Prescription for Disaster

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Back in China

I remember this place.

Landing in Shenyang, China was an odd feeling. On one hand it felt like coming home, on the other it felt like I was visiting my younger self nearly a lifetime ago.

I spent what felt like so much time in this Northeastern city. Life changed and altered but still I kept returning to it. It’s not a beautiful, sculpted and classic place in China by any means, and compared to many places that I have been here there are certainly places that I would rather call home. But Shenyang was, for so long, and so many times, home.

Shenyang was the first place I ever went to in China, when I was 21, naïve and terrified. Shenyang was the first place that Paul came to in China when he moved across the globe to be with me in a place of craziness. I took comfort in Shenyang when Paul left. I rejoiced in it when he came back.

I started out in Shenyang as an English teacher and quickly shifted to managing an educational consultancy company placing English teachers into Chinese schools in the city. I left that and turned to managing a string of English schools. Adventure called and I left Shenyang to work in the South as an adventure tour leader for a number of years before returning to Canada to get married – and we eventually returned to Shenyang, this time working in immigration. I was transferred to the United Kingdom and left Shenyang, but Paul stayed in the city we loved for another 8 months – we spent that Christmas in Shenyang and it was one of our favorites.

And now, after more than 3 years I’m back in Shenyang, to call in a favour.

I remember this place.

The plane doors open and as I step off onto the gangway the muggy air and the smell of dust and fresh dirt hit me like a wall of memories. The dust catches in my damaged lungs and I cough and even though through the glass I see only mounds of dirt, old Russian vehicles, soldiers digging roads and dirty cranes covering everything – I feel immediately like I am home. I am welcome here, I am comfortable here. This is familiar, this is what I know.

But I’m not even going into the city today, I’m just here to get a visa.

I follow the throng of fellow passengers through the old airport, the only western looking person in the crowd. I’m used to the stares, the children pointing and hearing whispered conversations about me and as these start up again I’m not phased by it, as I used to be. We shuffle to the escalator to find that it’s not working and walk down the stairs toward the immigration queue and I peel off to the side, as I have no visa and continuing through the line would guarantee arrest and deportation. But I’ve made it this far and I’ve had to call in some favors just to get on the plane in Seoul. So I whip out my phone and make a call.

Two minutes later I’m greeted by the man in charge of the immigration authority in the North East of China – my boss called his boss and he’s here to get me what I need. I’m welcomed into a back room and we sit down as he lights up a cigarette and offers me a drink. I’ve come prepared and pull out a nice bottle of scotch I picked up at the duty free in Korea.

My paperwork is arranged, my passport handed over and he joins me in making fun of my visa photos. (they were truly horrible) Somebody is sent to fetch my suitcase from the baggage claim and we have a few laughs. His English is non-existent and I realize that in this situation without speaking Chinese I’d be well and completely screwed. Everything is in order, and I’m told to wait.

I remember this place.

The walls are dirty and stained. The floors are washed with only water and hold years of dirt and scuffs from the scores of tired passengers shuffling through these queues. The room and hall are badly lit and translated English signs are misspelled and misshapen compared to their Chinese counterparts. Three lines through immigration are labeled Passport Holders, Staff and Courteous Passport Reginstratiogon. I’ve decided that once I get my passport back, I’m going to go through that one, just for fun.

I remember this place.

I can smell the restrooms from where I sit and I suddenly realize how alone I am. No more flights arrive, no more passengers march down those stairs. This could go badly for me, and nobody would know or see me being taken to another back room. I’m not only the only non-Chinese here, I’m the only woman as well, and I’m carrying a shitload of cash, electronics and well, to be honest, in the North East of China I tend to look a lot like a Russian hooker.

But I remember this place.

The area is staffed solely by men in military uniforms, smoking and bantering with each other. A room off to the side is full of off-duty soldiers and officials playing cards and having a laugh. Now that everyone else is gone and I’m alone people are friendly and curious about me – they don’t know how I’m managing to get this done here or who I am that this is possible. But their strict military façade is gone and they slip into relaxed grins as they slap each other on the back, light up their cigarettes and strike up conversations. I feel like again, I’m part of the China that the rest of the laowai don’t often get to see. Or maybe they’re just not looking.

Or maybe they’re too quick to turn back.

A few minutes later it’s done, a shiny new 30 day visa is in my reasonably valid passport. Thanks and liquor are exchanged and I’m sent on my way to wake a sleeping guard to unchain the doors and let me out of the arrivals hall – and off I go straight to the ticketing desk to buy a flight to the next leg of my adventure.

I’ll always remember this place.

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