Air China employees refused to honor the ticket because Tony had no identification with his name spelled in English. Never mind that another domestic airline had honored Tony’s Shenyang/Shanghai ticket with no problems.

At one point, Tony disappeared after a lengthy discussion in Chinese with the lovely ticket counter employee, who proceeded to check me in without a word — she merely glanced at my passport and didn’t even check my visa — and tagged my luggage for the flight and sent it on the conveyor into the mysterious depths of the airport.

Then Tony reappears at a dead run, sweating and cursing in Chinese, switching to English to tell me that there is a “serious problem” and that “they are being very strict.” Keep in mind, I’m from the post 9/11 United “terror alert orange” States, and one of those people that once made a smart-ass joke during a random search at a U.S. airport and subsequently found himself having a little chat with the very non-humorous U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s finest.

Plus, I’m an American national in a communist country, so all sorts of unpleasant thoughts are running through my head upon hearing “serious problem” and “very strict.” Fortunately all this meant was that Air China was hassling us about the ticket, there were no law enforcement types involved.

So after retrieving my luggage — at one point of course, they said they couldn’t find it — we set out to fix the problem; I wasn’t about to leave poor Tony to fend for himself, he’s not used to travel of this sort at all, much less Air China’s shenanigans.

This was all complicated by the fact that 1) my corporate American Express card wouldn’t work on the system at the airport, and 2) my U.S. cell phone, which works in other parts of China, doesn’t work here, and my Chinese cell phone doesn’t have international access. And you can’t just walk up to a public phone and bust out a credit card and start dialing here in China, you have to buy a smart card. Needless to say, by the time I had everything all straightened out, I was less than enamored with some aspects of China.

By the time we checked back into the hotel we had checked out of three hours before, and we had bought Tony a ticket at the ticketing office at the hotel, where American Express cards work just fine, he asked me what we were going to do that evening, now that we had time on our hands.

Well, one of the upsides of the ordeal was that we got booked into the hotel at the normal rate, but they had overbooked the normal rooms, so we got placed in high-falutin’ VIP suites at the top of the hotel, complete with high-tech toilets that have eight buttons and a list of instructions (you’ll read more about this in a later entry, I promise, along with the high-tech shower). Included in the Crowne Plaza VIP room package is free happy-hour drinks — music to a stressed-out journalist’s ears.

“Tony,” I said, bearing those happy-hour drinks in mind while clapping him on the back, “after our stressful and complicated experiences this afternoon, I think it’s time for a drink. Remember, alcohol solves none of life’s problems, but a little lubrication makes swallowing those problems a whole lot easier.”

This explains why this was filed at noon Wednesday, local time, and not Tuesday night.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaJeff’s China Travel Tip of the Day: This tip is applicable to any trip, not just China. Want to make your luggage and most of your clothes smell minty fresh? Just don’t screw the cap onto your mouthwash bottle very tight and stow it in your luggage before you get on a plane. By the time you reach your destination, voila!

Jeff’s Subsidiary China Travel Tip of the Day: Gentleman, whatever you do in China, don’t lose your razor. Chinese disposable razors were not meant for laowai beards, at least not those of laowai of Anglo-Saxon descent.

Jeff’s Subsidiary China Travel Tip of the Day, no. 2: If you get put up in a fancy suite, don’t experiment with the high-tech toilet with eight-buttons while actually sitting on it. Unless you like surprises. 😉

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story written by me that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. It’s former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge). You can still see a copy of this story at EDN.

Original Comments

at 10/26/2005 1:34:40 PM, David SCHUERMANN said:

Jeff, HaHa…I experimented with one of those toilets in Japan, there should be a warning that if you don’t know anything about it, dont push any buttons while sitting on it!!!!! Yes, there will be a surprise (and if you don’t allow time for the water to warm up..it is a cold surprise!!)!!! My travel tip….put your shaving cream in a plastic bag….my clothes smelled of shave cream when I got to the room…what a mess!

at 10/27/2005 2:25:41 AM, Joan said:

On Jeff’s Subsidiary China Travel Tip of the Day No.1 – yes, it’s true! Quite a few of customers from our kanxiqi.com private tour guide service complained on this problem. Very interesting observation.

at 10/27/2005 1:11:59 PM, Victor S… said:

A good air travel trip is that zip-lock bags are your friend. Good for shave cream, hair spray, mouthwash, shampoo and anything elsem you’d rather not soak your clothes in.

at 10/28/2005 7:41:11 AM, George Smiley said:

Part of the excitement in traveling, Old Boy, is to expect the unexpected. The anger and making the scene would not get you anywhere in heavy bureaucratic and non-consumer emphasis society. The mess up was caused initially by AmExp. Blame either the AmExp and Reed, as well as yourself for not catching the problem before hand.

The clerk in the ticket counter had his/er duty to fulfill to weed out the discrepancy in case some radical boarded the plan with bomb or incendiary material (happened more than once) to endanger national property, security and passenger. (Yes. That’s their thinking priority!) Your bad manner and temper would only strengthen the image firmly rooted in their mind of arrogant and self-imposing representative of Western Imperialism, and making your fellow travelers and expatriates harder to absorb the local culture and being accepted!

From your writing, I guessed you never had the chance to venture into local market with local delicacy. Should you insist on Big Mac and KFC, as well as some buffet for “affluent” people, I’d advise you to stay in the States and not venturing out to “Gook” countries! Should you decide to cut short your trip and return to the States, I’d advise you to get hold a copy of “Ugly American” by William Lederer. After all these years&..! jimhacker@hotmail.com

at 10/28/2005 9:57:21 AM, Jeff Chappell said: Hi Jim/George Smiley … Tell me, did you not bother to read the rest of my blog entries, and react off-the-cuff? Or are you that clueless? Read all my entries on my trip to China, before you judge me. You automatically assume because I had one rough spot in my trip, and chose to make light of it, that I’m some arrogant, narrow-minded racist bastard, when if you had actually bothered to take the time to read the stuff I’ve written and take it as a whole, you’d find the truth lies elsewhere.

I find it interesting that I only have gotten these types of comments from Westerners, LOL. Cracks me up. Tell me, have you ever even been here? BTW, you can ask Air China yourself, the issue was the fact that the ticket was in English, his ID was in Chinese. We saw a Malaysian traveler have the same issue at the Air China ticket counter the very next day. As I mentioned, if you had bothered to read the whole post, other domestic carriers don’t have a problem with this …

at 10/28/2005 1:14:14 PM, Mjackman said:

Jeff, As a journalist who did a similar electronic junket for a scheme called “almostEverest” I want to say I appreciate what you’re doing and I wish you the best of luck! Great job so far! – Michael Jackman www.mjfreelancer.com Writer/Morehead State Public Radio essayist/Lecturer (English) at Indiana University Southeast