The guard station within the Songjiang school walls.
(In my last installment I had just arrived in Shanghai.)
The moment I walked off of the plane at Pudong International Airport, a sudden panic seized me.
“I’m in Shanghai! What have I done? I know no one absolutely no one here! What have I done? Can I turn around and get back on the plane? What have I done?” This went through my head for a moment but then as I walked through the airport I did not feel as if I was unwelcome or even in a land so foreign and faraway. The airport seemed the same as any airport – LaGuardia, JFK, or Newark. Maybe this is why the panic upon arrival was mildly spasmodic instead of paralyzing.
“Other people have done this or something like this” is another way I keep and kept from panicking. This is a very handy mantra for me. A mantra that I have used when I first taught, when I first became a radio djay, when I had my first interview assignment for Interview Magazine which happened to be with Dolly Pardon.
“Other people have done this,” I repeated over and over as I followed the other travelers through the gate to the terminal, I tried not to become anxious. (“Other people have done this.”) All the guards at Immigration were young cadets in suave green military uniforms. They did not look threatening. In fact, they looked somewhat endearing. Most of them were smiling innocent smiles. Maybe I can do this.
Once I got through the long line at Immigration, I went to claim my bags, which were among the few left on the carousel. One of these endearing smiling guards was in the process of detaining my newly purchased oversized Delsey trunk before it went for another spin. (Since that time I have had several collections of trunks. Tumi seem to be the sturdiest though they lose zippers left and right.) The guard smiled and nodded as I hoisted it off the carousel. My fears of having my bags searched and my questionable films confiscated were unfounded. I exited with no problem.
Later, I would learn that most of the time I would have more trouble coming back into America at Customs than going into China at Customs. The only time that I was questioned on the Chinese side was when I had brought a small box of CDs from my storage unit in America; at that point I was sure that I was going to live in China long term. I decided to slowly empty my storage unit in Oklahoman and take things back to China. Upon opening the small box, the Custom’s official asked:
“What’s this?” They thought perhaps I was bringing contraband to sell.
Among the Birthday Party and Cheap Trick CDs was my band the Chainsaw Kittens’ ‘Angel on the Range’ CD. I am not sure why I did but I decided to break the ice by pointing to a picture of myself on the back of the CD.
“Oh, so young,” the official responded and smiled. With that, he let me go on my way. That was really the only problem I ever had.
But that was on a later entry to Shanghai. This was still my first time into this strange new land. Once I claimed my bags and walked through the exit looking a bit like a sled dog pulling two sleds, I began to look for my Chinese contact.
Now, I’ve learned to pack light when I go to China. Suits and shirts can be tailored for a steal. Nice socks and underwear are easily found at random small shops and markets. I’ve found Emporio Armani, Paul Smith, Comme Des Garcons, and Pringle to name a few designers for a fraction of their retail cost. Some of these are very good knockoffs and others are factory extras. From what I have read, some of the factories produce after hours on the sly and that stuff is put into the Chinese trade market. Not to digress but I have found all kinds of cheap sports gear in markets and being sold on the street, Nike or New Balance shoes, sweat pants, socks. Again. often these are not knockoffs because a lot of these brands are manufactured in China.
After winding through the human stockade at the exit, I saw a man holding a sign with my name written in Sharpie Marker but then I lost him in the horde of people and a panic seized me again, but suddenly he popped up again before me. “Michael”—his English name—was a young, dour-looking mannish boy with a greasy face and wire-rimmed glasses.
“Tyson?” he asked. I smiled and started to speak, but was distracted by a stranger who seized one of my bags. I get off the plane and out of Customs and I am already getting robbed. This is awful. No. Fortunately, this stranger turned out to be our driver, who spoke no English. Nervously, I followed them to the parking garage. No one said anything. I finally broke the silence.
“Are we going to the school?” I asked.
“Yes,” Michael answered. “You will meet everyone.”
This had me perplexed and worried. Since I had just got off of a flight that took a couple of days, I was starting to feel a little worse for wear and in need of a shower if I was to meet people. The clothes I wore were my traveling clothes, my John Jay hoodie and some slightly worn traveling jeans. If I were to meet someone whom I was to impress, I needed very much to change my clothes, perhaps into the Dolce and Gabbana suit that I had bought at 90% off in NYC. Which 10 years later, I still have that suit which has traveled all around the world at this point. That was one of the best purchases that I’ve ever made.
The driver, introduced to me as “Roy,” put my bags into the trunk of a Volkswagen Santana, a model of which I was not familiar, but that had the boxy style of most early 1990s Volkswagen sedans. I would learn soon that Chinese taxis were often Vokswagon Santanas. Incidentally, Ray’s English never improved and my Chinese was always less than patchy so we would always just smile to each other and be on the verge of words. Sometimes he would touch my arm if I walked past him at a company gathering. I should also say here that this Michael is not the same Michael that became my best friend in China, the Michael who was my shopping buddy and is now married and living in Guangzhou.
The highway, winding over and under a network of white concrete overpasses, its exits marked with shining green signs, looked much the same as in the U.S. but the surroundings were much different. Here and there, gazebos and farmhouses with tiled roofs dotted the landscape. Ornate oriental bridges gave the scenery the look of a dusty silk painting. An occasional road construction crew, manning trucks that were manufactured during the Cultural Revolution, slowed traffic. It was a Texas without the sprawling auto malls, a Texas in the Orient. Soon after we left the airport, I saw a billboard for Hooters. The Hooters billboard strangely set me at ease.
Roy chain-smoked in the car and drove manically, zigging in and out of the urgent parking lane, narrowly avoiding collisions with all sorts of non-emission controlled vehicles. Michael and Roy spoke Chinese to one another, ignoring me. When I spoke, Michael suggested I have a rest.
The expressway seemed to stretch for miles and miles from the airport into Shanghai. Suburban sprawl sprawled out on both sides of the expressway. Colossal new high-rise apartments engulfed tenement shantytowns. Many residents in the high-rises looked upon their balconies, of which there were many, as spare closets. The beauty was sporadic.
After we drove for an hour or more, we pulled off the highway and onto a winding road overgrown with tropical foliage. Finally, Roy stopped in front of a boxy monolithic modern, concrete and glass compound, which had a communist chic about it. It did not look to be a school. Where were we? Maybe my carriers were dropping me at the compound of white slavery. Everything was in their hands and up in the air, as it seemed to me. What did I know about human trafficking? Was I too old to be trafficked?
Sensing my growing nervousness, Michael told we were at the police station. I had to be registered, like a dog or a gun or a nurse.
As we entered the glass entry doors, I saw clerks behind windows, as in a bank. Michael chose a young female clerk to register me. She handed us a form, a residence registration form. Michael filled out part of it and then he handed it to me and I filled out some of it.
While I filled out my part, the woman and Michael discussed various points. Of course, this took place entirely in Chinese. For all I knew, they could have been discussing the finer points of cheating on taxes, betting on horse races, playing Yahtzee, dancing with Madame Mao. “Madame Mao can’t get it on like…”
This entire time, I was bubbling over with ambassadorial goodwill and eagerness to make friends in China, but Michael, all business, deflected my attempts to make conversation. Was this businesslike stiffness a Chinese trait? My experience with the Chinese was limited at this point.
As Michael finished filling out the rest of the form, I studied my surroundings. Across the foyer, a man was bellowing and at times seemed to be sobbing. The officials behind the windows across from the man seemed to pity him or be embarrassed for him. I could not tell which. Although I was desperate to know what the man was so distraught about, I did not ask Michael. At this early stage of my arrival, I thought it improper to ask.
From the police station, we drove to the campus at Songjiang, a Shanghai suburb. A fortress welcomed me. At the entrance stood an ancient guard tower like one in a fairy tale – or a medieval war epic – with two massive red wooden doors, which swung open when we approached. Up to that point, this was the most Chinese and somewhat mystical thing I had seen. Later I learned that this gate had been built 700 years ago as one of four entrances to the then-walled city of Songjiang. Some of the original bricks could still be seen near its base. Inside the entrance of the fortress was a booth manned by two guards, who were smoking and laughing. They waved us on through. We drove down a lane, which went past the entrance 1000 meters or so and then curved to the right. We drove 500 meters more and parked.
We parked in a bend in the road, which curved to the left at that point. All was fairly quiet. There was no one milling around on the campus.
“This is your flat,” Michael announced.
I gazed at the graying concrete block with anticipation. For most people, this would not be very exciting news. For me, however, this was exciting. You see, at that point, I had not lived in a place that was my very own for over a year, actually for more than a year and a half. While I lived in NYC, I crashed with friends or sublet. I never had my own place that was all mine to do with, as I liked.
The building was wonderfully utilitarian in look, like a chic yet rustic bunker, Chairman Mao’s love-pad. I was quite excited to see my place. On the phone, Headmistress Elizabeth told me that I had two balconies. I had never known anyone to have two balconies. A twenty-something blonde walked out of the building.
“Hi I’m Jennifer,” she said as she walked up to me smiling and then laughing.
“Hi, I’m Tyson,” I said as I spread out my arms. “I just got here and I already love it.” For some reason, immediately, I spotted a kindred spirit in this laughing blonde.
“I gotta head to class. I’ll talk to you later,” she said as she smiled and walked in the direction of the school’s buildings. Jennifer was my best friend there for that first year and a half until she moved back to America. Later, I learned that she had graduated from Vassar. She was incredibly smart and always ready to pitch in and help at anytime. She definitely helped ease my culture shock.
Looking back on it now, I know that I was very fortunate in the way everything transpired when I first got there. Living on campus in an apartment made it easier to adapt to the culture which I grew to love of course. Nevertheless, there were always bumps in the road but I had enough of a support group to handle them without too much difficulty. The other aspect that helped me was that, a lot of the time, I felt as if I was in a dream world, nothing was real and that I could make the dream be what I wanted it to be which often helped.
(Click the link below to read the blog I kept while living in China.)