Ok. I’ve had a few hours’ sleep, a bite to eat and a couple of successful walks around town, and am now sufficiently recovered to blog a bit about our journey and first impressions.

The Journey Before the Journey
The journey to China began with three smaller trips to Toronto to obtain Chinese visas. While, ideally, one would prefer to do it in two trips – one to drop the application up and one to pick up the resultant visa – I was relieved that it only took me three trips. The application form itself is full of vague questions that are often inconsistent with other questions on the same form. Likewise, the website for the Chinese visa application centre features many mutually inconsistent factoids. Should the photo for the visa be 2X2 inches or 22 mm X 33 mm? The website in one place says the former is mandatory; elsewhere it says the latter. The form demands a “local ID card number.” Do I have a local ID card number, or is that, like the “name in Chinese characters” cell and the “name in ethnic script” cell, a question intended solely for folks from a Chinese background? Come to think of it, am I supposed to write my name in Chinese characters and in “ethnic script” (so, like, cursive?)?

One might have hoped that the visa application centre’s supplementary document with instructions for filling out the application would have been useful. As it turns out, it was merely polite. Its elaboration of the “local ID card number” instruction simply read “please write your local ID card number here.” …of “name in ethnic script” – “Please write your name in ethnic script.” You get the idea.

In the end, I just filled out the form as well as I could, cleared a day, and then headed to Toronto to drop it off. On the way, I was delayed by a massive, tree-crashing rainstorm that stopped the traffic in its tracks. I called the Chinese consulate’s phone number to shift my appointment time, but there was no answer. The phone rang perhaps forty times before an automated message informed me that “the cellular customer you are trying to reach is not available.” Huh.

The consulate, an unassuming building in a quiet residential neighbourhood. The only real cue that it’s the Chinese consulate is the lone, drenched, indefatigable Falun Gong protester outside. I parked a couple of blocks away. One broken umbrella and good soaking later, I was at the modest sentry gate at the entrance, where the laconic Russian guard informed me that the consulate was no longer accepting visa applications. “Six months ago,” he told me, “You go here instead.” And, he handed me a card.

The new application centre is big, bright and cheerful, with a strange, empty, efficient feeling, rather than the crowded hustle and bustle that I associate with China. After a brief wait, I was called to a wicket where I was, in short order chastised for not having filled out my family members’ and my “local ID number” on the form. When I said that I thought it was just a Chinese thing, he gave me an exasperated look, and replied that everyone has local ID numbers – your health card number, your driver’s licence number…

Then, I presented the invitation letter I’d received from my employer in China. When they mailed it to me (regular mail, not registered mail, like they’d used for the floral pink Easter card they sent me – Oh, China!), they told me not to open it, to bring it sealed to the visa application centre. Once I was there though, the staff all rolled their eyes at me for having brought them a sealed envelope. I opened the letter and handed it to the staff member. He read through and began asking me questions that made clear to me that the letter contained a number of fictions. “Oh, so you are just delivering a lecture at the university,” he asked, “You’re not being paid?” Um. Not wishing to paint myself into an undesirable corner, I replied, “Lectures. Yes. I’ll be giving lectures to students. And, pay? Hmm. They are paying for my expenses, but actually I’m not sure whether the compensation I will receive strictly speaking counts as pay. I’ll have to check.”

It wasn’t the specifics of my appointment, however, that got in the way of my visa application, but the lack of local ID numbers for my family members, and plane and hotel reservations for all of us. (Nothing on the visa application form or the consular website stipulates that the latter are required, but I learned early on in the process not to argue. That’s what you get for visiting a totalitarian state, I figure.)

So, I returned a week later with the newly requisite documents and the apparently always-requisite local ID numbers, and some light tweaks to the details elaborated on our application forms. This time, after a long exchange with the counter staff and their further alterations to my application (including their discarding of some of the supporting documentation I’d been asked to provide, documentation which was now regarded as unnecessary), I was able to drop our applications off. The next week, I cleared a whole day, fully expecting that my application would have been rejected and that I’d have to start the process again. Astonishingly, though, when I returned to the centre, our visas were waiting for me.
Now, the visas are for 60 days, and we’re in China for 61 days, but otherwise, success! And, at time of writing, we have 58 days remaining to sort out that little bug. All the time in the world, right?

The Journey-Journey
The trip itself was just like any other long journey. Panicky preparations the night before, a bleary ride to the airport at 4 a.m. Sleep deprivation-caused giddiness and confusion, small portions of crappy food… Our journey spanned 26 hours from the time our first flight took off to the time the last flight landed. A sandwich of two bouncy little planes (Toronto to Chicago, and Shanghai to Nanjing) stuffed with one big, comfy 777 (Chicago to Shanghai on a route that traversed Canada diagonally from southeast to northwest, passed over Alaska and the Bering Straight, and then headed south to Shanghai over Siberia, Mongolia and Japan.). This, the longest, flight took about 14 hours.

What was striking about that leg? Well, the flight attendants were all white and were mostly in their 50s and 60s. I get the sense that these really long-haul flights get staffed by the most senior flight crews. So, the flight crew was a bit of a time capsule, providing a glimpse into the cabin of planes 30 years ago, when flight attendants were stewardesses in chaste navy suits and scarves. Now senior, our flight attendants were all highly competent with a (to me) charming “I’ve seen it all before, honey” air of resignation.
The Kid and I had ordered vegan meals in advance. (Meals! This is another way in which the flight felt like a time machine. Remember when meals were included with your flight? Well, they still are when you fly to Asia. Wine and beer too! But gone are the days of parisienne potatoes and baby vegetables arranged adorably on porcelain. Nothing was adorable about any of the three small meals we received en route, and the dishware was of course disposable. One shudders to think about how much landfills are swollen by these flights crisscrossing the globe.) One of these meals was sheathed in layers of saran wrap such that the flight attendant was struggling to unwrap it. I smiled a big, goofy smile and opined “Anything wrapped that well must be good, huh.” Without missing a beat, she shot back a wry, “I wouldn’t bet on it.” And she was right.

That flight began our linguistic immersion too. Most of the passengers were Chinese, and the announcements were all bilingual in English and Mandarin, with the English always coming first. Once we’d landed though, the final announcement was in Mandarin first, and then English. Another concession to the Chinese passengers: all of the meals (including pizza and mashed potatoes!) were served with chop sticks and little packets of soy sauce. This made me wonder whether Chinese people put soy sauce on everything the way some North Americans do with ketchup. I’m less inclined to this view now though, having eaten dinner in two Chinese restaurants since our arrival. Unlike North American Chinese restaurants, neither of these spots had soy sauce on the table. Of course, we don’t know how to ask for anything; so we’ve been eating our rice plain. But – and I honestly don’t know whether this is merely psychological or whether Chinese rice really is different – the rice has been much more flavourful than we’re used to; so, we haven’t missed the sauce. Of course, the presence or absence of soy sauce was one of the smaller changes that greeted us when we got off the plane.

Pudon and on to Nanjing
The first of these was the air – close, humid and warm, with an odour at once smoky and sweet, like a cigar. The Guy, having lived in Liverpool in the 60s, tells me that the smoky smell is coal soot from the huge coal-fired power plants on China’s eastern seaboard. This is the source of the grey pall that hangs over the city as well. We are all charcoal drawings.
Pudon Airport in Shanghai was, in some respects, what I’d expected – cool stuff like freeze-dried Peking duck and absurd Hello Kitty products in the duty free stores, helpful staff with a smattering of English to help guide us.

One thing I didn’t expect was how easy it would be to go through immigration. I was fully expecting a huge headache, and possibly a scary detour into a secondary inspection area. But we were quickly waved through with only a cursory examination of our documents and no questions at all. They didn’t even ask us if we had anything to declare, and no one inspected our luggage before we left the terminal. (The Kid did have her checked baggage inspected when we went through security for our domestic flight. We think they were looking for drugs. With her new punky butch haircut and nose ring, she looks way more badass than any Chinese we’ve seen yet. She’s been enjoying the disapproving looks that she’s apparently getting. No point in shaving and piercing things and not getting disapproving looks!) The security was looser than it is in travel between Canada and the U.S. On the other hand, there were a couple of guards (or cops, or army dudes – who can tell military from para-military uniforms in a foreign land?) carrying rifles and wearing flak helmets. Flak helmets!

The airport was also shockingly empty for a huge airport in one of the world’s great cities. We saw no other travelers who didn’t look Asian. (I almost said that all of the other travelers were Chinese, but I have no idea whether they were all Chinese or a mixture of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Malaysian… Certainly, one tall, elegant woman with an elegant coiffure, a brilliant floor-length orange silk dress and matching orange stilettos was carrying shopping bags from “Beautiful Malaysia.” All I know is that none of them looked like me.) And, both the international and the domestic terminals had the vacant quality of Mirabel Airport circa 1985.

We had our first real Chinese food in a Cantonese restaurant in the domestic terminal. Braised tofu and stir-fried greens for the Kid and me, short ribs for the Guy. The menu had brief English captions here and there and the staff spoke a wee bit of English; so ordering was easy. We kept having to ask for more time — a pretty abstract request to make using hand gestures alone, it turns out, but one that we had to make again today. In our two experiences in Chinese restaurants, the waitstaff have tried to take our order a mere minute or two after we received our menus. The food was delicious, as was the strong tea the Kid and I drank. The Guy loves Tsingtao, China’s Budweiser; so he’s been passing on chai – yes, it’s “chai” in Chinese, just as it is in Hindi and Russian and Starbucks – in favour of beer. The food was a little too delicious, as it turns out. As is common in Chinese cookery, the tofu was flavoured with pork, something the Kid and I – both vegetarians – haven’t eaten for a long time. The tentative procedure we’ve so far adopted for vegetarian eating in China is to make every effort to order vegetarian dishes, but not to send a tofu (or similar) dish to the bin because of unanticipated pork.
At the next table, a woman of Asian descent intermittently flipped through a pile of books and dozed on her folded arms and didn’t touch at all the steamer of potstickers or the small hotpot placed before her.

At the end of the meal, we began to realize how many little cultural norms we take for granted and would have to relearn in China. Do you wait to be seated in a Chinese restaurant, or just sit down? Do you pay your cheque at the table or take it to the cash? Do you flag down other servers if you need something or wait until yours has returned? Still figuring all of that stuff and so much more (wet umbrellas in the bucket by the door; don’t put the fruit in your shopping basket until the customer service agent has weighed it for you, etc.) out.

By the time we reached our final departure lounge, we still had about four hours until our next flight. It didn’t matter. I was utterly exhausted; so I made a nest out of my carry-on luggage and slept. So did the Kid. While we slept, the Guy was getting to know the other people in the departure lounge – two other SIE faculty members (and one spouse of an SIE faculty member), and the sleeping woman from the Cantonese restaurant, who was friendly and clearly felt a bond with us – she’s from New Jersey, as it turns out. Perhaps, we looked more familiar to her than anyone else did. And then, with little warning, as if minutes rather than hours had passed, the Guy was shaking the Kid and me awake. “The plane is boarding.” Still drooling and scrambling to gather my belongings, I stumbled to the bus waiting to take us onto the tarmac. Nanjing, here I come!

26 hours later — still fresh as a daisy. Blergh.