Friday, October 8, 2010

Steve Strong: Shanghaied in Shanghai

It seems that every time I go to China something traumatic… or at least unusually dramatic happens. I was almost carjacked once. There had been an accident and farmers were commandeering vehicles to take injured people to the hospital. They stopped our car and had me by the shirt, yanking me out of the car, when they saw how tall and big I was they realized I was a foreigner. They dropped me and yelled at us to pass through.

On a different trip, I had some free time and took a water shuttle from Hong Kong to Kowloon to get a suit made. I was in Kowloon until after dark, and I just hopped in the boat to return to the hotel. But it turns out there are several water shuttles and they all looked alike to me, so I got dropped off in a totally different part of Hong Kong. It was 11:00 at night, and the city was almost deserted, but I was able to flag down a car of young people who understood English well enough to help me get a taxi and were kind enough to explain to the driver where I needed to go.

On some trips I’ve had to eat scorpions. I’ve eaten dogs, frogs and cold goose stomachs. Since they didn’t have English or American songs in the Karaoke machine, one night I had to do an a cappella solo of the lullaby, “Baby Mine” from the movie Dumbo. Since I don’t drink alcohol, I was the only sober one in the room, and I felt like an idiot singing alone on that microphone. My only hope was that they were too drunk to remember my performance the next day.

A few times I’ve had to wear a parka, hat and gloves indoors for a business meeting in a conference room with no heat in December, and I’ve had to take a shower with no hot water in an unheated hotel room. After traveling without a hotel for several days, once we made a deal with a local fitness center for us to go in and use their shower facilities. And remember, I’m not in my youth doing this. I’m a middle-aged businessman who made the mistake of letting my Chinese business partners make all the domestic travel arrangements.

Once we traveled through the night and we got a sleeping berth on the train. Unfortunately I was too tall for the bed, so my feet stuck out of our room and into the hallway where they were bumped by passengers all night. Our berth only had a curtain for a door, so I was told to sleep with my hand on my luggage all night.

Another time I was in Beijing at some kind of street festival enjoying a barbecued sparrow on a stick, when this girl came up to me and asked me if I were an American. I thought she was friendly, so I told her I was. She asked me if I was staying in a local hotel, and I pointed to the hotel I was staying at – It was just a short walk from there. Then she asked me the craziest thing. She asked me if we should go to my hotel room. I thought that was so rude of her to ask that.

Why should she be trying to send me back to my hotel? I was enjoying my little sparrow on a stick and I was having fun right there. Then she told me she would go with me to the room, and said we could have a party. That’s when I decided she must be the rudest girl ever, and I told her I was staying at the party out there in the street. Later, my Chinese business partners told me I missed the point completely.

So you see, sometimes I just didn’t seem to be on the same page as the good people of China. And for me, the craziest of all was the night I lived through my own version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride through the streets of Shanghai.

It happened on my first trip to China. I flew China Air, and they lost my luggage on the way over. Because we were traveling by train and car all over Eastern China during the week, there was no way for my luggage to catch up to me for eight days. I finally met up with my luggage the night before I was traveling home. I had spent eight wretched days squeezing into little, tiny Chinese underwear and a long-sleeved shirt that went just past my elbows. I was forced to wear the same pair of tennis shoes and blue jeans that I had worn over on the plane because there were no others that could fit me.

So when I finally got my luggage, and took a long hot shower in the Shanghai Holiday Inn, I felt like I was in Los Angeles. The place was so modern that everything just felt right and I was excited to be there.

My business partners had left me and I was on my own that night and to get to the airport the next morning. From the hotel, I could see the bright lights of a shopping area so I told the English-speaking bellboy at the Holiday Inn I wanted to go there and he explained to the cab driver, and I was off.

I spent a couple hours buying knock-off name brand stuff until I got hungry for dinner. I saw a McDonald's. Judge me if you will, but what I did next might make you uncomfortable. I went into the McDonald's and ordered a Big Mac, fries and drink. I ate it at the table upstairs. Then went back down and ordered another Big Mac, fries and drink.

It just felt so good! I felt like I was safe. The world was right. People weren’t making me eat horrible things. I was full, and it was a great feeling.

I walked out of McDonald's to get a cab back to the Holiday Inn. But first a Chinese man came up to me and said, “Are you American?” I said yes. He said, “You want a Chinese girl?” I said, “No thank you.” He said, “Ah… you want a Chinese boy!”

I yelled “No!” and ran for the street. A taxi saw me and swerved over and slammed on the brakes. I jumped in and he took off very fast.

Now… I found it odd that he would race off with me when I hadn’t told him where I was going, so I said to him in English, “Holiday Inn, please.” He replied in Chinese and kept driving straight. I said again in English, “Yo dude. I’m staying at the H-O-L-I-D-A-Y I-N-N. Do you know where that is?”

This time he started looking over his shoulder and speaking in Chinese very fast, and kept driving straight. I handed him my room key, which had the Holiday Inn logo on it, and asked again if he knew where the hotel was. The more I spoke, the more agitated he got, and now he was driving very fast on those Shanghai streets. He tossed my room key on the dashboard.

I started saying things I knew for sure he couldn’t understand, but I was getting a little concerned by this point. “My man. Are you kidnapping me?” “Do you have any idea where we’re going?” “Are you nuts, or what?”

We came to a huge intersection with a blinking red light, and I figured I’d jump out when the car slowed down. He saw me start to open the door, and he started reaching for me, and yelling in Chinese.

And then he hit a woman on a bike!

We both got out of the taxi to see if she was OK. She seemed unhurt, but was furious and yelling at the driver, who seemed to be apologizing profusely. I took that as my sign to get out of there, but he saw me leaving and ran around and was trying to push me back in the car.

I said in English, “Man, you’re out of your mind. You don’t have any idea where we’re going. You’re just racing through this town. Are you on drugs?” Of course he couldn’t understand me, and just kept speaking that same agitated, worried Chinese.

Who knows why, but I did get back in the taxi. Off we sped in that same straight line down that street. Now, probably five or six miles from where he picked me up.

I saw the light of a small hotel up ahead and the driver started pointing to it. I thought this guy must be crazy if he thinks I’m staying there. But we headed to that hotel, and he sped up the driveway to where a nice bellhop in a fancy uniform stood. The driver and I both jumped out of the cab and ran up to the bellhop and both started telling our stories in our native tongues – each trying to be louder than the other as we fought for the bellhop’s attention.

The bellhop motioned for both of us to settle down, and first the driver, and then me, we both got to tell our story. The bellhop was very cool and had good English. He told me the taxi driver was so excited to see an American that he wanted to pick me up even though he had no way to communicate. He didn’t want to lose the good fare.

So he was trying to bring me here so the bellhop could speak English to me and find out where I needed to go.

The bellhop thought it was all rather funny. After a while the taxi driver and I did too.

He took me to the Holiday Inn and I gave him a hefty tip for all I put him through that night.


  1. Great story! I was highly entertained. <-- Perfect Friday afternoon state of mind!

  2. You know that by giving him that big tip, you were just encouraging him to try that again with some other poor lost American, right? I'm just saying.

  3. Me and him, we bonded that night. I had to tip big.

    Later I asked my Chinese partners why the woman who he hit didn't call for police or sue. They told me, "It's China. Who ya gonna sue?"