Six months ago, I packed up my life in Beijing and sent it in two directions. The majority of my stuff went back to the US together with a friend who was moving there. It’s now in storage, and I’ll deal with it next year. The remainder went to the Netherlands, checked on an Aeroflot flight via Moscow and onward to Amsterdam. The following day (after a night spent in the infamous Sheremetyevo gulag prison transit hotel due to a misconnect), I arrived in Rotterdam to start my new life as a full-time MBA student.

It has been a blur ever since. The Program, as it is called, has completely consumed my life. There is a typical 8 hour day of class, followed by at least as much homework, followed by whatever sleep I can manage, lather, rinse, repeat. Weekends are packed with extra reading, so I have occasionally been able to get 4 hours of free time on one day during the weekend. This is what happens when you take an “intensive, accelerated” program. 2 years of material is squeezed into only eleven months and when they say “intensive” they mean it!

I have had a little free time, so I’ve seen quite a bit of the Netherlands. Ah, the Netherlands, home to legalized marijuana, prostitution, it must be a party, right? Actually, it isn’t. Dutch people are happy to make vices legal if a good business can be made from them, but they’re conservative with a Calvinist bent. When you live here, Holland is all about bad weather and hard work. Put on a nice smile for the tourists and then–the moment they are gone–go back to scowling and eating your stamppot.

A friend who is coming for a visit asked me what to do in the Netherlands. Here’s what I wrote, which just about sums it up:

Things to do in the Netherlands? Plenty! Buy a Dagkaart and spend the entire day on the NS railway looking at cows, windmills, and more cows. Fancy a taste of Dutch industry? Why not a tour of the Van Der Lande Industries baggage belt factory? Or how about fantastic shopping? Try the CAWI factory store, where you can browse a wide assortment of swine management equipment and hog feeding systems. And there is always just standing outside for an hour, in which you can experience howling wind, snow, rain, hail, 35 degree sunshine and a lightning storm in July. There is no end of exciting things to do in this amazing country.

Next month, I’m going on an academic exchange to Costa Rica. The weather will be better, but the Netherlands has actually grown on me a little. I may come back here after I finish, depending on the job situation.

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.


Some things are absurdly difficult to find in Beijing, for completely random reasons. You’ll look all over the place and be unable to find something, and it’ll drive you completely nuts because you know that whatever it is, it’s made in China, but you just can’t buy it here.

Extension cables, for example. You can buy them anywhere in the US, good quality ones, usually made in China, but you can’t find them here. Only cheap low quality power strips attached to a too-short, thin-gauge cable. Sometimes you can find higher quality power strips, but always lower quality than you’ll find in the US. No breakers, no UL listing here. Items sold on the domestic market aren’t even dollar store quality much of the time, and foreign-branded items are usually just domestic products with a different label. Philips and Top Electric, for example. One is foreign branded, one domestic, exactly the same product made in the same factory (and you can probably guess which one is more expensive).

So I suppose it’s not particularly surprising that I wanted a bottle opener and found myself completely unable to find one. I walked all over Wal-Mart looking for one. Kitchen stuff? No, not there, although someone aggressively tried to sell me a wok. I didn’t need a wok, I needed a bottle opener, but I’m not sure how to explain that in Chinese, maybe “Kai Ping” like “open bottle,” but the confused look on the clerk’s face and her insistent motions toward the wok she was trying to sell me made it clear that attempting to communicate further with her was an exercise in futility. OK, so maybe in the housewares section I can find one. No, but on the way there, someone really wanted to sell me fabric softener. Thanks, but no thanks, I really don’t need fabric softener, I just need a bottle opener. And so is the retail experience in China, if you stop for more than a few seconds someone is tugging on your sleeve trying to sell you something that you absolutely do not want. Even if your Chinese is good enough to ask for what you actually want, the answer is usually “mei you” anyway. If you get lucky, the person saying “mei you” is standing right in front of the item you actually want.

OK, fine. Maybe in the grocery section. I walked to bottled beverages, thinking maybe I’d find a bottle opener cleverly merchandised next to the bottles that require them. No such luck, although a young sales clerk aggressively tried to sell me a bottle of Moutai. I’m sure it’s nectar from the gods, distilled from the fresh waters of the mountains of Guizhou, but bai jiu–Moutai or not–is devil piss and I’ll have nothing to do with it. Just a bottle opener please, I tried to explain, holding a bottle and making the motion. Indifferent stare, a shrug, “mei you,” and it was clear that I was defeated. Nowhere in Wal-Mart was there a bottle opener to be found. I picked up some cans of beer, since these didn’t require bottle openers, and dejectedly made my way to the inclinator.

Wal-Mart is three floors. You start on the third floor, work your way down to the first floor (where the groceries are) on these inclinators. They’re like an escalator, but without the steps. Shopping carts are cleverly designed so they stop when they’re on an incline, and you make your way down (or up) slowly with giant piles of merchandise stacked in trays next to you. Sometimes there are good deals, so I keep my eye on the merchandise on the journey upstairs or downstairs. There is a random assortment of stuff, anything from toilet cleaner to kitchen wrap to paper products, anything that Wal-Mart happens to be featuring at the time.

On the inclinator on the way up, I spotted it. A bottle opener! There was only one catch: it was attached as a bonus premium to a mega double pack of Jissbon condoms. Birth control is ridiculously cheap in China, so the whole thing cost about $3. I was after a bottle opener, and there was the only one in all of Wal-Mart, and I had to buy a giant pack of condoms to go with it. That’s just how it was, and how it was going to be. I grabbed it and threw it into my basket, and now I can open bottles in my house.

Clothing in China runs in smaller sizes. If you prefer a snug fit for your *ahem* socks, let me know. I definitely have use for the bottle opener, but won’t have much use for the other items. Yours free!

Another late morning, starting a little before noon this time. I woke up before Johnson, making my way downstairs for coffee. A bleary-eyed Johnson followed a few minutes later. “Whiskey is very good sleeping pill!” he accurately proclaimed. We’d decided to try to have American breakfast today, so I showed him the wonders of coffee, orange juice and Frosted Flakes. Chinese people tend to eat much more substantial breakfasts (a characteristic shared with Japanese and Korean people) so he was surprised at how relatively little Americans eat in the morning.

Breakfast turned into brunch, Johnson’s uncle inviting us along to the family’s favorite beef noodle soup place. It’s an unassuming place that I would have never found, jammed with people occupying every square inch of the place. The restaurant was so busy that it was impossible for us to sit together, sitting wherever we could. Seating is cafeteria style – you just grab a spot and chow down. The noodle shop sells only one kind of soup in only two sizes, large and enormous. I got the large. The soup is very cheap, costing around $1, and consists of rice noodles around the thickness of spaghetti mixed with thinly sliced beef steak and topped with a hard boiled egg. There is a giant bowl of peppers and spices on each table, along with tea kettles full of soy sauce and Chinese vinegar, and you can add as much as you want. There are no spoons, only a pair of chopsticks. You don’t eat soup the same way here – you’re supposed to eat the solid things out of it with chopsticks, and then drink the broth. Broth is almost universally thin and oily. Still, the soup was very good. It reminded me of Vietnamese pho, which perhaps isn’t all that surprising – Guizhou borders Vietnam. I was dining with Johnson’s 10 year old cousin, and was very happy that my Chinese was good enough to ask her whether she wanted my egg. It turns out she loves eggs, so was happy to eat it.

After brunch, we took a minibus taxi to Qingyan, a traditional walled city about 30km from Guiyang. This is mostly a tourist trap, but it’s free to go inside and is really fun to see. The buildings are all hundreds of years old, some up to 400 years old, and the whole thing looks a lot like my hutong neighborhood. Shops sold all sorts of interesting snacks, and I got to try sesame desserts. Johnson’s uncle bought a bottle of bai jiu that was flavored something like lemonade (think of it as a Chinese version nof Mike’s Hard Lemonade), encouraging me to drink it on the spot but me wisely deferring. Eventually we made our way up to the old city wall, where we could admire the view of the countryside in between explosions. Even though we were well into the Chinese New Year, the fireworks weren’t over – I was informed that they continue for the entire week of Spring Festival.

Back into Qingyan, sampling candies and snacks as I imagine is probably usual when traveling with two girls aged 10 and 16. Candies aren’t as sweet in China (ice cream being the only thing with the same relative level of sweetness), but my palate has adjusted and they taste mostly sweet now. Johnson described the historical sites and explained the inscriptions on various buildings, gates and even a gravestone. Qingyan is clearly a popular place for Chinese people to visit – the whole place was packed like a high school hallway right after the lunch bell. Eventually the crowds were too much even for my hosts and we escaped back to the normal level of Chinese crowded.

We caught a minibus back to town, and Johnson’s uncle took us to a place called Snack Town. It’s a covered but open air market full of stalls selling street snacks. The first place we stopped was a Si Wa Wa store. This is a special dish only made in Guiyang. You start with very thin rice pancakes, pile as many fillings as you want on them (different kinds of vegetables, dried meat resembling bacon bits, and a few kinds of herbs), fold the bottom, pour in some hot sauce, and then – before the hot sauce runs out of the bottom and covers your hand – eat it quickly! These were really good, a perfect complement to the noodle soup we ate earlier. Johnson’s uncle poured some of the drink he’d bought in Qingyan, and while I was bracing myself for the evil taste of Chinese rice wine, it actually wasn’t half bad. We scarfed Si Wa Wa and slammed down shots of hardcore booze, sending the 10 year old and 16 year old girls to buy us beer, which they were able to do with no questions or problems. Ah, China.

After I was stuffed, I thought it was time to leave – but no! Johnson’s uncle and cousins were just warming up. We next went to a small booth that made a potato cake dish, which you could dip in ground cumin and peppers. This wasn’t all that interesting, but then the stench hit me – stinky tofu. The 10 year old grinned at me, seeing my pain. She loved stinky tofu and her uncle liked it too, so he was only too happy to indulge. Noticing my discomfort, Johnson recommended that I move upwind, which I was happy to do. Some Chinese dishes are just too special for Westerners, and stinky tofu is one of them.

A couple of other dishes came together – I don’t remember all of them, but sampled most of them and plenty of Moutai beer. After we had plenty to eat and drink, we went back to the house. It was time for fireworks! Johnson brought out the biggest Roman candles I’ve ever seen, me videotaping the fireballs that might possibly have violated commercial airspace and the kids giggling while lighting sparklers and the occasional cherry bomb. By the time everything was burned up, we were tired – we had an early morning planned the following day, so it was time for bed.