The quiet orderliness of my arrival into China is weirding me out. It’s so easy, routine. Nothing like I remember from 14 years ago at the boarder crossing from Hong Kong to mainland China, nothing whatsoever like being pressed forward in an untamed crowd of human flesh towards an official stamp in your passport. I smile. The agents smile back a little.
Once I emerge into the arrival hall, there’s a cluster of people shouting and waving signs. This is a bit more like what I remember. One fellow in a dark uniform attaches to me as I march past. “Which hotel, which hotel you stay at?” he asks me. I give him the stink eye. “I am official hotel staff,” he tells me, pointing to a nametag that says “Hotel staff.”
“You need taxi?” he asks.
“I’m going to the taxi stand,” I tell him.
“Taxi stand, you wait for one hour,” he informs me, trying to wave me towards an embankment of hotel logos, which, indeed, are all for official and expensive hotels. I give him the stink eye again and ask how much. He doesn’t understand. “For a taxi, how much, how much?” I repeat impatiently.
“400 Chinese,” he says.
I make an exaggerated show of horror and shoo him away, march the extra hundred yards to the taxi stand. First rule of travel: if anyone comes up to you and offers to help you, he (100% of the time it appears to be a man, at least if you’re a woman) actually wants you to help him. Unless you’re looking at a map, and the person is merely offering directions. But even that can turn into something else.
At the taxi stand, I do not wait for one hour or even for one minute. There are a line of waiting taxis; I show my driver the address of my hostel, verify the price of about 150 yuan I’ve been quoted by the hostel staff, and away we go. Halfway into the city I realize that the traffic is entirely sedate, unlike when I was in Hunan province over a decade ago. Shanghai, if you squint, looks like anywhere else, any other big city with high rises.
However, once I’m installed in my hostel and trying to connect to the internet, I discover that actually, I’m wrong. Shanghai is not like everywhere else because none of the websites I’m entering are coming up: No gmail, no Google, no Facebook; I can’t even access my own blog. No Google docs, no Google maps, no Google Translate; no messaging to tell people I’m alive. I take my computer down to reception, and the guy tells me: no, no, only Chinese websites. He takes my computer, fiddles with it, hands it back to me: a list of porn websites on the Baidu search engine. I stare at my computer, at the guy, back and forth.
“But what about the sites I actually need to use?” I ask him. He shrugs nervously, apologetically. Apparently Chinese internet is stuck in the 1990s, and there’s nothing he can do about it.