The China Narrative – Day 1: Nothing to Declare

August 29, 2013, or is it August 30th?

I don’t know anymore. I am just stuck in the abyss of far varying time zones and jet lag. After passing out at 9 pm, I find myself awake and alert, ready to a new day at 3 am – 5 hours to kill before the new day is actually supposed to begin. So what else to do but write?

 At the Airport (back home – 30 or so hours ago?)

The sights and sounds assault my senses almost as soon as I walk into the ubiquitously known  Tom Bradley terminal. Before I even make it through the security checkpoint, I marvel at the radical culture shift that morphed in front of my eyes. Gone are the soothing tones of the language I spent the last 33 years using for the majority of my days and replaced by the harsh and rapid timbre of Mandarin, Cantonese, a few other indistinguishable languages plus a mash-up of all of them by people that are native to the many dialects. The comforting smells of colognes, fruity Bath and Body Works products and deodorants are replaced with the cloying smells of menthol and other indescribable and not all together pleasant, unidentifiable scents.

I somehow catch the eye of a TSA agent, whom waves me past the entire line ahead, using the guise of admiring my watch (it is pretty darn impressive if you ask me — all bling and movement with a spinning diamond-y dial – courtesy of my Mama, whose wrist I pulled the watch off of and then never gave it back). Only to be thwarted by the man screening my laptop bag who found offense with my inauspicious journal. Perhaps they were threatened by the Italian leather or the daunting black leather cover and stretchy band that binds my beloved Moleskine. Nevertheless, as those whom I inadvertently surpassed in line went on their way around me, I watched as my journal is flipped through, swabbed and ran through a machine. After deeming it safe, good thing they missed all the national secrets hidden within, I made my way to the terminal.

What I don’t understand about people at airports is that when a flight is announced for boarding, everyone stands up and lines up. Especially when there is assigned seating. I guess better overhead compartment space is worth the 24 minutes of your life, but for me I never understood it. I just sit and watch and try to get my very last seconds of precious, reliable, rapid WiFi before a 15 hour forced hiatus.

I make my way onto the plane. The last few times I’ve traveled with my mom abroad, I watch in awe as she adroitly maneuvers her way into getting at least a row of three seats. All to herself. Every single flight. Or she gets upgraded. Without the chutzpah (ahem, balls) of my Mama, I quietly make my way to 62D, thankful that at least it’s an aisle.

Upon arrival in Hong Kong, I am reminded at the rudeness of my people. Now, I’m not sure I can call them my people, as I’ve been raised so long in California, “real” Chinese people look at me and assume that I am American. It must be the blonde highlights and dark tan? As soon as the fasten seatbelt sign is turned off, the usual mad dash to grab your belongings begins, but on hypersonic speed. A woman, 5 aisles back makes a run toward the exit, only to have her pathway obstructed by me who won’t move a budge because the people in front of me are, well, in front of me. She gives me a not so gentle nudge as a woman walks past me from the other side to get behind me to get her bag. I do my best to placate myself with solely giving her a dirty look, and a muttered rant (mostly) under my breath.

Finally making it off the plane, I thirstily reach to turn on my phone and watch as my red circle icons assault each of my apps. How a person gets almost a hundred emails in roughly 15 hours is a reminder to me of how many newsletters I should unsubscribe to when I have a free moment. As quickly as possible, I get my fill of my favorite social media sites, knowing the famine that is coming as soon as I enter the Mainland.

Everything is foreign. Though I can understand maybe 40% of the language, I cannot read it nor process them at the pace at which they are speeding by me.  I am to meet my mom, who took a flight out of San Francisco at roughly the same time, in the middle, after I go through Gate B at the information center between Gates A and B –whatever that means. I walk around in a daze, clutching my phone, my only tie to my familiar world, with a death grip. I try to follow the white people until they start looking at me like I’m either a creeper or about to hit on them (I’m doing neither). I make like a sheep and allow myself to get herded toward customs where I know my passport will be inspected and stamped.

As I make my way past the stern-faced officials, with my newly stamped passport in hand (of which I am absurdly proud of –there’s just something about getting a new stamp in that little book that not only proclaims me to be a US citizen, but of my adventures around the world), I am faced with a daunting decision.

Nothing to Declare.

Wait, what does that mean? Do I walk through the path under the large NOTHING TO DECLARE sign, which has 5 official looking men standing at various angles surrounding it or am I supposed to be declaring something? I feel more and more like a lost little girl. Reminding myself that I am a 35 – almost 36 year old – I did what any American in this generation does. I googled it.

Finally, making my way to freedom (or I guess ironically, not really), I find the familiar face of my mom and, much like the relief a child feels when she finds an inerrant parent, I cling to her. My only lifeline in this crazy, foreign country 7500 miles from home.

My mom insisted on taking this picture of me fresh off a 15 hour flight so you can see (by the sign in the background, haha) that I am in Hong Kong.

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