Saturday, September 13, 2008


It was a bit harrowing getting out of Los Angeles.  

Moving abroad for a long stretch of time is always a good opportunity to go through your stuff while figuring out what you'll need for the next year.  I've pretty much been on the road or in temporary or shared housing for the last 4 years. (I've made my sister Su's couch concave by now).  Some newspaper article claimed that this was a new post-modern living style, this sublet string, this couch surfing.  I say, give me modern back. 

Since I don't really have a home, the stuff I take with me is my base.  In this era of baggage overage costs, it gets the sloppy bohemian to streamline a bit and pull into focus the things that the fit wanderer absolutely needs.  Still, I'm a gal, and I have my moods and outfits, and OK, certain shoes, and that and that handbag.  At some point, $100 extra per bag is worth it when wherever you are, your stuff is your home.

But that wasn't the harrowing part.

7am LAX departure, meaning 4am from Su's house departure.
Cherry-printed cheapo suitcase from the Korean lady's Jumbo Bargain store in Echo Park.

There's this Chinese saying that pretty much means you get what you pay for:  
one penny of stuff, one penny of quality.

I got a cheapo suitcase at the cheapo store in my old neighborhood of Echo Park.  They had super large, large, small, super small.  I got the super large, a green one, it's about 1/2 of me when it stands.  If I were a better consultant to myself, I'd know that the flimsy/size ratio was dim, meaning if you really were to fill the case, it would never really hold up.

$39.99 just seemed too good to pass up.

The next day, I realized that I needed to get my money back.  It was just too big.  couldn't even fill it.  The lady at the counter had her worker examine and examine it for damage and then said no refund, only store credit.  I'm going to China, I tell her.  Exchange.

The only thing to exchange was a cherry-print suitcase.  It was black with all these threesies of stemmed cherries, tacky but not without its own darlingness.  At least it'll be easy to identify on the baggage carousel, says Su. It was 5 bucks cheaper so I got a coupla boxes of kleenex and a cool fluorescent orange mesh vest and 3 mini-pylon cones for my nephew Juju to play airport terminal with.  Ah Juju.  The one single reason I almost didn't go to China:
Cherry-print suitcase packed up by 1am...the other suitcase, with all the winter clothes, has been packed for a week.  I figure a 3-hour nap before the taxi comes at 4:30 am.

You really don't sleep at a time like this.
What did I forget? 
What did I forget?
All that stress won't leave the shoulders 
until you land.

I get to the airport fine.  Wait in line.  No one cares that you have a cherry-print suitcase at 5 in the morning.  I get to the counter.  The cherry-print suitcase is 13 pounds over.  The lady is looking through my passport.

Where's your visa?

A flush comes over me.  You need a visa?  Last time I went to China I didn't need a visa.

Was it through Hong Kong?  You don't need a visa when you go through Hong Kong...can't let...on the plane...go to...consulate...reschedule...tomorrow or Thursday....tomorrow or....tomorrow...and you'll be busy unloading 13 pounds...otherwise it's up to $200.

My consultant to myself is so fired!

I pull the cherry-print suitcase off the scale.  The handle pops off.  Of course it does.

5 am.  LAX.  Low on funds.  Take the shuttle to Lot C.  Take the Culver City 6 bus up Sepulveda.

Who knew so many people commuted to Westwood so early.  For 75 cents you get on the bus, but where to put the huge overweight suitcases.  I just manage to fit one under my seat, the other is in the aisle blocking.  As more people board, the cherry-print is in the way.  The topper is an old vet in a wheelchair.  Everyone in the front right half of the bus vacates to make room for one wheelchair.  I have to move the suitcase from under the seat and find another spot for the broken cherry-printed...the kindness of some dude...he comes and hoists the cherry-print up onto a low front rack and...the second handle pops off.   Thank you sir, thanks, Thank you. The bus is packed, at least I'm sitting.

Why didn't this school I'm going to work for tell me I need a visa?  Do I want to go half way around the world even? To work for folks that forget one of the most important travel documents?  Why was I not up on it?  Am I ready?  Do I want to live in Chinese bureaucracy?  It always seems bearable when you're living in a democracy.

I have to.  My whole schedule has been cleared for a year.  This adventure is gonna kickstart my writing to a new place.  My Chinese is gonna mature.  I can't face another couch.  I drag my two suitcases off the bus and wheel back to Su's.  I will not wake her.   She's done so much for me.  I will take breaks every other block.  Why do I have so much crap?

I get online right away to find out Chinese consulate hours.  The internet keeps sending me to VisaHQ. com that promises same day service for $260.  I think I need to do that.  It's not clear where you pick up.  Out of anxiety I charge it and frantically look for the pick up spot.  The service is in Washington DC.  You need to send your passport there.  I'm never gonna make it to China.

I hear Su and Juju's footsteps upstairs.  I go up and knock on the door.  They are silent.  Juju opens the door...there is momentary horror on Su's face, but Juju's all:  Hi Ah-yi.  

I wasn't ready to go.  The suitcase wasn't gonna make it.  I had too much stuff.  Su delays her day and drives me to the waiting game that is the Chinese Consulate.  You get a number, you wait for it to show up above a window.  If you don't get there within 3 flashes, they move on.

Wow.  All these Chinese people.  Look at all these Chinese people. Visa calls back.  I'm in the consulate, I can't use your services, can you refund my money?  They'll look into it.   I make processing just before the noon closing.  Should come back at 2:30pm to pick up.  Su and Juju and I go to the Koreatown Plaza on Western and 9th, cuz it's nearby.  It's a gentle mall, not too blaring, in light green tones.  The Food Court is unbelievably awesome...I feel like I'm in Seoul, I was at the airport for a 2 hour layover before heading to Hong Kong the last time I went to China.  So many Koreans happily eating huge gorgeous colorful volumes of foods and stews and noodles, the ladies at the counter sing-songedly calling out your number if you don't see your number flash when your food is ready.

I feel mini-relieved, but am running on the fumes of 3 hours of light sleep.  I get the Visa.

'Crossdress for Less?' Su asks me in her dry tone.  Yes please.  We go to Ross and I get a sturdy Olympia suitcase, Marseilles edition for 60 bucks.

My Big-C Cohorts Soo Jin Lee and Kristina Wong are troopers, and offer to send me off to LAX in the wee hours.  We had just gone for a Korean scrub the week before at Olympic Spa.  They scrub off all that old skin so that the new skin can take its place.  I'm grateful that all is now in place.  I wasn't ready to leave LA.  The gravity of the situation needed one extra day to sink in.

I leave the Westside in mist.  Soo Jin and the Wongster are rambunctiously debriefing me about all of their dates and hot's never to early to talk about combustion.  I will miss the Big-C Cohorts in a Big-C way.

The airline is not opened when we arrive.  We jabber and shoot last pix with my new cam.  I get to the front of the line.  It appears my flight to Vancouver has been cancelled.  I'm taking a United flight that goes through San Francisco at 10:30 am.  The lugging of luggage is not over. Am I over?  Is it heavy?  I should have weighed it there.  I don't wanna pay more money for stuff. 

I ask a coupla workers if there's a scale.  We don't know.  I take the airline connection bus from Terminal 2 to Terminal 7...I have no more energy to put the suitcases anywhere but right in front of me.  It's cool until Terminal 6, when a whole team of sportfolk endlessly board.

I enter United.  Ding!  A scale.  The new suitcase:  50 lbs.  Right on the nose.  The winter clothes:  55 lbs.  Oof.  There's no one at the counter.  The skies really do seem friendly now. The suitcases are tagged and put on the belt:  No charge.  On top of it all, I get 6,500 United miles, which puts me over the top for a free ticket.

I go through security.  The officer looks at my passport:  It looks like you. 

I get to read every magazine without purchase.
I get to catch up with my dulcet-voiced friend Rafael, one more time.
I get to SF just fine.
I get to check in with Martha Richards and her SWAN, one more time.
The international terminal is beautiful...(yeah SF seems to care more about its citizens than LA by way of public beauty.)
I make my long-term absence message on my cell phone.
I call my friend Cliff back for one last time.
I call Su.
The announcement to board.
At this moment, finally, it all lands.
I get verklempt saying goodbye to Su:
She means the world to me.
I board.
I read.
I eat.
I sleep.

I land.

After 12 hours, it's Shanghai.
Pudong Airport is shiny, vast, mod.
There's the big red flag with the Mama Star and the 4 baby stars.

I whiz through customs, except for a two minute delay.  
The customs officer looks at my photo, then me, photo, then me.
Checks with the gal next to him.  She looks then looks.  He looks, then looks.
Please sign.
They check the signature, then check the signature.
Please go.

I exit and see a huge dry erase board with my full name on it.  I immediately wave.  The two girls wave back.  I wend my way around and am greeted.
Hello Alice.
I am Luna.
I am Winner.  

Winner like thumbs up?


We wake the driver up.  In Chinese he asks Luna:  Was I sleeping fragrantly?

It's an hour ride through Shanghai.  Luna's English is excellent.  Winner has just learned 4 months and gets some things.  My Chinese is suspicious.  I'm fluent but can only express simply, when I then revert to English.

We have a village dinner of steamed fish, fresh asparagus, qing gong greens, fish-fragrant pork slivers and the crispiest of picked daikon radish.  We drink water.  The driver smokes at the table.  Ah yes.  China.

In darkness, we make it through the gates of Shanghai Lida Polytechnic Institute.  Even though it's dark, you can tell the campus is orderly, new.  

Here's where I landed:
Winner and Luna both take my first suitcase up a flight of stairs and insist I leave the second suitcase for them to lift:  It's too heavy! they cry.  No problem, I say, as I drag the 55 pounder up.  They open the door to 204:
Spare and bare and mod and luxe:  my ideal retreat.
I like the new China!
The air conditioner is activated by a remote.
There's an extremely cool bathroom sink, where the rectangular porcelain sits on a dark wood table that has a drawer in it, so you can put all of your toiletries in the easy slide drawer and not have to clutter the counter whatsoever.  I know this is probably standard in cool places, but after all that post-modern living since the end of 2004, this is a retreat come true. 
And I immediately fall to sleep, listening to the crickets harmonize with the cicadas, backed up by the bullfrogs.  My last thought is:  There must be a lake nearby.  

And I land.

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Blogger kristina wong said...

wow! swanksauce. that's one nice pad! and your dollar will go far there. meanwhile, back in los angeles, your riend kristina is spending money faster than anyone's business. i'm seriously thinking i still have time to cash out on my body and excuse it as feminist research. to the pole! we're thining of you over here.

September 14, 2008 at 11:38 AM  

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