Saturday, August 3, 2013

UK Day Trip vs. Chinese Day Trip

As part of our R&R trip this summer, we spent about a week in London, including a day trip to Stonehenge and Salisbury. Coming from three years abroad in less developed countries - two years in China and a year in Botswana - we marveled at the streamlined efficiency and ease of living that is everywhere in the UK. The trip to Stonehenge and Salisbury was no exception - hop on the Tube to Paddington Station, purchase a ticket for one of the regular trains from London to Salisbury, ride an hour in an assigned seat on a lovely, quiet, and clean train, and there you are in Salisbury! Want to go to Stonehenge? A nice gentleman from a legitimate tour company walks the train offering a convenient bus package to Stonehenge. Yes, you can pay by credit card right there on the train, and the tour to Stonehenge leaves every thirty minutes from several strategically located bus stops throughout Salisbury. There are also cabs in an orderly queue outside the train station should you choose a more private mode of transportation. It's as simple as that!

It was interesting to imagine undertaking a day trip of the same distance in China and speculating about what the differences in experience would be. In fact, there was no need to speculate because we had taken multiple trips like this while living in Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province as English teachers and then in Shanghai after that. No matter how many times you've experienced the Chinese Day Trip, each time you manage to convince yourself that this time, this time will be different. After all, you tell yourself, it's only a quick trip. I speak Chinese. I know Chinese people. I've done this before. How hard could the trip be, right? Wrong! So, so wrong.

Picture this:

You wait in a throng of people to board the (also clean, efficient, and modern) Chinese Metro (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou) to the Huoche Zhan (train station). The train is jam-packed with boisterous travelers and you have to use the pointy part of your elbow to carve a hole in the human wall that greets you when the train doors open. Fortunately, you are at least eight inches taller than everyone else on the train, so you secure a firm grasp on the greasy metal bar running along the ceiling to help keep your armpit from colliding with the head tops of a cluster of people standing crushed against you.

Finally, you reach the train station and again strategically use your elbows to penetrate the solid mass of humanity standing between you and the doors. Once inside the train station you squint your eyes to decipher the blur of Chinese characters in front of you and finally locate the ticket booth. You join a seething, unruly line and after forming a human blockade with your husband to prevent cutters-in-line from succeeding in getting in front of you (with mixed success) you finally reach the ticket counter, manage to communicate to an awe-stricken ticket agent what you want in Chinese (you can speak Chinese?!), and obtain what you think are two tickets to your destination. Already mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted, you stumble aboard the train and find your seats, hoping to collapse and spend the ride recouping before you are once again expelled into the pulsing throng of people that is China.

But, you can't relax yet! You find that a young couple have settled themselves into your seats and are happily talking loudly, listening to Chinese pop music on their cell phones, and eating oranges and throwing the orange peels on the floor of the train. You check your ticket - excuse me, we're assigned to these seats, you explain in Chinese. The couple laughs and wave their hands ambiguously. Oh, you can sit anywhere! They smile and pop more orange slices into their mouths. You look around the train and realize that all of the other seats are full. No, we want to sit here because these are our seats. You smile back but the smile is strained; more of a grimace really. Your cheeks begin to flush as you realize that you are steeling yourself for a confrontation. In Chinese. Fortunately, the couple look intimidated by your size (again, you and your husband are at least eight inches taller than they are and your couple has about 100 extra pounds on their couple). They mutter (stupid foreigners, they don't understand Chinese culture) and roll their eyes as they get up and let you sit in your assigned seat.

You sink - nay, collapse! - into the seat, which is slightly sticky and smells like citrus - and close your eyes. Peace at last.... until 30 seconds later when a Chinese kung fu movie comes at full blast on the TV monitor directly above your head. You sigh, turn up your iPod to block out the noise, and realize that you haven't even left the train station yet. And the day wears on....

One thing (there are many) that I have taken away from my time living in China is a true appreciation for experiences like our trip to Salisbury and Stonehenge, where everything was just as easy and smooth as we thought it would be from the beginning - just there and back with no unanticipated challenges along the way.  Despite what you may think from this blog entry, I enjoyed living in China and I do find myself missing the vibrancy and excitement (and exhaustion!) of every day life there. While something as simple as a metro or train ride can turn into an unexpectedly frustrating experience, there is certainly never a dull moment in China, that's for sure! It's been a year since we left China but it is still a refreshing treat to go somewhere like London and not have to worry about using your elbows to board the train, confronting an orange-eating couple who are sitting in your seats, or communicating in a foreign language which no one quite believes you can really speak.

These are the small things that we miss when we are abroad!