The modern air transportation system was invented in the United States, but is no longer a world leader. It’s easy to make such broad pronouncements, but the details matter and I’d like to share a story that shows just how far things have fallen in America since the days of Pan Am.

I’m writing this while sitting on a Delta flight from Beijing back to the US. There isn’t much else to do. Today’s flight started with a relentless upsell to a supposedly “enhanced” economy product that is essentially the same thing that economy used to be. I declined. Onboard, it’s been humorless flight attendants scolding passengers for the slightest perceived transgressions, followed by food served in such small portions that I‘d complain if it wasn’t so bad. The restrooms are none too clean on this flight, and the in-flight entertainment system is broken. This controls the reading lights, so the cabin crew just decided to leave the lights on for 11 hours on an overnight flight. And Delta, lest anyone think I am beating up on them, is one of the better US airlines. Flying Aeroflot is literally a better experience than flying US Airways and I’d fly even China Eastern (the worst of the Chinese airlines) over United.

If you live in the US, you probably think that this is just how flying is. That the experience of being groped and screamed at by TSA agents, scolded by airline employees, abused by arbitrary fees and overall being threatened and cajoled by petty people exercising whatever petty power they have to the maximum extent is just the way the airline industry works. If you fly in the US, or with US airlines, this is largely true. The story changes when you leave. In Asia, most airlines still have good service. Some have exceptional service. I’ve become accustomed to being treated like a human being when I fly in Asia, but the levels of courtesy and kindness I recently experienced in Japan makes me wonder why the US can’t be more like this.

At the end of my recent vacation to Palau, I stopped over for a few days in Japan. Since I’ve only ever spent much time in Tokyo, I decided to visit Kyoto and Osaka, places I’ve wanted to see for a long time but haven’t visited due to the high cost of travel there (a one-way train ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto, a 2 hour journey, costs about $150). This time, I decided that since I’d saved so much money on my trip to Palau by staying with a friend instead of at a hotel, I would take the plunge. I took a bullet train to Kyoto, enjoying a wonderful couple of days there, and then visited Osaka for an amazing two days of exploration. Reviewing my options to return to Tokyo for my flight, I discovered an amazing deal: American Airlines offered one-way award tickets for domestic Japanese flights for only 7,500 Aadvantage miles (plus a $75 fee). It’s always nice to actually be able to use miles (they’re easy to earn and hard to use) so I jumped at the chance.

Not really considering there may be more logistics involved than flying to the correct airport in Tokyo (there are two, Narita being the larger one), I went ahead and booked a flight. When I showed up at the Osaka airport, though, I discovered that there was a big problem: JAL does not have a baggage transfer agreement with ANA, the airline I was flying back to Beijing. I hadn’t really considered this as a possibility; nearly all airlines I’ve ever flown except for Southwest have baggage transfer agreements with nearly every other airline. “Nearly” was the operative word in this case and it looked like I was out of luck.

The JAL staff told me the bad news, and as is typical in Japan, just quietly waited for my response. Many Americans would have gotten angry, but I knew how to respond. “Well, I need to catch my ANA flight from Narita, since I am transferring to Beijing. Here is my itinerary,” I politely said, handing them a printout. “I won’t have time to check in my bag, claim it, and then re-check the bag in Narita. Can you please help me solve this problem?”

Business in Japan is done very carefully and deliberately. First, the JAL staff called ANA. If I cancelled my ticket with JAL and bought another one on ANA, they could check my bag through, and I’d make my next flight. However, this would cost over $300, and I’d also lose the fee I paid to book the JAL ticket plus a redeposit fee for my miles. This would push the overall cost up over $400. “I can’t really afford that,” I explained. “Is there a less expensive option?”

Furrowed brows, furious typing, a hushed phone call in Japanese, and then one of the ticket agents (there were two working at this point) came to the other side of the counter to look at my bags. “It’s OK,” she finally said. “The flight is not full, you can carry your bags on the plane. But you still may not have enough time to connect in Narita, you have to change terminals there. You will have to hurry when you get there, and there is no guarantee you will make your flight. I understand it’s expensive, but if you book with ANA they will guarantee your connection, we can only do our best.”

I had a bottle of scotch I’d bought at the duty free in Guam, and explained that carrying on my bags probably wouldn’t work because I had liquids in my bag. “Oh, that’s no problem. This is a domestic flight in Japan. If you don’t have any cigarette lighters, matches, or hair spray, you can carry that on board.” Of course! I should have guessed. Japan is a civilized country that makes rational judgments about risk, choosing to treat airline passengers as law-abiding citizens rather than potential terrorists. I smiled, bowed, said “domo arigato,” and collected my boarding pass. I wasn’t too worried about the risk. The worst case scenario was probably another night in Tokyo, and taking the next available flight back to Beijing. My ANA ticket was an award ticket, so it was flexible; I’d be able to stand by for their next flight.

Osaka airport security was quick, thorough, and friendly. The agent had a question about a can of shaving cream in my bag, and wanted to make sure it wasn’t hair spray. She was polite and efficient in opening my bag to check and the whole thing took less than a minute. In the US, the same situation would have likely resulted in a swarm of TSA thugs tearing my bag apart, playing twenty questions, and testing my shoes for explosives. The plane left the gate on time, but there was a ground hold due to air traffic control and we were late taking off for Narita. I wasn’t going to have much time to transfer once I got there.

Japanese flight crews are polite and precise, the service always impeccable, perfect English, and excellent food. Beverages and snacks were served even though it was only a 1 hour flight. Thoughtfully, the gate staff had seated me as close to the front of the plane as possible to allow me to disembark as quickly as possible.

When I arrived in Tokyo, I was surprised to see a uniformed ANA agent standing just inside the gate holding a sign with my name on it. I approached her and introduced myself. “Please walk quickly towards baggage claim. At the end of the walkway, there” as she pointed, “an agent will meet you and take you to your next flight.” 100 meters further, another ANA agent standing next to a whiteboard with my name on it. “OK, sir, we have notified ANA that you are coming, and you can check in for your flight. We need to hurry. Come quickly, you need to take a shuttle bus to transfer to their terminal.” I followed the agent, assuring her I could keep up if she wanted to go faster, which she did. We sprinted through the terminal at close to a dead run, arriving curbside, where an airport volunteer was waiting for me. “This man will take you to the ANA ticket counter. Have a nice flight!” she said, leaving me with a polite bow and returning to the terminal.

As if on cue, a Narita shuttle bus pulled up at curbside. I was the only passenger, and the bus drove straight to the ANA terminal, to the area closest to the check-in counters. “Come with me,” the Narita volunteer said, “I know the fastest way.” I followed him into the terminal, up an elevator I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed, and to the ticket counter. The Narita volunteer, wearing all of the confidence of his yellow volunteer sweater, walked me straight to the front of the line and directly to the first class check-in counter. He told the agent my name, and she began furiously typing on her computer. I handed her my passport and bags, showing her my China visa. She tagged my bags, marked them “priority,” and handed me my boarding pass. “There may not be time today for duty-free shopping,” she said, “please go directly to the gate. If you do this, I’m sure you will make your flight.” She was right. I went through immigration, stamped out of Japan, and arrived at my gate during the final boarding call.

I booked an impossibly short connection, made assumptions about baggage transfers I shouldn’t have made, and showed up at the check-in counter a mere 45 minutes prior to an international flight. Instead of scolding me, lecturing me, and pointlessly enforcing petty rules on the number of carry-on bags, JAL and ANA did literally everything they could to help me solve a problem that was entirely my fault. And they did all of this for an absolute nobody, someone who has never flown them before and probably won’t fly them again soon, and traveling on a free ticket! The service was exact, impeccable, and remarkably considerate–even for Japan. I’m just trying to imagine how a similar scenario would have played out in the US. I’d undoubtedly have been stranded, and would probably have been charged through the nose to stand by for the next flight, and I’d have been berated and scolded and harangued every step of the way. No wonder people in the US hate flying. I think it’s no surprise that passenger numbers drop as people drive incredibly long distances just to avoid the humiliating experience of being groped and shouted at by the TSA, while simultaneously being berated by unfriendly airline employees and charged arbitrary fees in a petty manner. In the US, I’ve often had to open two bags and shift one or two pounds worth of items between them to avoid a $70 fee. At some point, it becomes simple harassment.

Nothing makes me look forward to returning to Beijing like a US airport. In China, immigration is always friendly, usually with a smile and hearty “ni hao!” Domestic flights are hassle-free. Tickets cost around the same as you’d pay in the US for equivalent distance, sometimes less, but every airline is full service. And I’ve never been yelled at, scolded, or groped by anyone in a Chinese airport. The story is the same in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, essentially everywhere I’ve been throughout Asia. The only country I’ve visited with an experience even closely approximating the US is North Korea. Meanwhile, US airlines endlessly lose money and complain that they need more fee revenue, cutting back service and benefits for even the most frequent fliers. People will put up with a lot of abuse from Ryanair or Air Asia if the fare was nearly free, but I can’t think of any industry in the world where high prices and poor service is a winning combination. Maybe what the industry needs instead of more fee revenue is a look in the mirror.


A reader wrote and asked me something that seems perfectly logical from the perspective of an American, but utterly perplexing from a Chinese perspective or even the perspective of someone who has lived here for awhile:

I’m in China for the next couple weeks and I’m trying to plan out interesting things to do.
I saw you moved over here a while back and might have a suggestion
or two. I’m in Yangshuo until the 4th and my flight back to Seattle
leaves from Shanghai on the 12th so I’ve got 8 days or so to fill with
stuff. I’m not a giant fan of tourist traps so I’m trying to avoid
things like the great wall and the terracotta warriors. Any suggestions
you might have would be greatly appreciated.

It makes a lot of sense, right? I hate tourist traps when I travel. If I wanted to see a tourist trap, I would have booked a trip to one. Except then it probably wouldn’t have been a trap, right?

Here’s my reply:

Given where you are, I assume you are in China for beauty and backpacking. You’re actually in one of the best places in the country, but do head west – take plenty of time in Guizhou, and then make your way through Yunnan. You can fly back to Shanghai from Lijiang. There is a lot to see, and the second highest waterfall in the world is in Guizhou.

A few words about crowds and tourist traps. China has 1.4 billion people. If you are anywhere without crowds, it’s because Chinese people don’t go there. Any place of historical, cultural or scenic interest is rapaciously commercialized. This is part of the China Experience (TM). It’s a very different culture than our own. If you are at all like me, you will hate this to the core of your being until one day, you accept that you’re in a very different place, a different society, one that operates with an entirely different set of values. This is a place where it’s OK to bulldoze an ancient hutong in the center of Beijing, thousands of years old, surviving the collapse of multiple dynasties and the cultural revolution, for the sake of building a KFC and a KTV. And, of course, another giant featureless housing development with an enormous parking garage that will be full of Audi A6s. Money is the be-all and end-all, and most old things have no value. China is about young and brash, new and flash. Nowhere is this more on display than in Shanghai. The country is the embodiment of all that I admired at the age of fourteen, and at 61 years of Communism, modern China is in the throes of adolescence.

Welcome to high school. Noisy, crowded and self-absorbed.

Taking a train from Beijing to Badaling on a weekend, when the Great Wall is teeming with thousands upon thousands of Chinese people from all over the country, littering and spitting all over the place with a kid standing in the corner pissing off the top, *is* the “real” China. Walking up and down thousands of stairs at Leshan with even thousands more Chinese people shoving and swearing and trying to cut in front of you after paying the third rip-off fee along the way makes it no less magnificent. Don’t worry about the money. It’s quick and easy to lose perspective. You’ll get ripped off (another part of the experience) but it’ll usually be for less than $5 each time, so don’t let it ruin your day. And don’t worry about the people. In a society where most people are very poor, and there are an awful lot of people, you have to scrap to get ahead.

Minority villages in Guizhou, in Yunnan and in Sichuan are awesome. You can buy some really incredible, unique art that doesn’t look Chinese at all. The Han people have complicated relationships with minority cultures and will act very concerned if you plan to visit minority villages. They will issue dire and exaggerated (but not entirely unfounded, so don’t be overly dismissive) warnings about venturing into minority areas uninvited. This means that you may end up in a tourist trap of a larger village, but it also means that if you time it right, you’ll get to see dance performances and they’ll have a Saturday market. Culture is, unfortunately, a luxury that goes by the wayside when you make less than $2,000 a year and food inflation is rampant, so you find that people have little time for that when you’re truly in the hinterlands. That aside, minority people tend to be very friendly and curious about foreigners, as long as you are respectful of customs that may dramatically differ both from our own and from the Han people. Be hyper-observant, it’s easy to offend. You’ll be surrounded by groups of children in no time, and may have been one of the first foreigners they’ve ever seen. Make a good impression.

Guizhou is the poorest and least developed province in China. Transportation is shared minibus taxis. They might have been sort of safe once but aren’t now. You can share these kinds of buses with live chickens and sometimes other livestock so watch out for hungry goats after your lunch. You can have similar experiences in Yunnan, wondering whether you’ll be later featured in a one column inch article titled “Bus Plunge Kills 29 in Yunnan, One American.” And you should have these experiences, they’re another part of this very complicated culture.

Make friends. They’re the key to an incredible experience. Chinese people are generally very friendly, except when they’re trying to rip you off. You have to take risks to figure out who is genuine. Make them calculated ones, but do take risks. You’d be amazed at the hospitality of the Chinese. They usually have their own ideas about the US, and they are shaped by Hollywood and pop culture. They will automatically assume you are rich. Do your best to demonstrate that the US is as varied and diverse as is China – actually, we’re much more so, but then it becomes a competitive argument and Chinese people love to win. 🙂

When children point at you and say “Laowai! Laowai!” you can make them laugh if you look at them, act surprised, and say “Zhong guo ren!” (They’re saying “Foreigner, Foreigner!” and you’re saying “Chinese person!”) And never underestimate how much goodwill a friendly smile and “ni hao!” will get you. If you enter a private home, always greet everyone individually with “ni hao” and take off your shoes. When you leave, individually tell everyone either “bye bye” or “zai jian.”

In Shanghai, you’ll be ready for Mexican food. The only good Mexican food I have found in China is at a ridiculously expensive restaurant called Mi Tierra ( Don’t worry about the prices, just order from the menu and pay the bill when you get it. Everything is absolutely authentic. It would be a good Mexican restaurant in Mexico. Otherwise, Shanghai is a place where you can’t drink the water (it’ll give you instant diarrhea) but you still pay US prices or more for everything. It’s glitzy glamorous, China’s financial center and the most expensive place you’ll visit.

Beijing – it’s the capital. You should see this. The Great Wall, Forbidden City and Summer Palace are all tourist traps but you can’t really come to China without seeing them. Or maybe you can. It’s a city of contradictions, a microcosm of the entire country. Both ancient and modern, rich and poor, young and old, fast-paced and a place where you can know your neighbors. Beijing is the center of culture, learning, and government. You really feel like you’re in the middle of something incredible when you are here. I live in a neighborhood that looks like it belongs in a movie, and every day I wonder how it is that I could possibly live in such an amazing place. There is a temple a block away from my apartment that is over 800 years old. Hit me up if you make it here – if you do not bring bedbugs, you can have the guest room.

Enjoy your visit to my temporarily adopted home. China is an incredible place, and I hope you can both enjoy it and get as close to the culture as you can.

Work has been really intense for the past couple of months. So intense that I’ve worked every weekend and have even had to put Chinese lessons (which I absolutely need) on the back burner. Finally things calmed down enough to take a weekend off. I decided to get out of the country. That way I had a reasonable excuse for not going back into the office over the weekend (it turned out that I needed that excuse, but that’s a story that won’t get posted here).

So, I went to Seoul. By accident.

Over the past month, I’d been planning to visit Seoul and visit Helena Meyer-Knapp, one of my former college professors who has a post-doc fellowship at a university there. Her area of study is the development of peacemaking, something that is definitely top of mind for the leaders of the Republic of Korea. Since the end of the Korean War, the Korean peninsula has been divided under an uneasy truce into north and south, and is separated by a DMZ. In 2005 I visited the northern part, and was one of the first Americans to visit the DPRK (as North Korea calls itself–“Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”) as a tourist. It seemed only fitting to visit the DMZ with someone whose life’s work is dedicated to erasing it. And who better to explore Seoul with – Helena, although many years my senior, is one of my favorite people in the world.

There was only one problem. We had gone back and forth in email to plan dates but were thinking about different months. I ended up booking the wrong month, April instead of May. No matter, the trip is not overly expensive, so even though my tickets were fully refundable and changeable (there’s really no such thing as a non-refundable plane ticket in China) I opted to travel anyway. Why not? The weather forecast was miserable in Beijing and I really needed a break.

I left on Thursday night, and booked the last flight of the day, which is on Korean Air, arriving in Seoul at 12:10AM. I arrived two hours early at the airport prepared for a long wait through immigration (you have to stamp both into and out of China), but was pleasantly surprised at how little wait there was. This gave me time at the airport Starbucks to wrap-up last minute business using the free airport WiFi. You can’t use WiFi in China without registering, and there used to be a very complicated process where you had to find a kiosk (there are only a few in the airport), scan your passport (which often doesn’t work correctly), and then get a username and password. Fortunately it’s a lot easier now. You can just register with your mobile phone and the airport will text you a username and password.

The service on Korean Airlines was typical for an Asian airline. Even though it’s only a 2 hour flight, there was a full meal service, free alcohol, and duty free sales. It somewhat softened the blow of the $400 airfare (one of the consequences of every trip being full service and all tickets being refundable is that the prices are often higher than in the US for a similar distance). There was a little turbulence since it was stormy, but nothing major.

Seoul customs and immigration was breezily efficient, although they didn’t give me all the correct forms on the plane so I had to go fill out an extra form and was required to go to the back of the line to do this. The more developed the country you’re visiting, the more forms there are to fill out for Customs and the more questions they ask. I was prepared for a US-style hassle (the US, Canada and the UK have unfriendly and intrusive customs and immigration) due to the substantial US military presence in Korea and the large number of Americans there. However, I didn’t get stopped or even asked any questions.

Helena had earlier warned me that the airport shuts down at night, and I hadn’t reserved a room. I went out to the airport shuttle area and was delighted to discover that there was one shuttle left, which was going to an area roughly close to where the Renaissance was. I would have to take the bus to a different hotel, then take a taxi to the Renaissance. My reservation at the Renaissance wasn’t until Friday night (with a 2pm check-in time, not a 2am check-in time), but given the distance from the airport and the time the bus left, it would be nearly 3 in the morning when I arrived at the Renaissance. I figured I’d just ask how early I could check in. Hey, if you don’t ask, they can’t say “yes,” right?

I needed money for the airport bus, and there was no ATM near the bus station. I’m glad that I always bring along a few hundred US dollars for emergencies, because it turned out that they only way to quickly get Korean won for the bus was to exchange US dollars with the airport 7-11 at an unfavorable rate. $100 got me 100,000 won, so at the prevailing rate I paid about $7 for the privilege. Still, this is only about double what an ATM fee would have cost me, so it wasn’t too absurd a gouge. I should have paid more attention to where the ATMs were on my way out.

The airport bus costs 15,000 won (the won is a very low valued unit of currency, so you have to divide by 1,000 and subtract 5% to arrive at roughly the dollar conversion). It’s a long ride to the part of Seoul where the Renaissance is, but the driver told me where to get off. And so it was that I found myself sitting at a bus stop at 2 in the morning with a bunch of teenagers. I was so tired that my contact lenses were about to fall out, so I busied myself with taking them out. The kids ignored me. They were busily using a giant touch-screen display attached to the bus stop to flip through satellite view maps of Seoul, apparently trying to figure out their bus route. I just stood and watched, fascinated by the spectacle. South Korea is one of the most technically advanced societies on the planet, and is probably the most sophisticated at this point.

After a few minutes of standing around watching the kids (who pointedly ignored me – a huge difference from Beijing, where if I’d paid attention to anything that teenagers were doing, I’d be quickly surrounded by them trying to practice their conversational English) I decided to try to find something to eat. Since I didn’t have anywhere in particular to be, there wasn’t any hurry to get to the Renaissance. Besides, the later I showed up, the more likely it was that they would let me check in early. I’d seen a 24 hour Internet cafe on the way to the bus stop, so I walked there through the rain. Walking inside, the owner was obviously asleep. One pasty-faced college student was absorbed in a game of World of Warcraft, and never even looked up. I felt bad waking up the owner, and didn’t really want to go online, so I walked back upstairs. Next door to the Internet cafe, there was a 24 hour restaurant. It looked like a greasy spoon, so I figured I’d give Korean food a try.

The waitress didn’t speak any English, and the menu was in Korean and didn’t have any pictures. Eventually, one of the patrons decided to help me. “This is a special restaurant, all the food is stewed pig’s guts.” When I said “Oh, like bacon?” he said “No, the other gut parts. It is very spicy and smelly, most foreigners do not like it.” His girlfriend, also an English speaker, nodded to indicate her concurrence. “The place next door has chicken, it is very good, many foreigners like Korean chicken.” I thanked him and left to go next door. Unfortunately, the restaurant had just closed, so no chicken for me.

To my surprise, as I was leaving, the friendly guy from the restaurant next door was coming in. “You are leaving?” he said. “It’s closed, but thank you anyway,” I told him. He asked the owner a question in animated Korean, nodded gravely, and said “They have closed.” Looking at my luggage, he said “Where do you stay?” “The Renaissance,” I told him. What the heck, he seemed friendly enough. “I’m not sure where it is, though. I just got here on the airport bus.” He replied “Oh, that is a very famous hotel, but it is not close to here. You had better take a taxi.” Having received the same advice from both this guy and the airport staff, I guessed I was probably going to end up in a taxi. “OK, thanks!” I said. “Do you know how much it should cost?” Crooked taxi drivers tend to overcharge me, so it’s always good to know what the price should be so I can argue it later. “Oh, very cheap, maybe 5,000 won,” he said while flagging down a cab. In Korean, he told the driver where I was going, shook my hand, and wished me a nice visit to Seoul.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. So far, Seoul was making a pretty good one.

The taxi driver took me straight to the Renaissance. Unfortunately, I couldn’t check in early. “The check in time is 2pm. We can’t extend your stay, though, because it’s a full house tonight. You can check with the concierge for things to do, and we can keep your bags for you.” I didn’t particularly mind. “Extend your stay” is hotel doublespeak for “charge you for another night,” and the Renaissance is a 4 star hotel that I’d booked for $88 per night through Priceline. I doubted “extending” my stay would be an inexpensive proposition.

I dropped my bags with the concierge and asked for some advice, explaining that I was very tired but the Renaissance was full and I couldn’t check in. “Would you like to go to a sauna?” he asked. If I didn’t live in China, I wouldn’t have any idea what he was talking about. However, Korea has the same spa culture as China. There are expensive, luxurious and well-appointed spas that have sleeping areas. You can have a deep soaking bath, get a massage, and then have a rest for as long as you like (the price you pay allows a full day stay). Best of all, it’s cheap. I have never gone in China, but I’ve read about these and it seemed like a reasonable option. “Sure, I guess, if there’s nothing better that you can suggest,” I said. The concierge didn’t have any other ideas, since there just isn’t much open at 3 in the morning. He handed me a map, told me how to get there, and sent me on my way.

Unfortunately, the map was really confusing and it was all in Korean, a language that I don’t have any experience reading. I’m actually able to recognize Chinese characters now, but the Korean written language is called Hangul and it’s so different from Chinese that the characters all run together (this was the case for me with Chinese too until I started learning a few characters – now I can at least match characters on a sign to something in a book, etc.). Try as I might, I couldn’t find the spa. It was pouring rain and I was getting soaked, so I finally ducked into the lobby of a business hotel in an effort to find the place.

I was so tired that my first question was whether they had any rooms available. They didn’t, and had no idea where the spa I was looking for was located, but one of the hotel employees literally left his desk and walked  me to another one nearby (there are spas all over the place in Seoul). I was truly blown away with the kindness; I wasn’t a customer and would never be one – I’d expect an indifferent shrug or “mei you” in China, so it was a little overwhelming to have someone go completely out of his way just to be nice. The spa wasn’t at all luxuriously appointed, but it wasn’t bad and was pretty cheap at about $10. It seemed like the kind of place that would attract students or recent graduates. The spa was very clean, though, and I fell asleep on a cheap plastic lounge chair next to the pool. For a few hours, it was quiet enough to sleep (not comfortably, but I didn’t especially care). Unfortunately around 6 in the morning some guy with a terrible cough started hacking up nasty chunks of phlegm and spitting them on the ground. This seems to be a less common habit in Korea than in China, but it’s still considered socially acceptable here. I tried to go back to sleep, but he just kept coughing, the lounge chair was uncomfortable anyway, and it was clearly time to wake up.

Now, here I am in a bathhouse full of nude and half-nude Korean guys, and I think Korean guys (unlike Chinese guys) are attractive, and this early in the morning they were almost all (except for Phlegm Dude) young and in really good shape. I’d never been in a bathhouse before, and I’ll probably never go again. Ron Jeremy thinks of disgusting things when he’s trying to avoid having an orgasm. “Korean dog meat soup, dog butcher, dead dogs” I thought, trying, erm, “hard” to keep blood from flowing to certain parts of my anatomy. If you need advice on control, take it from Ron Jeremy; it works. I got up and got the hell out of there as quickly as possible.

I’m going to leave Guizhou and Spring Festival for a moment to talk about other things. I haven’t finished writing about my Guizhou trip; I have lots of notes and pictures but the trip got pretty intense and I couldn’t write in as much detail as I wanted. I will finish the series, but it’s going to take a few days of writing and I haven’t had the few days because of my work schedule getting so intense.

I’ll pick up the series again when I have more content to post.

We all woke up really late, rolling out of bed around noon. None of us really had much on the agenda, so after a breakfast of coffee, fermented rice soup and rice balls filled with sweet red bean paste, we decided to survey the mayhem. Johnson wanted to show me some of the city, so we headed downtown on a minibus. These are technically taxis (although if you want to get really technical they’re illegal taxis), but operate along more or less fixed routes like buses. The difference is that you can stop or board anywhere along the route, and they are very cheap (only 2 yuan, about 30 cents). This seems to be one of the fastest and most popular ways to travel around Guiyang. We walked around the city, a place definitely not as developed as Beijing or Shanghai. Most stores and businesses were closed, and even though it was a crowded central part of the city, people were still setting off firecrackers and lighting smoke bombs everywhere. A thick and sulfurous haze choked the city, not leftovers from the night before, but smoke from the thousands of simultaneous explosions that continued to blanket the city.

There is a very famous temple in downtown Guiyang, which sits adjacent to the river. We walked through it and the adjacent park, explosions ringing in the distance, but it was peaceful compared to the rest of Guiyang. Somehow Johnson managed to lose his glasses and we couldn’t find them. Fortunately, new ones are cheap in Guiyang.

The temple was close to Wal-Mart, so we stopped in afterwards. Since Johnson’s uncle and father had been gracious enough to introduce me to the local bai jiu (rice wine), I was eager to reciprocate. Fortunately Wal-Mart had a high-end bottle of Jim Beam Reserve (it looked suspicious but turned out to be real), so I picked that up along with a few cans of Pepsi. While we were at it, we also picked up some American breakfast food – orange juice, cereal and milk. I also bought a block of extra sharp cheddar cheese – this is something not used in Chinese cooking, so I was curious to find out whether Johnson liked it. I also checked whether there was a wireless access point (since there wasn’t wireless Internet at Johnson’s house) and picked up a couple of telephone accessories so it would be possible to go online and use the phone at the same time.

By the time we got done, it was dark and time to return to the house. We caught a minibus taxi to a place a block away from the house, and arrived in time for dinner. Both of Johnson’s aunts had painstakingly prepared a very special Chinese New Year dinner of many Guizhou specialty dishes. Guizhou food is very different than Beijing food, and I was delighted by the different tastes. The whiskey came out and we kicked back many toasts – there are an endless series of things to toast in China, especially on Chinese New Year. Long life, prosperity, happiness, and grandparents – Johnson’s grandparents have been married for nearly fifty years. I knocked back shots with Johnson’s uncle – we became very friendly, and Johnson cut his whiskey with green tea. Later, he added Pepsi, which helped to take the edge off. Afterward, the family sat together in the living room watching New Years variety show specials. I had a little trouble following what was going on, and don’t really enjoy variety shows anyway (whether in the US or China) so jumped online. The next couple of hours went by fast, catching up on email and going through pictures.

All too soon, it was 2 in the morning – bedtime! I went upstairs and crashed hard.

It was a busy last day at the office, so I didn’t have a lot of time to pack the night before my flight. No worries – my first flight wasn’t until 2 in the afternoon. There were a few logistical details to work out with Air China, though, so my first call was to them. They have an English customer service line, and much to my surprise, I reached someone who was able to answer my questions right away. I just didn’t like the answers.

No, I could not bring a bottle of cough syrup on board unless it was under 100ml – there was no medicine exception to the airline liquids ban in China. No, Air China didn’t have a baggage agreement with Hainan Airlines, so I would have to claim and re-check my bags in Guangzhou. No, I could not check in with Hainan at Beijing, I would need to check in at Guangzhou. Yes, 2 hours was enough time to accomplish all of this. If my flights weren’t on time, maybe it was enough time to accomplish all of this. Confidence-inspiring to be sure.

I packed, and was running a little late but not perilously late so decided to take a cab to the airport. The highways were surprisingly clear, most Spring Festival travelers having left Beijing for their home cities already. The efficient Beijing cab driver made it to the airport in record time, 20 minutes. I was really happy that my Chinese was good enough to tell the driver which terminal, which was always a problem when taking cabs to the airport previously.

At the airport, I checked in with Air China, double-checking that I wasn’t able to check my bags through to Guiyang. I saw having a checked bag as the highest risk – 2 hours is sometimes a tight connection anyway (if a terminal change is required or the connecting flight is delayed), let alone having to claim a bag – with its attendant inconveniences – and check it back in.

My flight left on time, but air traffic was heavy so it took about a half hour to get off the ground. Once we were up in the air, it was clear that we’d be about 30 minutes late into Guangzhou if we didn’t have to circle the airport there. The flight was relatively uneventful, and to my surprise, it wasn’t full. We landed in Guangzhou without inbound air traffic delays, although there was an extended taxi to the terminal due to the sheer size of the Guangzhou airport. It’s enormous.

Upon arrival, I first headed to the transfer desk. Check-in closes 45 minutes prior to departure for domestic flights, so I wanted to be sure I was checked in for my onward flight even if I was late to check in my bags (I figured I’d be in a stronger negotiating position if I had a boarding pass). The agent didn’t speak any English, but when I pulled out my passport and said “piao,” Chinese for “ticket,” she figured out what I wanted and issued my boarding pass. It was the worst seat in the plane, a middle seat all the way in the back, but there wasn’t any arguing the point and at least it was a seat.

Next, it was time to claim my bags. Amazingly, my bag was one of the first off the plane, so I grabbed it quickly and made my way through the cavernous terminal. Guangzhou has an enormous airport, maybe even bigger than Beijing (although as Asia’s busiest airport, it’s hard to believe it is possible to be bigger than Beijing Capital International Airport). The check-in desks are organized alphabetically, seemingly every letter of the alphabet, and I really hoped that a terminal change wouldn’t be required. Finding an information desk, I asked where to check in for Hainan Airlines, and the agent told me which desk – fortunately, it was in the same terminal, although it was several football fields away. Looking at my watch, I was OK for time – barely. I made my way quickly to the check-in counter, dropped off my bag and was issued a claim check (with surprisingly little trouble), and then I made my way through security.

Friendly, efficient and very thorough security in Guangzhou, just like Beijing. I think Chinese people would never put up with the level of abuse that Americans suffer under the TSA, and for all this abuse, I often get things through American security that I shouldn’t, and I have never been able to get anything through Chinese security that I shouldn’t. Perhaps courtesy leads to better security? A long walk (many more football fields) and I arrived at the gate in time for my flight to board. I shot off a quick text to Johnson once I was onboard to let him know I made it on the plane, and was even lucky enough to switch seats with a family wanting to sit together (still a middle seat, but at least not a non-reclining middle seat in the back of the plane). A quick, easy flight to Guiyang, and we arrived on time. Johnson greeted me after claiming my bag, and we went to his father’s car which was waiting in the parking lot. A drive on the bumpy roads across town to pick up some other family members, stuffing 6 people into a small Ford, and we arrived at Johnson’s family apartment.

Johnson’s father is a motor oil and lubricants distributor in Guiyang, and his business is obviously successful because he owns a 12 bedroom home. Like many Chinese families, the extended family lives under one roof – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and children. The home is new, though, and everyone still owns their own apartments, splitting their time between the house and their apartments. We started at Johnson’s family apartment, a delicious home-cooked dinner my introduction to Guiyang. As midnight neared the fireworks intensified, and finally, I asked with some insistence to see what was going on outside. It was incredible, sheer mayhem, perhaps like Beirut during the civil war. An incredible cacophony of military-grade fireworks turned the sky into brilliant shades of purple, orange, green and red. All around, firecrackers exploded, rolls and rolls of M-80s and bigger. Occasionally, loud explosions in the distance rocked the city, echoing down the canyon-like streets. Someone across the street hurled what looked like a grenade in our general direction, and it exploded with a fury that reminded me of the admonition of mothers everywhere on the Fourth of July, “be careful of that thing, it could take your eye out!” No matter. Fires burned on the streets, explosions rocked the city and we were both so busy dodging Roman candle flares that any worries of safety were far out of my mind. Survival was the more salient question, the remains of mortars raining from the sky. Hunter S. Thompson couldn’t have imagined such a scene with the benefit of a suitcase full of drugs, and this was real, baby!

Guiyang has a reputation for its fireworks affinity. Nobody warned me about the car bombs, mortars and grenades.

Eventually, somehow, we made our way back to the apartment. After sheltering in place for a couple of hours (if I hadn’t been so fascinated by the apocalypse I’d have been tempted to hide under the living room table with the cat), Johnson decided it was safe to brave the streets. A 20 minute walk later, after dodging only a few anti-tank rounds, we arrived at his family home. It was fairly late, but there was still time to meet the entire family. Good conversation (with Johnson translating) and more to eat, and around three in the morning it was finally time to retire.

Chinese beds are basically a sheet of plywood with a thin sheet on top, and in Guiyang, there is no central heating. It was so cold upstairs you can see your breath. “It’s like camping!” I thought, and it was really easy to get to sleep. I must miss the outdoors.

Imagine traveling on one of the busiest travel days of the year – say, the day before Christmas or the day before Thanksgiving. Now imagine doing this in China, a country with a still developing infrastructure and very different ways of doing business. And then throw in the complexity of having booked the entire trip through US Airways, an airline that was technically in charge of making any changes that might be necessary, but an airline which had no ability to even so much as call Air China (the operating carrier). I knew I was setting myself up for trouble, but I’m a pretty experienced air traveler and figured I’d be able to make it all work. I did, with a stroke of luck, and I’m writing this on the final leg of my trip to Guiyang.

Chinese New Year is the biggest and most important holiday in China. Annually, it results in the world’s largest human migration, called Chun Yun, literally hundreds of millions of people traveling any way they can from China’s large coastal cities back to their hometowns. My friend Johnson invited me to visit his hometown, Guiyang, for the Spring Festival break. My employer follows the official government holiday calendar, which this year allowed me 7 consecutive days off (the 2nd through the 8th). Predictably, the airlines listened to Buzz Lightyear when setting prices – “To infinity and beyond!” So, I called US Airways to try my luck. I had a little more than 25,000 miles with them, theoretically enough for a free domestic US ticket, but seemingly impossible to redeem (25,000 is the “saver” award category which, as best I can tell, is only valid for flights to Anchorage in February). However, US Airways is a partner of Air China, and 25,000 miles is also good for a Chinese domestic ticket on Air China. Best of all, there are no award categories (peak, saver, etc.) on Air China, so 25,000 miles gives you access to all of Air China’s award inventory. Still, I knew it was a tall order finding free tickets during Spring Festival.

I researched all of the possible routes to get to Guiyang from Beijing on Air China. International airlines often only quote point-to-point routes to their American partners, and while it’s legal under the rules to build a trip one leg at a time using connecting flights, the system won’t automatically find these itineraries. So, you have to do a little legwork in advance if you want to redeem a ticket. I’m used to this, and it’s good that I did my homework – when redeeming US Airways miles on Air China, this is exactly how it works. I called and was very surprised to reach an agent who seemed to love her job, and was happy to search every connecting flight I gave her (maybe the high unemployment rate in the US is having a benefit of keeping around better help). The direct flights from Beijing to Guiyang were not available (unsurprisingly), but she found a flight through Guangzhou on the 2nd. We searched and searched different options and itineraries, but there was no way back on the 8th. The best she could do was get me to Shenzhen on the 8th, and then back to Beijing from Hong Kong on the 9th. No problem, that was fine with me, I’d just turn my return journey into a shopping trip. “Yes, I’d like to bo…,” I said…

…and then the phone went dead. China is still a developing country, and the Internet is not always reliable. I use a MagicJack for my calls back to the US, but it runs over a Chinese Internet connection and sometimes (although rarely) the connection drops unexpectedly. I was tempted to curse and scream and throw the phone, but I patiently waited for the Internet connection to reset and called US Airways again. Amazingly, I reached another agent who was able to pick up right where the previous one left off, booking my trip in no time. I’m still happy to have cleaned out my account with US Airways and there’s no way that I’ll go back to flying them (I think they are the worst, meanest, nastiest airline in the US), but in the end, my miles turned into something of value. All it cost was a $50 booking fee (this fee being one of the things that makes US Airways Dividend Miles the worst frequent flier program in America) and about $30 in airport taxes. Unbelievable.

Well, of course some things are too good to be true. Two days before my flight, I received a vauge voicemail from US Airways. “It looks like Air China has canceled some of your flights, and moved around some of the other ones – if you give us a call, we can try to protect your original itinerary.” So, I called US Airways. It turned out that Air China cancelled my flight from Guangzhou to Guiyang on February 2nd, and had rebooked me on a flight the following evening leaving Guangzhou – and leaving me alone in Guangzhou to ring in Chinese new year. Not quite what I had in mind. Unfortunately, US Airways could only rebook me to other available Air China award inventory, and predictably, there wasn’t any. They also didn’t have any way to even so much as call Air China. The StarAlliance relationship is relatively new to Air China, and US Airways isn’t interconnected with their systems the same way they are connected to Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, United and others. All US Airways could offer was to re-deposit my miles without charging a redeposit fee, and refund the taxes. However, I wouldn’t get the $50 booking fee back.

It was time to take matters into my own hands. I planned to take a quick weekend trip to Hangzhou and Shanghai the following day, so when I arrived back at the Beijing airport after the trip, I approached the Air China desk. Predictably, the agent shrugged his shoulders with disinterest and said “why don’t you just go the next day?” I explained that I planned to visit my Chinese friends for Chinese New Year, and they would be very disappointed if I could not come. He raised his eyebrows, his attitude changed immediately (much to my surprise), and he set to work on his computer searching for a way to rebook me. Everywhere he ran into a dead end. Eventually, he summoned his supervisor, a severe-looking woman wearing a Communist Party pin over her heart. “You cannot change your routing, it is not allowed,” she snapped. “And there are no other Air China flights.” The agent I’d been working with leaned over to her and said something in Chinese, and she stared at me. “You visit Chinese friends in Guiyang?” “Dui,” I replied, saying ‘yes’ in Chinese. “Please wait a moment,” she said, picking up the phone. Some hushed words, a few mentions of “laowai” (which usually isn’t a good thing), a few more steely glances in my direction, and she turned back to me. “We will not change your flight directly from Beijing,” she said. “You must change planes in Guangzhou to Hainan Airlines. Your new flight leaves at the same time as your original schedule.” Whipping out a triplicate form labeled FLIGHT INTERRUPTION MANIFEST in both English and Chinese, she painstakingly completed my new flight details. Tearing off the top form, handing it to me, and scowling, she said “This is your ticket. Do not lose it. It cannot be replaced. You must give it to Hainan Airlines in Guangzhou.” Turning to an ancient dot matrix printer which had been clattering away in the background, she then tore off a piece of paper and handed it to me. “This is your new flight schedule. You must take these flights.” And then–completely unexpectedly–her face broke into a warm smile. “Happy new year,” she said.

Sometimes things completely fall apart only to fall together again. This time, the travel gods were smiling on me. Next stop, Guiyang!

I don’t know how I ended up in a Tijuana gutter half filled with raw sewage, but I was missing my shoes, my pants, and (of course) my wallet. It was six in the morning, the sun rising and roosters crowing in bedraggled yards of bullet-pocked houses. As I touched my forehead and pulled my hand back yelping in pain from the raw open wound–maybe it was from a crowbar, maybe something else–I saw him. La Policia, stepping out of a cruiser, and he did not look amused. Just then, you showed up, pulled me from the gutter, and shoved us both into a taxi. “La frontera,” you said, just as the cops started a gun battle with someone in a black SUV.

Cake, you quite possibly saved my life, and I didn’t even know you.

Not so long ago, I had just graduated from college and was trying to figure out what to do with my life. So I can totally relate to RJ, a reader who wrote in with the following questions:

I am a recent college graduate looking to try a new culture and try to sustain myself as a teacher in an open minded, intellectually stimulating society – a place in which I can try some new things while meeting nice people. What was it like? Good experience? Growth experience? Is China dirty? Repressive?
Thank you for your time, and I’ll look forward to your response.

Great questions, RJ! Here are my thoughts:

I am not an English teacher, but many Americans and other foreigners teach English here. To do so legally you will need to have the TEFL certification, and you will need to be at least 24 years old (you can’t get a proper work visa if you’re younger, and I don’t recommend working illegally on a business visa). Lots of the private language schools here are scammy garbage so look around on the forums like TheBeijinger, WeLiveInBeijing, and BeijingStuff to network with other English teachers and learn what to avoid.

Don’t come here for the money. English teachers make, on average, about $1,500 a month. This sometimes includes a housing subsidy, but not always. Chinese people have a different idea of housing than you may; your school may offer housing but then you find out you’re sharing a room with 3 other teachers and you’re a 1 hour bus ride away from the school, and another 1 hour subway ride beyond that to anywhere interesting.

Never give them your passport for “safekeeping,” no reputable school will ask you to do this and it’s a big red flag. Be sure to register with the US embassy before you come here – they are mostly useless, but at least the government will know you are here if you run into trouble with the police (which is incredibly rare unless you do something incredibly stupid).

Dirty – yes, China is one of the dirtiest countries on the planet, the environmental problems are severe here. You can’t drink tap water, washing your clothes is sort of a misnomer because they come out almost as dirty as when they went in (they’re stiff as cardboard from the minerals after they dry, don’t bring anything irreplaceable here and avoid any expensive fashion), and the air quality is so bad the US embassy called it “crazy bad” once until they thought up a better way to describe off-the-charts hazardous. Not every day is like this but you’ll wish you weren’t here on the days where it happens – you’ll be sitting in your apartment feeling like you’re breathing bus exhaust. I bought an Ionic Pro Turbo air cleaner and if I lock myself in my bedroom with that and the humidifier running on days like this, it makes the air quality breatheable (and I’m not particularly sensitive, some people have a really rough time). The cleaning of the unit that you’re supposed to do monthly, I have to do every other day when the air quality is hazardous.

On the other hand, it’s not like India where there are stories-high piles of garbage everywhere and urchins surrounding you on the street begging, and random cows all over the place. Beijing compared to Delhi is very, very clean and well-organized.

Should you come? If your goal is to get rich, probably not (with rare exceptions). Some people here are incredibly rich, but that game is mostly for well-connected Chinese businessmen and government officials. If you open a popular expat bar, that’s about the only way for a foreigner to get rich. If you are ready to work you will not go hungry in China (hope you like Chinese food) and there isn’t much to spend money on here, but you probably won’t make enough to pay back your student loans at any reasonable rate. In my case, I’m very lucky to be one of the top people in the world in my professional field (not DJing, I do crazy high-tech stuff for a living) so I was able to come here on a more reasonable salary.

Is your goal to learn more about Chinese culture and language, and experience daily life in a culture so overwhelmingly different than your own that it may drive you over the edge? China may be for you, just be sure that you go in with your eyes wide open. The culture here is ruthless and inconsiderate (but also incredibly kind and loyal, everything is a paradox in China). It’s enough to drive me to the edge sometimes, and I’m a very experienced world traveler who has visited six of seven continents. Nobody would ever argue that living in China is not a challenge, with the possible exception of folks who never leave the expat bubble in Shanghai (which may as well be California).

My advice is to come visit first. I don’t know you, but I’m happy to show you around town if you’d like (just schedule with me in advance, my job keeps me pretty busy and I frequently travel either for business or to DJ) and give you some advice on where to stay and what to see.

Many of my friends have had good experiences teaching English in Japan through the Japanese government’s JET program. This program has a very good reputation for high integrity, and most teachers have excellent experiences. Japan is a first-world country and while it can be a difficult place to live (and the working culture is very formal) it’s much more like the US than China. You will make much more money there, but everything is also tremendously expensive – you may have equal financial challenges as taking a job in China.

Good luck whatever you choose, and let me know if you end up in Beijing!

When you live in China, there are days where you want to drop kick everyone in the country and leave on the next plane never to return. I call these Bad China Days. A good example of this has been my frustrating search for an apartment, which has taken over 2 months, resulted in 2 deals that have entirely fallen through, and currently stands with a semi-flaky agreement to possibly rent an apartment still under construction at an indeterminate point sometime in the future, but definitely after my temporary housing arrangement runs out. For awhile, I’m going to be living in a motel. Fortunately, I have a business trip coming up, and that will minimize my out-of-pocket expense. Meanwhile, though, everything I own is stacked in my office. Fortunately, I still have an office, although that’s going away in a few months–the result of another Bad China Day. This will happen on roughly my 11th anniversary with The Company (TM), and will represent the first time since college in my professional career where I have not had an office. Oh well, at least I’m making considerably less than I was in the US and paying higher taxes. Hey, wait a minute…

Wow. That’s a lot of frustration, and believe me, you’re only getting a thumbnail sketch. What makes it all worth it? Good China Days, like today. And wow, today was a really great day. It was beautiful, sunny and about 72 degrees. After spending far too long in my apartment looking for tickets to other places and trying to get ideas on what to do, I looked in the Beijing Excursion Guide. And something leaped out at me: Tianijn. It’s only 30 minutes away by bullet train, and I’d never visited. So I jumped on a subway and headed to Beijing South Railway Station, a subway journey that takes nearly as long as the trip to Tianjin.

Only one automated ticket vending machine was operating (this line is special and has automated ticket vending machines, something I wish all Chinese trains had). I lined up and easily bought a ticket, since the menus were in English and Chinese. Unfortunately, only standing room was available. No matter, it was only a 30 minute train journey. After buying a tuna sandwich and an iced mocha (at surprisingly high Western prices), I boarded the train.

Every seat was full, as I expected. I made my way from car to car and eventually found a place to sit down. In between taking some video, a college student began talking to me. He was a freshman at Tianjin University, had surprisingly good English skills, and was interested in studying for an MBA at Wharton. We discussed his upcoming TOEFL exam, American politics, and President Obama. When we arrived in Tianjin, he offered to show me around since his bus back to the university wasn’t until several hours later.

This began a whirlwind journey of Tianijn, a delightful city with a colonial past and classic Italian, French, British and American architecture. There has been a serious effort to preserve this history. Tianjin is a little bit cleaner than Beijing and buildings are better preserved, although the sewers still spew foul gas, litter still abounds, and random puddles of vomit are every bit as ubiquitous as in Beijing. Johnson, my new friend, called several friends from his university, and we spent the evening wandering neighborhoods I’d never have found on my own. Being just eighteen, they liked to eat–a lot–so we bounced in and out of various student-friendly snack outlets. Eventually, unable to eat nearly as much as they did, I had to explain that older people can’t eat so much. They were very surprised to learn my age, thinking that I was in my early twenties. Johnson said “I would never guess that. No Chinese businessman would sit on the floor of a train, they think they are more important!” American culture, it seems, takes at least ten years off your age in China. Another year having just flown by, I’m happy to see them go in reverse.

Age in China is, like many things in China, viewed completely the opposite as in the US. When you get older in the US, you’re less desirable, less interesting, and eventually you’re shuttered away in some depressing place called Shady Acres, where your basic needs are met in a soulless setting entirely devoid of challenge or joy.  In China, middle aged people (or those approaching middle age) are considered experienced, and this is genuinely valued. Retirement doesn’t slow people down here, despite the considerable physical challenges. It’s not unusual to see a large group of people my parents’ age practicing tai chi or ballroom dancing in a park or square on a warm summer evening. China is still a very challenging place to live for everyone, especially those in their golden years. The attitude seems to be that if you must rise to the challenge that daily life presents when you’re an eighty year old person anyway, you may as well infuse the world with sunshine and smiles.

Today was a good China day. I made new friends and enjoyed new experiences. I put myself into multiple situations that were risky and shady and totally inadvisable per the US embassy, but everything worked out beautifully. Days like today remind me why I turned my life upside down in the most dramatic way I have ever done, and make me glad for this decision. Here’s hoping for many more Good China Days.

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