Several of the people who are reading this are referred through my social media channel, and on my social media channel I already briefly described the horrors of my travel to China. They will find this post redundant, unless they want more details about just how unnecessary and tragic this situation was.
When I was first deciding whether or not to travel to China, Jesse told me he would pick me up in Beijing. I can say that with 95% certainty. The 5% doubt is I can’t say he used the words, “I promise I will pick you up in Beijing.” But, he talked about how he could get a day off, and how I should avoid coming on the weekends since those were his busiest work days. He told me he had a lot of vacation days to take, since he hadn’t taken hardly any so far.
I have travelled to Australia, Italy, Ireland — oh wait, this isn’t a cocktail party. Pertinent places I have travelled to alone: Ireland and Singapore. I’ve done a lot of domestic travel by myself too, so I knew if I could get to Singapore via a connection in Japan, getting to Beijing would be simple. Jesse would help me do the rest.
What would they have to do to pick me up? Walk down to the street, take a taxi to the Jinan train station, ride a 2-hour bullet train, take the subway to the airport, meet me at baggage claim. The train tickets were by far the most expensive part of this process, at $60 for one person for both ways.
I’m not omniscient so I don’t know where plans actually changed. It’s very possible the whole thing was a miscommunication. I’m sure I questioned aloud whether they both needed to pick me up, since the train ticket was $60. But I can’t remember if that was before or after Jane suggested that they didn’t necessarily need to come to Beijing at all, that I could just make the connection myself, and that it wasn’t that hard.
Trying to be nice, I’m sure I said, “Well if it’s not that hard, maybe I can do it… if you give me very detailed instructions.”
I had no idea how hard it would be.
Was I annoyed that every other person who travelled to China was picked up by both of them in Beijing? Yes, yes I was. But, I thought, I must be so much better at traveling than those people. I watched a Snapchat of them picking up an exhausted Amber at the Beijing airport and I thought, “They must have pitied her.”
I can see this being a big mess of my bravado encouraging Jesse’s laziness. And Jane wouldn’t challenge that, both because she didn’t often challenge Jesse’s laziness (*cough* newlyweds *cough*) and because she had the tendency to let Jesse and me hash my needs out, with us being family. Surely I would ask if I really needed help! And I had already let her off the hook by saying only one of them needed to come. Jesse is not the type to imagine how other people’s experiences might be unpleasant. Jane is, but for whatever reason she didn’t intervene. No one said, “Jaimie, stop being polite, this is a foreign country, you’re a woman traveling alone, and someone’s coming to get you. You haven’t done this before, so you don’t understand how it’s going to be hard.”
No one said that. Including myself.
Instead I got really interested in the intricacies of how I would make this work. I did so much research here. I decided since I was arriving at rush hour, the subway was out. People swarm the subways, there are not always escalators, and I had two suitcases. I figured out how to get a taxi, and figured out how to get an official taxi… walk past the people telling you they’re taxis inside the airport. I learned how to say “South Beijing Train Station” in Chinese and took a screenshot of the Chinese characters so I could show the taxi driver my phone, since he most definitely would not speak English. I bought a train ticket ahead of time, via Mandie (Jesse and Jane’s Chinese liaison), and Jesse showed me a picture of the place where I’d pick it up.
I was worried my plane would be late and I’d miss the train. Jesse had told me a story about how many Chinese hotels wouldn’t take Americans and that you had to go to a special American part of the city or they’d leave you on the street. He told me that story several times, forgetting he’d already told me it, or perhaps enjoying the way I squirmed. What he never could say was where that American part of the city was.
Fortunately the person I had visited in Singapore? Her parents had worked in Beijing for years. Her mom had done Thanksgiving at my parent’s house in 2014, since she was in the states, and we had talked. We had a rapport beyond mutual acquaintances. So, I emailed her asking for a contact in Beijing, a phone number or address in case I got stranded. She was very surprised no one was picking me up… “alarmed” might be a better word. But since I had been told I could do this, I reassured her that I could do it, and I just needed the contact in case of an emergency. She got it to me. Phew.
At this point I’m going to go into bullet points of the things that were troublesome that I endured.
- 15 minute flight transfer in the States. Goodbye America, thanks for the prepackaged Starbucks sandwich.
- 2 hours of sleep on the 13-hour flight.
- Trying to verify with the taxi driver that he was taking me to the South train station, through various means. I said nan, south, but nothing he said back sounded like that. In fact, I think he just kept replying “train station.” I think he was giving me diction lessons too. In the end, I decided it worth the data usage to track our progress on my phone. Verizon had this inane international data policy of 100MB for $25. Overage charges were also insane, so I avoided data usage as much as possible. I researched SIM cards, but switching those out wasn’t as simple as, say, a European country. It wasn’t something I could do in the Beijing airport, and besides, I was hurrying to the taxi to beat rush hour. I had even gotten yuan in my point of departure, Atlanta.
- Not getting wifi access at the train station, despite Jesse telling me it was available. He must have been traveling with a Chinese person the first time, and forgotten about this, because the wifi user interface was completely incomprehensible and none of my guesses for logins worked.
- Trying to navigate where the hell to go, having used a train station all of twice in Italy. Nothing was in English.
- Trying to use the restroom at the train station as well as change clothes and underthings since I’d done an overnight flight. The squat toilet area was too small to keep my luggage in, and the doors were floor-to-ceiling so I couldn’t watch my luggage either. A janitor pointed me to an American-style toilet that was sitting in full view of the concourse. It was too small for me to even sit in it, but I managed. I’m sure I looked ridiculous, this “fat” (aka tall) American wrestling with clothing inside a stall, keeping the door cracked so she could be paranoid about her luggage. The stakes were too high for me not to overdo it. In some situations, I’d heard about the Chinese people totally never stealing from you. But in some situations, I’d heard about them absolutely stealing from you. This was a train station, a mix.
- Figuring out dinner. I found a KFC but didn’t end up with the fries I thought I’d ordered. Oh well, one chicken leg for dinner… I wasn’t about to order again, since the restaurant was packed. Not only did you have to maneuver your luggage around, everyone watched you do it as though you were doing it all wrong.
- Figuring out which number on my train ticket meant my seat, which meant the gate, which meant the time, the date, etc. I just walked around the terminal, playing this fucking matching game to figure out that D308 was the train, because yes, there are numbers and letters on the electronic terminal signs, and no, the gate number was not on my ticket, and which number on the sign was the gate number? To make matters worse, I think some of the signs were for different things, and sometimes they cycled through different pages. No one else seemed to ever glance at these signs; they just stared at me. This might have been why I walked around so much too; because I was half-asleep and terrified someone would offer to help me and help me badly. I just wanted to figure it out using the technology, which was vetted.
- Intuiting my gate number.
- Going through security wrong.
- Going through security right.
- Waiting at the gate and wishing I could ask someone if they were going to Jinan. I’m glad I didn’t though, because what I wasn’t aware of was the train had multiple stops… A different answer might have toppled me.
- Finding my train seat, using the restroom, finding a spot for my luggage where I wouldn’t feel paranoid about its distance from me (my huge bag couldn’t fit overhead and had to go into a compartment-thing). Falling asleep because it was pitch black outside and I was finally undisturbed. Being really confused when the train stopped 1 hour into the journey. Panicking that there were stops on this train I had not been informed about. Listening really intently on all future stops for “Jinan” in the jumble of Chinese words. Basically guessing the right stop based on the time of arrival, and figuring it was probably easier to go forward than come back, if I were to get off on the wrong stop. (Sleepy logic.)
- Being stared at constantly. Everyone who saw me had to give me at least 10 seconds of a good looking-over. Even if I stared back at them, it was like they thought, “Oh, now I can observe an American staring.”
I can’t remember how I figured out I was in Jinan. I think it was after the train had sped away and I went into the train station. Just as the South Beijing Train Station had its name written in English in occasional places, so did the Jinan West Train Station.
I was so relieved I wasn’t even mad when I called Jesse via the Chinese WhatsApp (a call I had allocated data for) and learned he hadn’t even left his school yet. He would be there in 15 minutes…
I think it was 25 minutes before he got there, but I just waited and was stared at. Okay, I started to get a little annoyed, and started to text him things like “ETA” and “Have you left yet.” But I was too tired to go all out. Besides, what would that solve? He arrived, casually apologized, and told me to wait while he used the restroom, and I just shook my head and thought, “Helpless Jesse.”
Later, it was satisfying when my dad heard about how Jesse had not been waiting for me and got pissed.
Also satisfying? When I complained about this on social media recently, much more politely than I have in this post, of course. And Jane…
That was the subtle version of “I appreciate your apology” and also “I know you intended well.” Because no one would willingly put someone through what I had gone through in getting to Jinan.
Anytime I feel the slightest anxiety about future travel, I just remember this series of events.