On January 2nd, 2017, I flew from Osaka to Auckland with China Southern Airlines. It was my first flight with a Chinese airline. The flight attendants traveled the aisles in bright fuchsia uniforms speaking Chinese, English, and Japanese. They were polite and helpful, but not as smiley as I had seen on other airlines. I was surprised during the safety video when they showed how to evacuate the airplane. It detailed taking off high-heels soas not to puncture the inflatable ramp. When the flight attendants reminded us not to smoke, they mentioned that it was a law punishable by the People’s Republic of China. In spite of the dark implications behind those messages, I found myself looking forward to what was to come. I would finally see China!
The flight gave me a 14 hour layover in Guangzhou. Long layovers are like getting a free trip to another country; the flight doesn’t cost anything extra. Even better in this case was that I was given a free 48hr Transit Visa. There was no messing with paperwork, embassies, or fees, just a simple stamp upon arrival. After I went through customs, I was surprised to find another perk. A concierge greeted me and asked if I would like free accommodation. She confirmed that it was not a scam, so the obvious answer was yes. Some airlines will give free accommodation and meals if your layover lands overnight. The concierge gave me a map detailing where to find the airport hotel desk. Once there, all I had to do was give them a paper from the concierge and choose from a list of hotels based on pictures and amenities listed. After that they slapped a sticker on my arm to let the shuttle driver know which foreigner to pick up for which hotel.
The shuttlebus drove to a developing suburb of outer Guanzhou. I clung to the seat in front of me to avoid sliding all over the seatbeltless bench. There wasn’t much I could do about the bumps in the road that sent me to the ceiling. The driver dropped me off at Hao Yin Gloria Plaza Hotel, impressively nice for a “free” hotel. The rooms were spacious, modern, and comfortable. The internet quality was its only downside. All Google services were blocked (including email, maps, and search). Most websites took ages to load, but once checked for any censored material, were easy to navigate. This was the Great fireWall of China.
The front desk staff used enough English to communicate how to get to the nearest grocery store and I set out into the night. On the way to food I walked through a park. The main area was full of people of all ages lounging, skateboarding, bicycling, walking, and dancing. Personal speakers blasted music into the area for two different groups of dancers – one choreographed team practicing their routine and another casual swing dancing group. The scene was a beautiful example of how a public space can build community. Many of the restaurants I passed had red awnings covering outdoor seating areas. I was interested in eating at one of them, but felt too shy to pick out an unknown dish in a foreign language with no menu or pricings on the walls. The grocery store had only dry and boxed goods. In the end I played the chicken tourist and ate at KFC.
The hotel breakfast was my chance to try some real Chinese food. It included lots of fun pickled and steamed dishes, as well as rolls and cereal for a more Western palate. After that, it was time to return to the airport.
On the flight out of Guangzhou, I considered my experience. It was the littlest bitty bit of a taste of this big country, but it was enough. Some of my stereotypes were confirmed, like when I witnessed a man spit casually into an ashtray. The air was as smoggy as ever. But beyond that, I saw that China has a lot of parallels with the US. They are both large countries with powerful economies and heaps of natural resources. Both governments have uncanny knowledge and control over what their citizens access online. Both nationalities are known abroad to be loud, self-serving, and nationalistic. As people, we must also share a lot of values. We all desire to be safe, comfortable, have good relationships with other people, and find meaning in our lives. We may differ in how we express those values, and that is the beauty of the world.