August 22, 2017

My long, hard trip to China…what you should expect

By John Guy LaPlante  

            Here’s what I faced for this big new  journey across the Pacific, the biggest ocean.

            I would be starting from Morro Bay, where my daughter Monique and her hubby David live and which is 200 miles north of Los Angeles, my take-off point. And flying more than 5,000 miles to Shanghai. Then taking a second flight to the big city of Guangzhou. It’s 700 miles farther, in the southeast of China, not far from Hong Kong.

            Next I had to find flight and arrival days—and times!– that would be convenient for me and Monique and David, who would be starting me off, and for my friends Wu and Camil in Shanghai and Guangzhou.

            And of course, affordable. And as easy on my tired old body as modern travel can make it.

            And to plan the reverse when I returned home a month later, with the same constraints and considerations to keep in mind, of course.

            I got started, and as always, online on my computer. My preference was American Airlines, and my reasoning was entirely financial. I have a Visa AAdvantage card—have had it for years. For every dollar I spend with the card, I get one AAdvantage point.  Collect enough points and you can get a “free” AA flight—maybe just a few miles away, maybe all around the world.

            After laborious research, I found my best possible deal on AA, both going and returning. It would cost me 70,000 points, and I had that many points. How about that? But remember, I had to put $70,000 dollars on my card to be entitled to that.

            But it wouldn’t be first-class, or even business class. It would be economy, at the back of the plane. But as I’ve heard my friend Sulekh Jain say—he has done a lot of flying, “John, the back of the plane gets there just as fast as the front!”

            Yes, that’s true. Nevertheless, there are attractive differences between those two classes and the one I chose. Flying up front may cost more than twice as much, but it’s surprising how many folks feel that’s the smart choice.

            Of course, I asked the AA gal, “How much would that round-trip in economy cost me in dollars?”

            “About $1,600,” she told me.  “Depending on day and time and other factors.”

            Also I learned something else.  AAdvantage seats are not available on any flight. just select flights. Finding the right deal can be painstaking.

            Anyway, that’s the ticket I bought. To save time, here I’ll go into just the outward-going details of my journey and not the returning-home ones.

            My flight times going were ideal:  departure at 2:30 p.m. from LAX (the L.A. airport), and of course I’d have to check in at least 90 minutes earlier; and arrival in Shanghai at 7:25 p.m. their time, which wouldn’t be bad for Wu, who is a working man.

            At first I thought of getting an immediate onward flight to Guangzhou.  AA doesn’t fly directly to that big city of 16 million. But I decided against rushing to my next plane for that final leg. For one thing, my flight across the Pacific might get delayed. And I might be too exhausted to walk onto that next flight.

            So, I arranged a separate flight, again after much researching, on Southwest China Airlines. My left-over AA points, and I had just a few, wouldn’t work for that. I had to pay cash for that round trip, again on economy. It was $249.

            On departure day, my daughter Monique woke me at 4:30. David was dressed and ready. We sat down to one of their usual wonderful breakfasts, and David got me settled in his car at 6:15, just as planned.

            With me I had a big suitcase, on wheels, thank goodness. Plus my substantial carry-on bag. Plus my laptop. Plus my essential walking stick. Plus a bag of food.    You see, I had noticed that my AA flight of 14 hours would serve “one meal.”  Yes, just one. Gosh, AA was being awfully skimpy! Monique made sure I wouldn’t go hungry. That big bag included a jar of peanut butter. I consider peanut butter the world’s best survival food for traveling.

            Long ago, I rode a Greyhound bus from New York City to Seattle. That’s a three and a half day ride. The same bus goes all the way.  The drivers change every seven hours or so—which is so reminiscent of the Pony Express riders of yore.

            The Greyhound ticket cost me $89. And I made it all the way to Seattle with a jar of peanut butter, a box of saltine apples, and a big bag of apples.  Plus coffee at every stop. Yes, true!

            That made quite a story for me to write up when I finally staggered off the bus in Seattle.

            I was visiting my son Mark there. He was getting his Ph.D. at the University of Washington.

            This time I’d be riding a bus with wings! That’s what the airliners are, of course, buses.

            David drove me south to Santa Maria. He had arranged a round-trip ride for me on a van shuttle service from there to LAX.  The round-trip fare was $168, I believe.

            It was about 60 miles to Santa Maria. David got me there in 63 minutes–right to the airport, which was the shuttle’s starting point.

            We were the first to arrive.  I was glad to get there early.  For one thing, I wanted to try the bathroom one more time. Getting to a bathroom was a  big consideration throughout this trip. I think it would be for any old man. On my outbound flight soon coming up, I even managed to book an aisle seat way, way back, just a dozen feet from the toilet! On the aisle to make it easier for fellow passengers.

            David gave me a hug and on I went. I was lucky—I got the front seat in the van, right next to Dan, the driver. He had eight of us on board.  It was three and a half hours to LAX.  Dan was a talker, as I am, and that was very good.

            An easy ride at first…traffic was light…but as we got closer…all seven lanes (one way, I mean) were jammed. But Dan knew some short cuts. At certain points, when the traffic seemed impossible, he diverted to secondary roads that were easier. I made notes of every one. He got us to LAX 15 minutes early, right to my terminal entrance, one of many, and off-loaded my luggage for me!

            Getting to Lax always brings back a precious memory of my first visit there in 1960. It was the end of a 4,000 mile camping trip with my wife Pauline and two little kids, Arthur and Monique, who were toddlers. Mark hadn’t come along yet.

            I was a writer for the Worcester Sunday Telegram and had organized this trip, writing articles all along the way and mailing them back to the paper for publication.

            I was at Los Angeles International to write about its director, who had jumped to this big job from our much smaller airport, where he had  been the top man. I can’t recall his name. I believe it started with Mc.  I suppose I’m lucky to remember that much.

            He greeted me warmly, introduced me and showed me around and answered all my questions.  Also I snapped some pictures.

            Meanwhile, Pauline sat and waited in our station wagon, coping our two darlings, of course.  That was a camping trip in a home-made tent trailer (built by me with a friend’s help). We camped out every night of that 11,000 mile ride.

            I typed my article that night and the next morning mailed it back with my roll of exposed film. It got published in due time.

            LA International was much smaller then, but still one of our most important airports. There was no security to go through back then!

            You know what getting through security at an airport is like nowdays, so I’ll skip that. I’ll mention just two things.

       I was told I had one bag too many—the bag with my  food. But I looked so doleful at that news that the counter gal told me, “Go ahead. Take it aboard.” I was so grateful I blew her a kiss. She did smile…a very little smile.

            But! My precious peanut butter got confiscated.  It had never been opened.  Still it was considered a security hazard! Crazy, I think.

            I  had more than a three-hour wait.  I planned to open my computer and get some work done. After much searching, I found a quiet corner and an all-important electric outlet. I didn’t want to drain down my battery.

            But I couldn’t get online, try as I might.  I even got an AA agent to help me, but he failed, too. “It’s just one of those days,” he told me.  One of many disappointments on this trip.

            Right away my walking stick tot an agent’s eye.  She said, “A wheelchair, sir?” 

            “Yes, please!” And I got a ride right down that long, long councourse to my gate. I had checked my bag but I had all my other stuff piled high on me.

            At boarding time, I expected early-boarding as a handiccapped senior. If early-boarding got announced, I never heard it. I was part of the big rushing crowd.

            On board, with all my things banging on every seat, I made it all the way down the narrow aisle right to my seat. But my seat was not an aisle seat, as promised. It was an inside seat in a long row. Darn!

            I spotted an attendant and complained. Quickly she sized up my problem.

            She said, “I’ll try to find you one!” It was a heavily booked flight, but she did find one.  Just 10 rows from the toilets and the galley section! She sat me down next to a young man. There were just two seats and we became seat companions for that entire long journey.

           The first thing I did was adjust my watch to Chinese time, which was eight hours ahead. That would ease my jet lag problem once arrived. Then I said hello to my seatmate.

            His name was Steve Yu. He was 17, a high school junior from near San Diego. He was Chinese, but born in the U.S., so traveling to China on an American passport with a Chinese visa that he had to purchase. as I did. He had an extraordinarily interesting story to tell me about himself, and I’ll share it in a minute.

            First, I must tell you about my Chinese visa. I had to get a new one. I’ve had to get one before, of course, so I remembered what a headache that was—having to go to the Chinese consulate in L.A., waiting endlessly in line, answering all the questions, then having to return four days later to pick up my passport with the visa pasted in it.

            I decided to splurge on a visa service that would go through all that hassle for me.  The visa itself would cost me $149 (if I remember correctly) and the service another $49.  I filled out the paper application meticulously. 

         There were six things I had to be sure to provide. One was to include my passport. Then copies of its first page, plus a copy of my original visa. Plus a new passport photo. Plus copies of my itinerary and hotel reservation. Without all those, no visa. I did all that.

            I felt lucky. The visa service specialized in China visas. Had offices in our major Amrican cities.

            But another of its demands was to ship my application with all the other things to its L.A. office by Fedex overnight. The charge was $27. I did that.

            The next day I got an email back from the service. I had forgotten to include the passport itself. What a dope! I had to send it pronto, again by Fedex overnight for $27.

            Then they sent me another email. The consulate had rejected my photo because it had a slightly yellow background.  (It was taken in front of a yellow pastel wall!) But the picture of me was painfully sharp—you could see my every wrinkle and every missing hair. That seemed to be what was essential. No.  The background had to be pure white.

            I had one taken at a nearby Walmart for $7.35 after a quick online search. CVS and the others were all charging $11 or $12.

            FedEx again. No! This time I rebelled. There was a U.S. Post Office close by. I sent off my photo not for $27, but for less than $7.

             (Remember these things if you’re planning to go abroad and you like to watch your pennies.)

            By the way, a lot of people get confused by passport and visa. What’s the difference?

        The passport establishes you as a citizen of a country. That small booklet is essential to get back into your own country!  If you  lose your  passport abroad, you are in deep trouble.

            The visa is your permission to get into a foreign country. It’s the price to get in to see the movie, so to speak. Visa prices vary. Some countries do not require one.  All this, and much more, is all explained in my Around The World book, by the way.

            My visa story doesn’t end there. The visa service contacted me again. I was a Connecticut resident. I couldn’t apply at the L.A. Chinese consulate!  It had to be to the New York City one—it had jurisdiction for Connecticut.  They would rush my application to New York. They would ding me another $27 for that Fedex service for that.

            You can imagine my surprise. After all, I had obtained my previous visas in L.A. and, yes, as a resident of Connecticut.

            I sent them an email: “My application clearly stated I live in Deep River, CT.  You are the experts. You should have recognized that!”

            They quickly apologized, begged my forgiveness, and ate the $27 charge.  And I calmed down.

            Still I fretted. The service assured me I’d get my visa on April 1.  I was taking off April 3. That seemed awfully tight. 

            And someone had to be home all day to greet the Fedex man on that day.  Not easy, but I arranged that, thanks to Monique and David.

            But the Fedex man never arrived. He showed up with it the next day, April 2. Whew! All is well that ends well, Confucius said (I believe). Sometimes the toll it takes is awfully high.

            Now back to Steve Yu. He was flying to Shanghai for a quick, all-expenses paid visit to New York University’s new Shanghai branch (some 500 students at present).

            Quite a few American colleges and universities are opening branches overseas. It seems to be the latest thing. It widens their market for applicants, increases their profit stream (pardon me…that’s the wrong expression…their revenue stream…but we all know what that really means) and it’s prestigious. Plus fantastic PR. They wanted Steve because he was such a hot prospect.

 He’d be met at Pudong by an NYU rep, shown around, wined and dined, and hopefully signed up. In four days he’d fly home, committed to NYU.

   Incidentally Steve had received other such irresistible come-and-see-us offers from other schools, and was saying yes.

            He attributed his success to two things.  “My Mom and Dad. They do everything possible for my little brother and me. They want the best for us every day.  They are immigrants. It’s been hard for them over here.  My father is a sushi chef. Yes, Japanese sushi!” He chuckled.  “Which I love, by the way. He works very, very hard for us. And the other thing has been AVID at school.”

            AVID, what’s that? I had never heard of it. I was amazed by what he told me.

       AVID stands for Advancement Via Individual Retirement. It is a college-readiness program which has had fantastic results in improving the academic and life performance of underserved students.

            It was started in San Diego by a teacher named Mary Catherine Swanson. It has had astonishing results over the years—by measurable standards, mind you. Now retired, she spent years making it grow. AVID now exists in thousands of high schools in nearly every state.

            It’s more than a how-to program. It’s a philosophy, a way of thinking. Students are kept to high standards, are given guidance, feedback, and encouragement. If you’re interested, looked it up on Google.

            “AVID has been fantastic for me,” Steve told me.  “I have a terrific mentor. I will never be able to thank him enough.”

            “Well, Steve, what do you want to major in?”

            “I don’t know. I can’t make up my mind. I have many things that interest me.  For a while, I intend to take general courses that will help me for anything I do in life.”

            A wise answer, I thought. I’ve met kids who plunge into anthropology or oceanography, say, as a major because of a movie or article they have come upon. Not really understanding what they’re getting into. Two years after graduating, they’re a clerk in a bank, say, working in a supermarket. Sad, I think.

            Anyway, he was my seat companion all those many hours.  Kept trying to help me this way and that—fastening my seat belt, maneuvering the monitor in front of me, reaching up for my luggage.

            By the way, we were served meals. Yes, meals, plural. Yes, full meals, plus snacks. I had declared a vegetarian meal, please. That got ignored. One meal was a sandwich with ham and cheese. Still frozen, by the way. You’d break a tooth biting into it. I waited for mine to thaw, ripped off the ham and handed it to Steve, who gobbled it down in five seconds, and satisfied myself with the rest.

   I estimated half of us on board were Asian. The big meal of the flight was served with fork and knife and spoon and chopsticks. Take your pick. Steve used his chopsticks.

   Just about everybody had the movie channel on. Steve was watching something else. By coincidence, so was I. It was our route as we pr0gressed from Los Angeles to Shanghai. I had it on for the entire trip. I had brought things to read and every now and then I’d glance at that tiny little plane moving across the monitor map. Fascinating!

            He was excited when we approached the International Date Line on the Pacific. He watched as the tiny plane got closer and closer to the IDL. Gave me a thumb’s up when we crossed it. I’m sure there were very few of us aboard interested in that.

            I quickly put my usual strategies to good use. There, imprisoned in my seat, now and then I’d move as many of my muscles as I could. My neck, my arms, my legs, my feet. It all helps.

            And as often as I dared, I got up and made it back the few paces to the toilet area and the galley. Even if I didn’t need the toilet. I would stand in a corner, out of the way, and do more gentle exercises. So important. And engage people in talk. Enjoyed several notable encounters.

            Best of all was with Amie, the attendant who got me my aisle seat. (I’ve felt it wise to change her name.) Just a tiny thing. Was certainly a beauty when she started her 27 years with AA. Being young and beautiful was a requirement back then for a stewardess, as we know. Not so much now, thanks to the feminists. That word “stewardess” has been chucked.

            She told me there were 14 cabin attendants, including 3 Chinese, who also made the PA announcements to the Chinese passengers. And 4 on the flight deck.

            All bid for their flight schedules. This flight was a highly desired itinerary, and she qualified for it most of the time because of her seniority. This was her favorite flight—for its destination, its relative comfort, and reasonable departure times at both ends.

            If she missed this one, she liked the London schedule. “But one reason I like this better is that the Europeans are more demanding of us!”

            On this flight, each attendant would have a two-hour break. There was a cabin with bunks just for them. Same thing with the cockpit crew, “but in first class!”

            On average, she made this trip three times a month and that was it.  Fly to China, go to the nice hotel provided for the crew, rest the next day, then fly home.

            “What do you do in Shanghai?”

            “Shopping with my friends in the crew. We don’t really need anything. But it’s a nice social thing.”

            “Has anything bad ever happened to you on a flight?”

            “No, never. No terrorist thing. Sometimes there’s a death on board. A natural death, I mean. A heart attack or something like that. But not for me. Not yet.” And she knocked on the cabin wall for good luck.

            “What attracted you to the job?”

            “The chance to travel! I was just a kid. We were all kids. All gals, of course. And I thought, ‘What! I can get to do all this travel, and get paid, too!’”

            She offered something else. “I’ve been with American since the start. The airline has had some bad times,  and is going through a merger right now, as you know. But it’s been terrific most of these years. We have the highest pay schedule of any airline! All thanks to our union, of course!”

            Slowly, slowly, we made our way across, one hour after another. I followed our route via the small screen right in front of me, on the back of the seat ahead of me.

            To my eye, we were hugging the land all the way. First, by our Pacific Coast up to Vancouver, then just off the shoreline of Alaska all the way to the end of the Aleutians, then down toward South Korea, and then finally China, and finally Shanghai! As I saw it, we never flew way out across the Pacific.

            Steve and I speculated about that.  Maybe what we were seeing on our screens was deceptive because we were looking at a map in 2D, and the world is really in 3D….

            He offered, “Maybe we’re staying close to land in case of an engine problem or something.  Easier to find an airport!”

            It’s plausible. But I don’t think so.

       At one point we were high in the Arctic! And the outside temperature was shockingly cold, by the way, though I don’t remember exactly. Most of the time were were cruising at 550 miles per hour seven miles up. Amazing, don’t you think? Most of the time, I felt as steady in my seat as in my favorite chair in my living room.

            Finally, finally we were only 15 miles from Pudong Airport in Shanghai. Just minutes from landing. The final announcements were made. The attendants made sure we were buckled in, and our trays and seats up. There was a tenseness in the plane. Your eyes closed, you’d never know there were hundreds of us aboard. Yes, it was that silent.

            We landed. Passengers jammed the aisles, of course, fighting to download their luggage from the overhead bins and get out. Steve and I waited and were the last ones out.

            He helped me get my luggage down.  Helped me carry much of it up that long, narrow aisle to the front. All he had was a backpack and a laptop.

            He insisted on keeping me company all the long way down the the luggage area. Retrieved my big red suitcase for me from the carousel. Kept by my side all the way to Customs and Immigration, and through that hassle.

            Only then did he say goodbye. “Good luck, John! Got to go! Somebody from NYU is waiting for me!”

            I was sad to see him go. He’s another kid that I’ve met that I wish I could buy stock in.

            Now to make it short and sweet. I would be flying on to Guangzhou tomorrow afternoon—less than a three-hour flight. Camil would be there to meet me at the end.

            Now I was so tired I could barely stand. I had not slept a wink for more than 30 hours. I needed ahotel. I saw one right there in the airport. Cheapest room, $149. I decided no.

            By chance, a sharp-eyed hotel salesman approached me. Showed me flyers of this hotel and that one nearby. “All very cheap prices!” he told me. “All very clean! All with free shuttle service back and forth!”

            I chose one. It was a 15-minute ride.  Amazing how beautiful Shanghai was! Its fine highway. Gorgeous buildings. The many bright colored lights. The Chinese love all that.

            The hotel was a small one, Blue Goose in English, I believe.  I signed the register: $45 for one night. Big room with private bathroom. A huge bed. Nice furniture. Big TV. And yes, impeccably clean.

            But I had so many problems getting the lights on, and the heat on, plus a few other problems, that I had to trudge back to the office for help. An attendant–a very old man who didn’t know a word of English–came back with me and got everything going for me.

            I didn’t even know how to say “Thank you.” But I showed it in another way.

            The rest of the trip went as planned. Easy by comparison. And here I am!

            As Confucius also said, “Nothing is perfect.” That’s true here, of course, as it is everywhere.  But I find China so impressive so many ways.

            The last century was our century, America’s century.  We became big and powerful and supreme.  Well, according to my figuring, we have 86 more years in this century. I believe this will be China’s century.

            Buy a broad Chinese mutual fund of common stocks.  I’ve owned one for a few years. It’s been doing fine.

            And finally I can say “Seechay!” That’s “Thank you” in Mandarin. I hope I’m spelling it right! And saying it right!

            Yes, a long and hard day. But paltry considering what our forebears went through years ago in getting to distant places like China, and for folks there to make it to our shores.

       Think of Marco Polo!     Oh, I got to Guangzhou still with tht big bag of food, just a few items eaten.

~ ~ ~

Comments

  1. jim davis says:

    good journalism. all i can say. jim

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