Periodically I get the urge to be somewhere other than Shanghai. Often this takes the form of overseas travel to Korea or Japan, but surprisingly, one does not have to leave China to get a little peace and relaxation. I have found that a lot of Chinese cities offer the would be traveler a welcome respite from the noise, pollution, and rudeness of Shanghai and Xiamen is no exception.
Shanghai is the face of China’s development, and as such, is viewed by many as the most developed/civilized city on the mainland. Outwardly, this is true, but cosmetic features of glistening high-rises, a massive subway system, and modern road infrastructure is only skin deep. Scratch the surface by spending a few months here and it soon welcomes apparent that Shanghai is more akin to a zoo than it is to a modern city, without the benefit of cages to keep the animals, errrrm I mean locals, in line. This is not Shanghai’s fault per se, it’s just that Chinese social systems break down alarmingly when mega cities such as this, experience rapid development and dislocation of its natives and a large surge of migrants from rural areas simultaneously. “Face” culture only works when everyone knows each-other to some degree through some extension. Shanghai has become a city of strangers, and with this change, social norms and restraints have fallen by the way side. Prestige, power, and what type of automobile you posses has become the social criteria by which people interact and as such, has a produced a city seriously devoid common Chinese humanity. People will cheat you, push you, and generally try to run you over with their obnoxious automobiles amongst other unsavory occurrences on a daily basis. Even the most ardent of expats and locals can only take so much of this dog eat dog city before they venture abroad to find a friendlier local to spend a few days, and I am no different.
My last trip was to Xiamen. I didn’t have high expectations; in fact I didn’t have any expectations at all. In China, it is always better to lower or eradicate expectations, that way you won’t be disappointed and just perhaps pleasantly surprised as I was after going to Xiamen. So my girlfriend and I book our flight, took time off work, and embarked upon our Xiamen odyssey, but before we even left Shanghai, the value of low or no expectations became quite apparent. Arriving at 7:30 in the morning for our China eastern flight we promptly found that the flight was delayed. This “delay” lased for about 7 hours! First we were told that it was because the plane was being prepared. Then we were told that it was because they didn’t have a plane but not to worry, one was enroute. Then we were told the plane had arrived, which turned out to be a “mistake”. This went on and on until which time we were told there was no plane and we’d have to take another airline to Xiamen. At one point during this lengthy fiasco in professional Chinese unprofessionalism, my girlfriend wanted to quit and go home, but I wouldn’t let her. “What for?” I enquired, “We we’ll get on some plane eventually and be out of this smoggy dirty city.” “But they are lying to us,” she protested, adding “this is a waste of our time!” angrily. “Yeah, I know. But what did you expect? This is China.” I countered. Lowered expectations were serving me well…
Finally we were told that in fat there would be no plane coming, I wasn’t surprised having waited 6 hours at this point, and that we would be taking Xiamen Air to Xiamen. It was early afternoon and to get our Xiamen Air flight we had to exit the checked-in area, get our luggage, new tickets and re-check into our new flight. A typical Chinese clusterfuck, but I had expected no less. Finally it was our time to board and we were bused to the plane waiting on the tarmac. Xiamen Air is a discount airline, much cheaper in cost than our original China eastern booking (an expense we were not refunded, of course), and so we had to board on the runway. This procedure proceeded along the lines of all other procedures where people should be standing in line and waiting quietly for their chance to board, in short, with a lot of pushing, shoving, yelling, and elbowing for position. Why? I don’t know. I guess some people thought they weren’t going to get a seat if they didn’t proceed to board by acting like a bunch of raging cattle. Who knows? This is China.
Once on the plane and seated, I was interested to see how a Chinese flight would be. I had never flown on a Chinese airline for obvious reasons, the people travelling with you and safety of course, and I was looking forward to my first Made in China flight experience. I wasn’t disappointed. For starters the plane was extremely noisy owing to the fact that it was populated by Chinese mainlanders. Secondly, everything, the floors, walls, windows, seats, trays, etc. had a Chinese style layer of grime on it as no one in China, I mean know one, can clean anything correctly, nor does anyone seem to care about such bourgeois things as not having the last passengers spilt coffee dried to the meal tray in front of you. Still the plane looked reasonably safe as there were no visible holes in the fuselage and the engines seemed to be spinning. So I sat back and relaxed.
The plane took off without crashing and we were airborne. It is only about a 2 hour flight to Xiamen from Shanghai so whatever was coming in regards o my fellow passengers’ behavior, at least it was going to be a short flight. Nothing out of the ordinary occurred, well at least nothing out of the Chinese version of ordinary that is. Passengers ignored instructions to turn off their phones and laptops prior to take off. They got up to go to the lavatory before the seatbelt sign had been turned off. Many passengers failed to d up their seatbelts at all of course, and the din of yelling, throat clearing and spitting never ceased. Normal. As for the in-flight entertainment, that was interesting. Rather than passing out earphones as one would expect, they lowered TVs from the ceiling (no personal entertainment devices on the back of each seat on this flight at least) and proceeded to play bits of movies and TV shows with the sound being transmitted through overhead speakers I had once thought were reserved for announcements from the captain and crew (there were actually no announcements from the captain or crew, none at all about anything). So to the noise and racket of Chinese people in a large confined group, never a good thing where hearing is concerned, there was added the new noise of Chinese soaps and random parts of movies all separated by real-estate ads for Xiamen developments. That’s right folks, there were commercials, which didn’t surprise me as much as the fact that they were playing random parts of different movies in between.
The “meal” came partway through the flight, and it was almost edible. I tried a bit and thought better of it. I didn’t feel like spending my Xiamen getaway in the bathroom. Thankfully the flight was mercifully short lived and before I knew it, we had arrived. We landed without crashing which was a pleasant surprise, and began taxiing to a waiting area where a bus would deliver is to the airport. Of course, everyone was talking on their phones, going to the bathroom (an area I thankfully never entered), and getting up to get their things out of the overhead compartments scarcely seconds after the wheels had touched the ground. People were up in the aisles pushing towards the head of the plane before even stopped rolling and the herd was ready to move. Getting off the plane and onto the waiting bus proved to be as difficult and somewhat dangerous a task as boarding the plane had been. I guess they thought if they didn’t get on that bus then they’d have to stay on the plane and return to Shanghai… Anyway, it was finally good to be in Xiamen.
Xiamen photos here.