My arrival in Shanghai came an hour earlier than expected, and in my extra time, I was able to help an elderly Vietnamese couple find their way, get my luggage cleared through customs, and munch on a cup on instant noodles.
The first thing I noticed upon arrival was the difference between calligraphic signage and announcement signage. Shop logos and names were often written in traditional characters, whereas all public announcements came in simplified.
Having a few hours to spare before my connecting flight to Fuzhou, I walked up and down the domestic transfers concourse in the airport, passing a few shops and restaurants that seemed to repeat themselves every few paces. I eventually walked into one selling Jingdezhen tea sets, which were quite nice (although too expensive for my tastes), and almost immediately, the attendant asked if I was buying one for myself or as a gift.
“If I were to buy something, it’d be for myself,” I replied.
Without missing a beat, she invited me to look at the more expensive wares since I should obviously treat myself to the good stuff.
Of course, I could probably get all of this stuff cheaper on Taobao, and that’s probably what I’ll end up doing. With that, I thanked her, walked out (still looking at the exquisite water bottles in the window), and forced myself to keep walking forward.
A few steps later, I ended up in the “art gallery”, a space where local artists are able to showcase their work. I wasn’t too impressed by the layout and didactics. It was a rather haphazard “let’s put something in this space” kind of display, and I didn’t see anything remotely in my range of interest.
Feeling a bit hungry yet too cheap to actually buy food, I grabbed one of the instant noodle packs I had brought with me. The airport had a hot water dispenser, so I’d be able to make it quick and easy. Or so I thought. As I opened the packet of garlic oil for the noodles, it squeezed out and coated my fingers in a slimy, pungent goo.
Despite the accident, I ate the instant noodles and walked over to the line for boarding.
As I was boarding the flight, my fingers still reeking of garlic oil after spilling my instant noodles on them, a young man approached me and asked if this was the flight to Fuzhou. It had been a bit confusing due to last-minute gate changes for a few of the flights in the terminal.
After a few exchanges with him, he said, “You’re not from Fuzhou.”
I had been exposed. I replied, “No, I’m not. What gave it away?”
“Your Mandarin is too proper,” he explained. “People from Fuzhou have terrible pronunciation.”
I laughed. This entire summer, people in the US had been assuming that I was a Chinese international student. Now, even after arriving in China, people still don’t think I seem American.
An hour later, we landed. After getting my luggage, I walked out to see a row of eager faces, and I searched the crowd for someone holding a placard with my name. The school’s Foreign Affairs Office told me that somebody would be there waiting.
Indeed someone was waiting. I noticed a brown-haired college student holding a sign that said “魏民安 FNU” scrawled in marker. She held a cup of half-finished boba in her hand; the ice had already melted.
I waved at her; she didn’t respond. I walked closer to her and waved again, and she gave a puzzled look.
“You’re Andrew?” she asked, her brow furrowed in a bit of confusion.
“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”
“No problem… It’s just that… I thought you’d be, well, foreign.”
I laughed, “I am. This is my first time in China.”
“Your parents must be Chinese,” she insisted.
“Sort of—my grandparents were born in China, but my parents were born in Vietnam,” I explained.
Later, I repeated this part to our driver, another student at Fujian Normal University, to which he promptly replied, “See, that makes you Chinese!”
I suppose. But after two generations of not having any contact, I felt absolutely unfamiliar with the region. The only thing I felt familiar with so far was the humidity; it reminded me of stepping off the plane in Osaka or Taipei in the dead of summer.
The drive back to campus was an absolute mess. I thought driving in LA was bad until I was serenaded by an orchestra of car horns and and a choir of Chinese insults flying in every direction. Mind you, this was past midnight when I assume the roads are quieter.
But we arrived safely, and after a long walk to bring my luggage from the gate to the dorm, I was assigned a random room for the night. Understandably, the dorm warden didn’t want to deal with the situation at 1 am. Fortunately for me, my student liaison tried to turn on the lights before realizing that my unit had no electricity. After 15 minutes of fiddling somewhere downstairs, my lights came on.
With that, I settled in for the night and logged into Eduroam for wifi. Thank goodness Eduroam exists.
And then I realized I had no running water. Trying the different sinks, I found that I could get water from the kitchen sink, so I ended up brushing my teeth there. It wasn’t much of a kitchen actually—the stove was missing. But the restroom featured a rusty toilet paper container that looked like it hadn’t provided toilet paper in decades, so brushing my teeth in the kitchen felt much cleaner.
Surprisingly, I woke up at 7 am today without the need for an alarm. Perhaps jetlag is on my side? We’ll see in the coming days. In the meantime, I hope my permanent dorm has running water.