It never quite goes away. It doesn’t matter how much you travel, the feeling that something’s going to go wrong, or that you’ve forgotten something really important, sticks with you till the end. This time, for me, it was my luggage. I was sure it was going to be discovered as overweight.
Now, to be fair, this might be slightly due to buying a really cheap flight. When I decided to plump for my slightly over-complicated route from Manchester to Beijing and on to Fuzhou, with added stop in Stockholm, I had considered the consequences of not being able to book more baggage. Then I threw those thoughts out of the window. As you do. That, as you might say, was a problem for future me, and boy does that guy worry about things too much.
Still, I bundled my way through various airports. In Manchester I stuffed all the heaviest items from my hand luggage into my coat, and trundled through the airport under the guise of someone who feels the cold even in the heated lounge. My suitcase miraculously came a kilo and a half under the 20 kilo limit. My giant carry on wasn’t even weighed. Most importantly, the luggage weighing device I’d bought had lied; I was ecstatic.
More trouble was to be had though at baggage inspection. I’d packed my bag so that the flat laptop would be at the bottom, obviously in a protective case. That meant I had to dig through everything to get it out, while searching for all my other electronics and other potentially dodgy possessions. By the time I’d done all that, I’d managed to fill about six trays, and lost track of how far down the line most had gone. On the other side, after a thorough pat down, I soon realised I didn’t have my passport. Where was it? What else had I lost that I hadn’t realised? I asked an attendant, who had no idea where it might be. Then I spotted it. Over in the serious inspection side with both of my coats. Doh.
It didn’t end there though. After emptying out the last electronic device from my coat (the Kindle I’d squashed into the pocket), it had to be rechecked again. And swabbed. It’s a good job I wasn’t running late.
At Stockholm airport I stuffed everything in my jacket again, only this time the task was more difficult. I now could only have five kilos of hand baggage, instead of ten, though this was partly made up with being able to have 23 for the suitcase. I squeezed a few extra things into the case; the electronics of slightly lesser importance, for example, and the clothes I’d worn in Stockholm. To make up that 1.5 kilo gain from Manchester, I packed it extra full, over 23 kilos. That almost turned out to be a mistake.
At the desk there was no reduction from my luggage weighing device, and the suitcase clunked onto the rubber ramp with a hefty thump. 23.5 kilos. I smiled at the attendant. It was a nervous smile, and suddenly I was sweating considerably more than I had been the minute before. After a pause, she typed something into the computer in front of her, bent toward the suitcase and slapped a fat sticker on the side. HEAVY – 23KG. And then I was on my way.
Sitting on a Plane for a Very Long Time
It was at this point that I met Tintin. No, not the cartoon character, though he did acknowledge the obvious link. He was a Swedish guy on his way back to China. He’d studied Chinese, gotten to know a girl on the internet, and when he’d gone to China he’d ended up living with her.
Tintin had one major bugbear about China, which was obviously of big annoyance to him. He wanted to move to China properly, but could only get visas for four months at a time. As a British national, I can teach and get a residency card, but that option isn’t open to him. Still, he had plans to best make do with what he had, and for someone who had only been in China for four months total, his Chinese was pretty impressive. He could have pretty good conversations with people (provided their accent wasn’t too strong) and talked me through the tones and a bunch of phrases I might need, on the flight over to Beijing.
After helping me navigate the confusion of Peking airport though (he’d done it before), and waiting around for my gate to be announced, we were off on our separate ways. Tintin was off to resume his life in Chengdu, thousands of miles away from my new one in Fuzhou. It wasn’t the end of my journey’s characters though.
Another six hours went by before my flight to Fuzhou finally rolled around, and I was desperate for some sleep; I’d had none the night before. It wasn’t to be. A Chinese lady asked if we could swap seats so she could sit next to her husband and I ended up in a middle seat, penned in from both sides, instead of the aisle. Ah well. At first I wasn’t sure why she asked me and not the person next to her, which would surely have been easier, but I got my answer in the end. It turned out the guy next to me was some sort of flight security.
Now, whether I was moved in order to seat my suspicious face nearer to the possible air marshal, or whether it was because he needed to stay where he was, I have no idea. It didn’t turn out too badly though. He was pretty interested in what I was coming to China to do, and how my grasp of Chinese was. More than anything though, he liked to question me about the stewardesses. More specifically, which one I thought was prettiest. Did I know that one of them was Thai, and didn’t speak any Chinese? Can’t say I’d realised, if I’m honest. When we parted ways, he made me promise to add him on WeChat once I got some internet, so I could visit him in Beijing sometime. I held up my end of the deal, but he still hasn’t added me back…
Before I knew it (ok, definitely not before I knew it, more like after a lot of waiting), we’d landed in Fuzhou, and I was almost there. Cody, the vice president, was there to pick me up, along with another new recruit who happened to be on the flight, Josh. I was impressed – I can’t say whether the vice president of the company picking you up is a normal thing here, there were disruptions for Spring Festival after all, but I’ve never even been one of those people with their name on a sign at the airport. Even being spelt wrong couldn’t detract from such an occasion.
It was late at night by the time we arrived in Fuzhou proper, plenty of questions and observations after we began. “How do you like living in Fuzhou?” “I like how many trees are about”. That sort of thing – sometimes I ask too many. Spare a thought for my confidence though, after I asked Josh about whether he’d taught before. The answer? All over Europe, various times – he’d done teaching courses in his degree. Essentially loads! There’s a point where you stop asking questions, Doug, and before that one was it. Going back to the start though, and that feeling that something’s going to go wrong. Nothing really did, as much as I thought it might. Not yet, anyway.
Getting Started in China
I arrived at my apartment in Fuzhou to a note. A note from my flatmate. She was out, at a friends, but I should make myself at home. I was slow to do so at first, but in the frequent absence of said flatmate I eventually moved things out beyond my room. Her not being there much became a running joke at work; it took four days before I first saw her, and we still have yet to be in on the same evening.
I didn’t miss out though. My first day was the last of Spring Festival, better known as Chinese New Year, so school was still out. This was my opportunity to rest and relax before I started at the school the next day. I definitely did not take the opportunity.
Things kicked off around lunch when Alex, essentially the big bad boss of my little branch of York English, and Nikki took me out to get some food, introduce himself, and explore a little of the neighbourhood I would be living in. By the time we came back, a bunch of people were gathered outside my apartment complex. Western people. Teachers. Yes, miraculously I’d run into some of the people who taught at York. Admittedly a few of them do live in the same area, but foreigners are very much in the minority in Fuzhou. Anyway, they were off to Forest Park, a big reserve just to the north of the city, so I joined them there for a few hours. After that, a meal with the teachers at my school, who’d all just come back from holidays over Spring Festival. Finally, around midnight, I dragged my jet-lagged body to bed. I still didn’t sleep till 4AM though.
Over the next week, I started getting bedded into my new teaching life. I observed a bunch of teachers (and joined in sometimes) in lessons of various abilities, went to workshops in one of the other schools and started learning about the courses taught here. I was taken to get a Chinese sim card, and set up a Chinese bank account. Then, on Wednesday morning, the day I would start my second week, I was taken to the travel healthcare clinic. This is where things started to go wrong.
It seemed easy enough at first. Leo, organiser in chief of all things non Chinese speakers can’t do for themselves, spoke to various women at the front desk, before we went upstairs for my general checkup. Blood test, check (though for the first time in my life, someone had difficulty finding a vein). Height and weight test, check. Ultrasound (in case I’m carrying a baby, of course), check. X-ray, che…wait, maybe not.
Just as we’re about to go onto the next test station, the doctor calls us back. Relayed through Leo, these were his two questions. Only two.
Have you had tuberculosis before?
Do you cough a lot?
Quickly, everything spiralled out of control. First, we were sent downstairs. Leo had to speak with various people at the front desk again, then disappear off upstairs, call some higher ups at the school and eventually go back to the front desk. Meanwhile, the other new teachers I’d seen that morning were all making their way out of the clinic, job done for the day. Eventually, Leo came back to me. I had to pay to have some sort of spit test, as I might have TB.
With no other choice, I did it. Without the completed medical check, I don’t get a residency permit for China and therefore can’t stay. Up on the 13th floor is where they do this test, and organised is not how I’d describe it. It took us a couple of minutes to find anyone on the floor, and then explain to them what we were here for. The person, most definitely not dressed like a doctor (and I suspect not one), proceeded to put on a mask and let me into a small room further down the corridor. Obviously, they didn’t want to breathe in whatever TB germs might have been in here before.
Finally, I did the test. It basically involves hacking up every last breath from your lungs in order to spit something called sputum into a cup, and is every bit as unpleasant as it sounds. Particularly if you don’t have a cough, and thereby any sputum hanging around anyway. The next day, I did the same, and the day after that, too. For that final day, I even went back late in the day, by myself, to get a test pot to bring home – apparently it’s easier to cough the sputum up after breathing in steam, like after a shower.
In the meantime, I’m obviously a hazard to anyone if I do have TB, even without any symptoms, so I’ve been put on leave from the school. Not exactly ideal for a week where I’m supposed to be gradually taking over lessons from a teacher who is leaving. I’m all for time off – I love holidays – but the isolation of potentially being infectious is definitely not fun. Worse though, is the fact that since I don’t know what the results are going to be, I feel I can’t invest in my time here. I can’t buy the things I was going to, or decorate my slightly bare apartment for example, because I don’t know if I’m going to be forced to leave China.
To counter this, somewhat at least, Alex and the other teachers have still been really helpful and understanding, still trying to set me things to do even while I’m not able to come in. China itself has been pretty awesome, too, even if I have yet to pick up more than incredibly basic language skills, everyone I’ve met has been friendly. That last test was on Friday, and apparently I will find out the results in three days to a week. Let’s hope they turn out in my favour. I’m certainly not going to be making too strong a prediction on it. You remember that feeling that something’s going to go wrong? I definitely didn’t have it this time.