Brand & Operations Manager for Small Start-up Businesses.
As I boarded the plane I had a swirl of thoughts and emotions running through my mind. I had gone on plenty of vacations while I was growing up, but I had never left the country and I had hardly been on an airplane. This was my first international flight, so for the next fourteen hours I would be on a direct flight from San Francisco.
Destination: Hong Kong
The only problem was Hong Kong was not my final destination. My destination was Dongguan, China for two weeks to attend my company’s annual banquet, celebrated the weekend before the Chinese New Year.
As someone who had never been overseas, did not speak the language, and was arriving at a late hour of night: I was terrified. After I deboarded the plane, I nervously shuffled around the airport and tried to figure out how to get through the customs checkpoint.
The immigration checkpoint was an ordeal. On my first attempt, I did not know you needed an Arrival Form so I had to go to the end of the line and try again. On my second attempt I was again sent to the back of the line to try again. My Arrival Form was not correctly filled out, and the immigration officer did not appreciate the $20 I had stashed in the back of my passport slip. Pro tip: don’t carry any money in your passport when going through customs checkpoints.
I finally got through the checkpoint on my third attempt and tried messaging my coworker to figure out how the heck to get out of Hong Kong. Kristine, luckily still awake at midnight, told me which bus I needed to take to get to the mainland. After waiting in line for about an hour, the shuttle finally arrived and I boarded the van to begin my journey to mainland China.
My only instructions for arriving was this: “I’ll meet you at the shitty public restrooms at the border crossing.” At the time I didn’t think much of it, but not really the clearest guidelines for my first trip to China.
While in the van, I realized that I had no way to contact my friends or coworkers (no international data plan) and I had no idea what the border crossing was, where it was, or what time I would arrive.
Getting through the checkpoint was not difficult. I was transferred to a different van with other people who were supposedly going to the same place. I had no idea if that was true or not as I didn’t speak Chinese, and the only way I knew where to go was by pointing to the sticker that that shuttle coordinator had stuck to my arm and saying “CBD, Dongguan” over and over again.
After an hour of driving we finally began to drop other passengers off. The first stop was a fancy hotel and not knowing what my destination was or where we were at at the moment, I got out of the van and grabbed my bags. As I was opening the door to the front lobby, the driver started yelling “no no no!” and waved my back to the van. In broken English, he said this was not my stop and we kept going. With no other options, I had to put full trust in my Chinese driver that he was taking me to the right destination.
After an hour or so of driving and a few more stops to let off other passengers, I was the only passenger left in the van. We finally arrived at my destination, which turned out to be an airport or shopping mall or something, I couldn't really tell. It didn’t really matter at this point either because it was well after midnight on a weekday and the place was deserted.
Before I left the airport, I was about to receive one last message from my friends who I would be staying with in China. He told me that the hotel was only a five minute walk from my shuttle destination and sent me a picture of the hotel’s business card that we would be staying at the next few days.
“No problem,” I thought to myself. “It’s just a five minute walk, I can figure this out.”
My first thought was to find free wifi and just search for the address. Only issue was there was no wifi to be found, each network required a security password to log on.
Second thought: okay, it’s only a five minute walk from my destination. I don’t know what direction to go, but if I just walk in a five minute perimeter around my destination I should find it no problem.
After 45 minutes of walking the nerves began to set in.
“It’s almost 2 in the morning. I am in a foreign place where I can’t communicate effectively with anyone. I just had a fourteen hour flight and have not slept in over a day. I have not seen a soul since my driver dropped me off, with the exception of the drunk couple I saw stumbling into their apartment building after hurling in the middle of the sidewalk. I haven’t seen a hotel, bar, or any place of business. I am going to have to sleep in the bushes tonight and figure this out in the morning.”
Fully prepared to “rough it” in a park, I began searching for a suitable location where I could hide out for a few hours and catch some rest. You cannot begin to imagine my relief when I saw a security guard on a nighttime patrol around the grounds of a construction site.
Racking my brain for any Chinese vocab that would help me out, I was able to manage ”你好，请帮忙“ （rough tranalstion: hello, please help!) and the security officer came over to figure out why a beleaguered American was yelling at him for help on a deserted street in the middle of the night.
After some painfully unsuccessful attempts to communicate, he motioned for me to follow him. Not really having any other options, I obliged.
So here I am now in a security guard checkpoint with five Chinese security guards trying to direct me to my hotel in the wee hours of the night. There were Ramen noodles on the counter and an old RCA TV playing what looked like a 70’s Chinese action movie. We were not getting anywhere productive, as the language barrier between us was far too great.
After twenty minutes of waiting on the curb with my new friends while they tried to hail me a taxi, I went up to one of the guards, pointed to the hotel business card, and tried pointing in different directions and asking how far it was.
Not knowing much Chinese, I was actually asking them “how much” (as in how much does this cost?) and putting “kilometers” on the end to see if I could get my point across. It was mildly successful. I say mildly because the guard confirmed the direction, but when I asked how far he just laughed and shook his head. I guess it was not a five minute walk from my shuttle stop after all.
So I walked. And i walked. I don’t know how far I walked, but I started to see businesses. Neon lights, flashing signs, the works. “Okay. I just need to find some sort of hotel, get a room, connect to the wifi, and figure all this out in the morning.”
I spotted the word “hotel” on a highrise in the distance and made a beeline for that building. Just a block away from the hotel, I spotted a cab driver sitting on the hood of his car smoking a cigarette. Realizing that I knew how to ask for help now from my experince with the security guard, I shouted my usual request (你好，请帮忙) again and hustled over to the cab driver. I showed him the picture of my hotel card, he nodded his head, pointed in the direction I had been walking, and signaled the numbers “1 and 5” to me on two hands.
The joy that I felt after he did that was unmatched. I quickly nodded my head and began loading my bag into the backseat, eager to sit down and finally reach my destination.
As we started driving, I began to feel this intense weight of deja vu. The building looked familiar. The streets looked familiar. We entered into the Dongcheng district, which I quickly realized was where I made the first when I was on the shuttle a few hours earlier.
I know that when you’re in a new place you lose your sense of direction, but I felt like I had been here before. I heard the turn signal click on as the driver swerved to pull into a circular roundabout driveway. As the driver pulled to a stop in front of the lobby, I could do nothing but stare in utter disbelief.
The reason that everything looked familiar, the reason that I remembered the Dongcheng district, the reason that I wa snow starting at the hotel lobby came down to one simple fact: I had been here before.
You may be wondering at this point, “Jacob, you’ve never been to China before, how does all of this look so familiar? What do you mean you had been at the hotel before? That doesn’t make any sense!”
Let me tell you why.
The reason why the hotel lobby looked familiar is that it was the same hotel lobby that I almost walked into three hours prior. The same hotel that the driver ushered me away from was the very place that I was supposed to be staying that night.
In a daze a pulled out the last of my Chinese currency, which was just enough to cover my cab fare, and stumbled into the hotel lobby. I went to the counter where an exhausted-looking young woman was behind the desk and asked for my friend’s name and room number. She handed me a room card, pointed me to an elevator at the other end of the room, and next thing I knew I was standing in front of a closed hotel room, key in hand.
“Please let this be the right room,” I said under my breath as I inserted the key into the card scanner. It beeped, clicked green, and I was in.
I couldn’t make out anything in the room because it was so dark, but my noise was enough to stir my friend from his sleep. “What’s up dude?! About time you made it here!” I dropped my bags, gave a brief summary of my adventure, then collapsed into the single bed for a few hours of sleep, knowing well that I would be up in a matter of hours for the annual company banquet. The time was 3:30 AM, about five hours since I landed in Hong Kong and three hours since I had arrived at this hotel earlier on the first stop with my van driver. I was exhausted, mentally and physically, but I also felt a sense of pride and accomplishment a I drifted off to sleep.
I’m happy to say that this ordeal did not affect the rest of my trip. On the contrary, it mentally prepared me for anything that would come next: figuring out the public transit system, boarding the wrong bus for a three hour trip to the mountains to do some snowboarding, a ten-hour overnight train ride to Beijing, and the smorgasbord of new food that I would be exposing myself to over the coming days.
I learned a lot about myself on that first night in China and as much as it sucked at the time, I wouldn’t replace that with an easy trip to my destination any day. I think about that first night quite often. I think everyone thinks that a perfect trip and a beautiful destination is the purpose of traveling, but I think the opposite is true.
Travelling is meant to get you out of your comfort zone and expose you to new things. If everything went perfectly to plan, you might as well stay at home and save yourself a few hundred bucks. I think those hardships and uncomfortable moments are the things that really stand out while travelling.
It goes by several names and descriptions: the good suck, type B happiness, comfort challenges, becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable, and many others.
I bet that when you think back on some of your fondest travel memories, there is at least one moment in there that was so terrible, so awful so life-shattering at the time, but looking back on it you realize that it was something that changed you for the rest of your life, and is a memory you will cherish forever.
Stories about beautiful destinations and exotic foods are great, but the stories about getting lost, battling food poisoning, running out of money, figuring out how to communicate with people who don’t share the same language: those are the real memories that stick.