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2010-01-28 - 12:45 p.m.

...memories from China - 2 ...

16 November 2000 *** Airport Tax ***

Greetings from Beijing. For what it’s worth, I have arrived. My first impression came as the plane descended through the clouds. Only, the clouds never ended. I watched the airplane television monitor reporting the meters we were descending, but the ground never came into sight until we were all of 7 meters off of it. Beijing was, and still is, shrouded in a thick greyish white haze, supplying tiny quantities of rainy slush to the pavement. I am here at 40 deg 4.9 min North, 116 deg. 35.2 min. East, as the gate sign reported.

Beijing airport does its best to maximize the impact of culture shock immediately. My first interaction was with the “pleasant” women at the transit desk, for ‘continuing flights in China.’ At this point I am not sure why that desk is there. The woman behind the counter grumbled at me “Where is from? What is from?” I still do not know exactly what she was asking me, which is why I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand…” She replied with a definitive, “OUT!!”. Okay. Well, I think that perhaps being sleep-deprived I was a bit sensitive…but I just walked on, and well, OUT.

I encountered the first immigration desk and tried naively to hand the fellow all of my forms. That is, once I could get *to* the desk, through the stream of Chinese men who kept pushing past and in front of me. I was eventually waved through, with all papers thrown back at me, and then continued to baggage claim.

Looming in the back of my mind were the tour guide warnings about the airport departure tax that I must pay. Looming next to those warnings was the knowledge that I needed first to acquire some Chinese Yuan. Before reaching the baggage carousel, I had a brief face-off with the first currency exchange machine that I saw. As it stared down on me – an imposing metal monolith covered in strange characters and advertisements, it won the contest. I was completely intimidated.

So I went to stand at the baggage claim and waited somewhat patiently for 10 minutes while my bag did not come. Three men standing next to me lit up the foulest smelling cigarettes I had ever encountered. I know now what my coat will smell of upon my return… With the incentive of finding air to breathe, I decided that it was time to face the currency exchange monolith again…I am, after all, an intelligent person. I should be able to handle such a machine…. In the end it was a simple process, once I was able to find the right denominations of US and German currency.

Armed with Yuan, I went back to the carousel to wait for my bag. Which never came. It turned out that some of the bags were unloaded to a different part of the hall, for no apparent or advertised reason. I saw some people with badges gesticulating and speaking rapid Chinese. I followed them. As I did so I saw my bag rolling past on some strange man’s cart. I stopped him urgently and grabbed for the bag, before I realized that he was actually an airport official. Funny, this is a country FILLED with people in various uniforms. And this fellow carrying my bags had none.

China fills me with paranoia, perhaps because there really are so many people that it reminds me of New York. I keep telling myself that I handled New York. All I have to do is to find that gruff New Yorker inside me and then I can handle Beijing Airport. Out comes the scowling face, deepened voice, and shoulder tension.

Anyway, having retrieved my bag, I went on another search for the airport tax. A thorough search of the baggage claim area revealed that one does not pay the airport tax before customs. So I exited customs into the Beijing airport, which was filled with limo-drivers, bright colors, roses, and above it all a recording of jubilant opera singing over the airport intercom… It was quite sensational – a bit overwhelming. I scurried between the limo drivers into the main hall…and resumed my search for the airport tax.

I asked at three different information counters, and each one brought me slightly closer to my destination, but at each I had the same conversation: “I am flying to Nanjing. I need to pay airport tax. Where do I do this.” “You fly international?” “No, Nanjing.” “You want International?” “I want airport tax to Nanjing.” “International this way.” Okay. Whatever. Finally I was pointed to a large crowded zoo of human beings – you might say there were “lined up” in front of the window marked ‘airport tax.’ It was more a mass of bodies. Aha! But here my experiences in Sweden came in handy. I can elbow myself into position and hold my own against the Swedes…might as well give this lot a try. Of course, the crowd was a bit disgruntled. This was most strongly evidenced by the Chinese man behind me who exclaimed (in rather good English), “What the F*** is going on???” before he shoved my luggage cart out of the way. Some poor, apparently confused, pale, tiny, and extremely polite young English fellow in front of me was also so easily brushed aside..

I elbowed up to the window and said loudly, authoritatively: “Airport Tax.” (I didn’t know what else one might say at the airport tax window, but I wasn’t taking any chances.). I handed her 200 yuan. She handed me back 2 airport tax tickets. It wasn’t until I wandered away from the window did I realize what had happened. I my enthusiasm to (a) remember the airport tax and (b) sound like I knew what I was doing, I overdid it. I didn’t realize my own power of authority. The woman had doubled my order.

I muscled my way back into line, in front of the same exasperated Chinese man from before to say I only wanted 1 ticket. The exasperated man jumped to the window in a flood of Chinese, thrusting money at the woman behind the window. I addressed him sternly and said, “I’ll be just one minute!!” He replied just as sternly and forcefully, “I’m trying to help you!!”

“oh.”

He bought my 2nd ticket – we exchanged a few New-York type bonding expressions – you know, complaining about the chaos and what this world is coming to - and then moved on with half-an-acknowledging nod. But at least I had my airport tax ticket, with only a limited number of bruises from wrestling with the Chinese men at the window.

As I was readjusting my belongings I was approached by the slight young British gentleman who very politely (“excuse me, terribly sorry…”) asked me if I could give him two Yuan (‘only about 30 p.’) No problem. I pulled it out and handed it to him. He looked at my cash and said, “by the way, you are not allowed to leave the country with currency….” Having had this “You international?” “No, Nanjing” conversation already three times, I was a bit exasperated…and it kind of burst out onto this poor slight polite gentleman…”I’m NOT leaving the country!!! I am trying to get to Nanjing!”

“oh.” He answered. “Well in that case you have the wrong airport tax ticket. This is the international window. You need domestic. It’s over that way, in the other hall.”

Interestingly, there are no signs indicating or explaining any of this. It was really only because of a last-minute email from my boss (with incorrect information) that I even got this far. Well, with a parting thank you to this little gentleman, and on the principle that I will be departing the country at some point, I kept my departure tax ticket. And moved on.

I wandered into the domestic departure area of the airport, up to a friendly looking security guard. He was very pleasant. He spoke quite a bit of English. And I could not understand a word of it. So we smiled and nodded a lot, he pointed, I looked like I understood, and made a quick retreat. And FINALLY I saw a sign that said “Domestic Airport Tax!” I am now a veritable professional at this airport tax thing. In fact, I’ve already started buying and selling in the airport tax market… So this was no problem (apart from the Chinese man who pushed his way in front of me. I am beginning to detect a pattern, and I wonder how long it will take before I look and act like a Chinese man….)

I checked in at the gate and was pleased to watch the check-in clerk sternly turn away a Chinese man who had tried to push his way in front of me, and then finally made my way through security, past a rather jovial security guard who was fascinated by my Hawaii key chain…I was at the gate. At last I could relax and look around.

The airport stores were beacons of color! Brightly colored knick-knacks – the kinds that my Chinese colleagues always bring me, the kinds, not surprisingly, you could find on the street markets of Chinatown in New York. (I then wondered, if you turned them over, would there be a little label that said…”Made in Malaysia?” hee hee…) Also filling the stores were piles of fruit wrapped in plastic. I felt like I was back in Food World, the Korean market in Tappan, NY. Except, all of the ‘hosts’ in these stores were impeccably dressed smiling young women in light-blue uniforms. They kind of scared me….reminding me of characters out of George Orwell or Brave New World…

Like with the money-exchange monolith, I was still too intimidated to enter and browse and to face the light-blue ladies…Maybe later. After moments of walking past Red Star Coffee House (which was closed), I settled into the NesCafe. Or was it the Nescafe Café? Doesn’t matter - it was plastic coffee, plastic milk and the very best that one can do in China, apparently. I was served by the impeccably-dressed blue ladies and sat at the tables … and was stared at. Or, it felt that way. Amazing. I haven’t felt this much like a fish out of water since my first month in Sweden, where I’m convinced that I was the only person in the country wearing white New Balance tennis shoes.

Well, it has happened before. I also remember standing out a bit in Barbados, but I also remember that it didn’t take long before the whole island seemed to know who I was and left me alone. China, however, is a bit larger than Barbados.

Anyway, it was simply an interesting observation, and also to note that it was less than 30 minutes before even I was staring at other white people. What are *they* doing here?? Sociology can be fascinating…So that’s how taxing Beijing airport was…

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