Carolina: Cruising Past 70: Feeling Isolated in China

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Feeling Isolated in China

Guangzhou International Airport

China is the world’s most populous country, with 1.4 billion people. With the world’s population of 7.6 billion people, that means nearly one in every five individuals is Chinese. It is second only to the US as the world’s largest economy and just behind Russia and Canada in size. No traveler should overlook visiting this vast landscape of grassland, desert, mountains, lakes, rivers, and even a long coastline. Beijing is a magnet for history buffs with the imposing Forbidden City and the infamous Tiananmen Square. Shanghai, a modern global financial center with steep skyscrapers alongside its old sections, makes it the country’s largest city. Running majestically east-west across the country's north is the iconic Great Wall. And the third longest river in the world, the Yangtze, romantically connects inland cities and frontiers, including the home of the Great Panda and the site of the unparalleled Terracotta Warriors.

My first glimpses of China were of Hongkong, Macau, and Shanghai during my jet-setting business days. Last year, as a great bargain, China Southern Airlines offered Guangzhou as a layover city from Melbourne to Manila (7 hours) and Manila to Phoenix (12 hours). But it was in this city, that has recently overtaken Beijing as China’s second largest, that I felt a strange isolation from the world.

irregular flight service area

Chinese meal
 First Layover from Melbourne to Manila

I was going to use the first layover to figure out how I could take a short tour of the city on the second. There was little information I could get because of the language barrier, however, so I decided to hunker down and just get lost in my social media world. Sadly, with my laptop charge down to zero, I spent most of my time finding out how I could power it up with the gadgets thrown into my computer bag by my loving husband Bill. But, with a mechanical aptitude also near zero, I was ultimately unsuccessful.

Luckily, I did have a portable battery for my phone. Signs indicated that there was supposed to be free airport WiFi, but no luck, I could not get my phone to connect. A couple of millennials finally took pity and rescued me from my dire situation. With about half of my layover time already wasted, I sat down to another unwelcome shock. Facebook is banned in China! I turned to surfing but the last shock floored me: every search pointed me to sites totally foreign, totally unfamiliar, and totally Chinese!

My isolation was complete. With just two and a half hours to go before my flight departure to Manila, I consoled myself with a mouth-watering Chinese meal and musing about life. Only when I had to give a presentation on Social Media to the Viewpoint Technology Club in Phoenix did I learn why I could not get into my familiar world of social media. Of the top 10 websites in the world in 2017, 4 are Chinese! They have a Google equivalent, Baidu, Facebook/ Messenger equivalents, QQ, QZone and WeChat, and even an Amazon equivalent, Alibaba.

Second Layover from Manila to Phoenix

On the way home from Manila to Phoenix, I dreaded the 12-hour layover in Guangzhou. You won’t believe my complete surprise when the immigration officer told me that I qualified for a complimentary shuttle and hotel in Guangzhou if I could find the counter that processed such things. I was on extremely high alert and found it. There they told me that I could get my vouchers at another counter if I could find it. Being of a certain level of travel intelligence, I found that, too! The only problem was that the hotels that were familiar to me were all out of rooms and I was left with one called the Oubon International Hotel. Feeling happily adventurous, I again took the challenge and soon I was off to my one lucky day.

just outside the airport
The road out of the airport was strewn with glitzy modern sculpture, and I prepared to be wowed. What followed was a disappointment with a capital D. The hotel was a two-star facility in an almost rundown suburb of Guangzhou far from the city. By the time maintenance staff was found to fix my room’s air conditioning unit, I had already lost a lot of time. They even had to get the Manager because no other staff spoke English. I decided not to take a chance on a short city tour and opted to get a feel for the hotel facilities. There were the standard restaurant and a fitness center. But I was surprised to find a red-themed mahjong room! But the hotel was mostly empty; I guess it is just really used as a rest stop for transients. I ventured out to the small shopping mall nearby. There I consoled myself with another flavorful Chinese meal and peeked and poked around the small department store.

small shopping mall
My twelve hours easily frittered away.  I truly felt isolated in China, but I also got to see why she has become a great power. About eleven years ago I was asked which, between China and India, did I feel would become the superpower. I hesitated to say China back then because I wrongly thought India had the advantage of being an English-speaking country. The language barrier is only real for us who are outside of China trying to look/get in. Internally, China has used her masses of people, her vast natural resources, and her long and rich heritage to develop technologies that rival ours. The policy of isolation, of attempting to make one’s economy self-reliant, and of seeking to devote its entire efforts to its own advancement has served China well throughout the years. She may be nowhere in the Top 50 of the Happiness Index of countries around the world, but she has risen to #21 in quality of life (#8 for the US).

department store
You can bet I was happy to be on the way back to my comfort zone; but I also resolved, on the plane to Phoenix, that China deserves to be visited properly.  Beijing, the Yangtze, and the Great Wall await me.

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