Thursday, January 06, 2011


It's telling that shanghai's major airport means "shit" in two different languages: Pudong International Airport. This was my second time here, and my first time back in the fantastic People's Republic of China since that cold afternoon in August 2009 when I exited via a remote border crossing 5,000 kilometres away in the west.

That day, about a dozen border policemen stood around doing nothing but checking my passport over and over, as well as my luggage and the pictures in my camera. Like a teacher whose lesson has ended well before the bell and has to make up something in a hurry to keep kids busy, they pretended to make themselves look important and busy, but without much success.

I've had layovers in six different countries now: Canada, Japan, America, Thailand, Taiwan and now China. Any country important enough, or one that thinks itself important enough, will make you claim the baggage you checked earlier and check it again. The idea, i guess, is that a passenger who checked a bag in some sleepy airport like Kathmandu or Bishkek shouldn't get a free pass to have that baggage exit some advanced country full of wealthy, light-skinned people.

The reality is absurd. No safety is added by passengers retrieving their luggage from one conveyor belt and placing it on another, but maybe this is just a form of free labour for airports. Of course, no one ever went broke, looked bad or lost an election being a berserk, over-the-top, shit-flinging paranoid monkey when it comes to airport security. I've had the pleasure of retrieving and promptly checking baggae in Canada, America and Japan. Today i had the pleasure of doing this in China.

I landed at Shanghai's Pudong Airport at about 3 pm, with a connecting flight to Toronto at 5:45. Pudong Airport is named for its location east of the river (dong means east). The part of Shanghai west of the river is called Puxi. I'll let you figure out on your own why that's a bad name for anything. hint: 'xi' is pronounced like 'she'.

After i got off the plane, I walked through a corridor where one sign pointed left to "arrivals" and "baggage", the next one to "domestic tranfers" and the last one to "international transfers". When i arrived at the sign for international transfers, it was really just a desk for certain airlines to offer information to transferring passengers. There was no one at the desk or within about a half mile. I walked back to the domestic tranfers sign, which was even more deserted, before descending to the immigration line for "arrivals" and "baggage".

I asked a man if this was the place to transfer. He said it was, though what he really did was to make a sound that was a hybrid between hissing and clucking. He was too busy herding a group of middle-aged Korean women like cattle, their having made some unfortunate mistake.

When I got to the immigration officer, she asked for my arrival card. I was told that they were only for people actually staying in China, and why not? There were sections for an address in China, the length of my stay in days, and the purpose of my visit (transit not being an option). But, whatever, I filled out the card and returned to the officer, who scrutinized everything enough to make it seem like she was doing a job.

Then she asked me to come with her. I sat down in a small lounge in the absolute center of the 50 or so desks in this hall. A few other people joined us. "I think they're trying to get enough people together so that they can personally take us to our gate," a woman from Hong Kong explained.

After about fiften minutes, as people came and went and I raised my hands in disbelief that met with averted stares, I asked someone what i was waiting for. "You are wait for stamp," she gruffly said.
"What stamp?"
"Just please wait," she tried to summon up the politest English she had learned with her middle school education.

After another five minutes, some frog-like man said with an amused grin that said he had never worked at an airport before, "Your flight is from Hong Kong, so--"
"No it's not."
"We are wait for list of passengers so that--"
"Why? You already cleared me over there," I gestured to the officer at desk 43.
"We need list of passengers--"
"It is Chinese law, we--" he launched into a proud explanation, but I realized that about the only recourse I had in this situation was to be rude enough to not give him the satisfaction of making up whatever story he had.

After about 45 minutes of waiting, he said with the grin of someone who was now my best friend, "hey, it is now okay." The glare i gave him was startled him a little. It was like watching a nerdy kid who realized that not everyone is as interested in discussing homework at recess.

During this time, of course, my baggage carousel was now empty. I found it by the information booth. Since I've only used this suitcase once before, I made sure it was mine.

"hey, this is not your suitcase," a smartly-dressed woman looking like a napoleon impersonator came running from the China Eastern desk. Her accent and face indicated origins far from Shanghai.
"Huh? How do you even know who I am? Who are YOU?"
"This is ASIANA AIRLINE! Not your suitcase."
"Yeah, right, I came on an Asiana flight."
"Is this YOUR suitcase?"
"Yes it is."
"Baggage tag? Your baggage tag."

I gave her my baggage tag and she walked away without an apology or another word.

I walked out with about 1,000 people through the customs line, which was really just a door with nobody there. I was free to go anywhere I wanted in China, which was not what I expected. I walked through the hordes of men and hotel touts with name cards for people, but also selling hotels to me and, in one case, a sim card. This is That China Smell, I remarked to myself, which seems to consist of body odour and cigarettes, one trying to mask the other. I should say that I don't really mind it that much. Don't ask.

As an added insult, I went to the Air Canada counter to check in. The check-in process was abruptly interrupted when the hillbilly working the computer advised by the better-polished hillbilly asked me to wait by the side, while her better-polished counterpart went running with my passport.

"Uh, what is this? Why am I waiting?"

After about ten minutes, I managed to track down the senior hillbilly, who said something about another passenger on the plane having "similar information to you, so we need to check the information." After another ten minutes, this was all done. She gestured and said something about the baggage check. When I realized I had no boarding pass, I went back.

"Miss, there's no boarding pass here."
"Yes, you need to check your bag and then I give you the boarding pass."
"What baggage? I just checked it."
"You need to check your baggage."
"I just checked it.
"Follow me."

Trying to pull out the finest manners she had learned, she held open the cordon for me. We walked into a barely-visible "baggage check room", where a man in an ill-fitting uniform had me open my suitcase. He squeezed the clothes a few times and zipped it up.

When I went to get my boarding pass, everyone was gone. The new woman looked at me like I had three heads. She found the old women, who took me back into the room where everyone sat around talking for a few minutes, with the upshot being that no one had any idea what was going on. She took the time to explain how to board a plane to me in excruciating detail and a barely-comprehensible accent.

"You are really, really bad at your job," I said slowly in place of a swear word, and walked away. Later on, I regretted saying that, particularly when I got an immigration officer going out, who worked so hard to get a high rating on the rating buttons Chinese airports have for immigration officer. Many of the people standing around the duty-free shops and airline counters looked like they had worked really hard to get what was a middle-class occupation in a big city, and were sincerely trying to cope with the demands of being a world city.

On the other hand, after writing all this, I feel like I should have pointed out the absurdity of the situation in a more detailed rant on the spot, at least to the Air Canada employees. China is hopping on the airport excess train like other countries, but there was an immense number of dim-witted workers who lack enough knowledge to be asshole rule-based automatons of the sort found back in the West.


Junga said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Loly said...

I love your title pun as always!

Adeel said...

저희 볼로그로 방문해주셔서 정말 감사해요. 다음에도 건강한 모습으로 뵙겠습니다.

Adeel said...

And, yes, I know what 저희 means.

Loly said...

the deleted comment is also mine. 네, 다음에 건강한 모습으로 다시 뵙겠습니다.