The poster at border checkpoint proclaimed the ten extraordinarily grim mugshots to be “The Vanguards of Civilization.” These People’s Liberation Army Employees of the Month with identical dour expressions frowned down on the crowds below.
Steve and I slowly shuffled along with the rest of the line snaking from the Hong Kong train platform to the Shenzhen immigration checkpoint. We clutched passports damp and salt-crusted from sweat after hours of stifling heat and humidity. Inside the vast reinforced concrete hall was a kaleidoscope of tiny shops packed to the rafters with boxes of tropical fruit candy, silk jackets in shocking colors, polyester slacks and plastic flowers. Around the customs line swept a torrent of humanity, with eddies swirling past obstructions and standing waves piling up behind anyone who stopped to look at a cell phone. Everyone was towing flowered suitcases, pushing carts piled high with cardboard boxes and swinging plastic bags. The air was filled with an earsplitting cacaphony.
As the line crept closer to the immigration officials I could feel the makeup I’d carefully spackled on that morning slowly sliding off in a miniature mudflow of perspiration due as much to anxiety as the climate.
Ahead of us neon signs split the river of humanity into a delta, directing Chinese Citizens, Hong Kong Citizens, Hong Kong Permanent Residents, Macao Citizens, Macao Permanent Residents, British Passport Holders, EU Passport Holders, and finally “Foreigners” to different windows. We edged toward the latter on the basis that nothing else applied. At first I was relieved to see that we were in the shortest queue. For once in my life I had beaten the Costco Principle that “the other line always moves faster.” However as we drew inexorably closer to the very dourest of the Vanguards it occurred to me that we might in fact be at a disadvantage since there would be less hydraulic pressure of humanity behind us to discourage extra scrutiny of our soggy, crumpled travel documents. Although I was carrying nothing more potent than hand cream I began to have “Midnight Express”-related thoughts.
Thirty years earlier I was a pampered and highly-sheltered college student on my way home from a Mediterranean cruise that had included a stop in Istanbul. After fending off numerous offers of marriage (all no doubt sincere) from market vendors I had proudly purchased the most hideous floral carpet in all of Anatolia for a price I had skillfully bargained down to a mere 300 percent of its actual value. Having grown up making frequent visits to my cagey relatives in Vancouver, BC, I had absorbed many valuable life skills such as wearing multiple layers of freshly-purchased sweaters to avoid declaring them at customs after cross-border shopping sprees. During the flight back from Turkey I had carefully edited the carpet’s value on my landing card to fall within the duty-free limit. But the gruff Chicago customs agent took one look at me, my itinerary and the card and yanked the rug out of my suitcase. He scrutinized my purchase intensely while I shifted my weight nervously from one foot to the other while trying to look both innocent and blase. Thinking he was counting the number of knots per square inch, which my parents had informed me was a measure of a carpet’s value, I timidly asked the agent what he was looking for. “Heroin,” he replied. “They mat it into the fibers.” Who knew? Finding no contraband the agent let me go and didn’t charge any duty, confirming my belief that I had a more promising future as a materialist than a mule.
Thankfully our Vanguard seemed unconcerned by the state of our travel documents, and after a decent interval of stamping and scribbling he waved us through.
We emerged blinking like moles onto an immense plaza. Around us stood a surreal landscape of the ugliest skyscrapers I had ever seen. Shenzhen is a Chinese Special Economic Zone whose twenty million inhabitants had been given leeway to follow former Premier Deng Xiaoping’s dictum “to get rich is glorious” to its logical conclusion. Apparently economic freedom included liberation from the bounds of conventional taste: Rank upon rank of blue, red and gold glass towers topped with knobs, spindles and turrets straight out of a vision Walt Disney might have conjured up after a weeklong bender disappeared within a few blocks into a thick chiaroscuro of smog. “It’s good, thick, air” said Steve. “It has real heft, not like that watery stuff we have at home in Seattle!” I could feel my lungs tanning to a rich, golden-brown leather with each breath.
“I-phone?” I turned to a figure materializing out of the mist. A beautiful young woman with a cellphone and a clipboard smilingly approached us. “I’ll help you shop!” Another young woman appeared. “Viagra?” she asked my husband with an earnest smile. Another young lady – “Massage? I’ll help you shop for the best!” More people, mostly young women, streamed toward us. “You want to shop?” “Over here, Miss!” So much help available! Shenzhenites appeared to be the world’s most assistive people. They seemed particularly concerned with Steve’s fitness to perform his husbandly obligations. If you need Viagra and for some reason are unable to click on spam e-mails, by all means hop on a plane for the 15-hour flight to Shenzhen as you will not be disappointed.
Just beyond the ever-accreting mob of helpers loomed the blue-glass tower of Luohan Commercial City, described in my guidebook as a wonderland of half-price cashmere, silk and electronics, “where Hong Kong people go to shop for real bargains.” My motivations for visiting China, like those of centuries of Westerners before me, included bringing home as many of those items as I could stuff into my suitcase. (Though Marco Polo was primarily interested in the silks, I have no doubt that he would have scooped up a case of GPS units and a few cardigans if they had existed in his day.) Drawn to the gleaming blue beacon of commercialism like a moth to a bug-whacker, I grabbed Steve and yanked him away from the clutches of his lovely would-be assistants and set off for Luohan.
Inside, I discovered a multistory funhouse of mirrored walls and spiraling escalators filled with shops crammed to the rafters with an incomprehensible array of junk. Nonexistent models of home electronics. Sweaters made of only the finest free-range nylon. Bolts of shiny plastic “silk” in colors that would have frightened Andy Warhol. Hello Kitty knockoffs. Each establishment was identically staffed with a beautiful female “helper” out front who, at the slightest eye contact, cried “Yes, you shop here!” Inside would be a stout middle-aged woman, presumably Mrs. Helper the elder, brandishing a calculator (cash registers apparently being unknown) and an elderly gentleman (Mr. Helper) behind the back-room curtain, dimly lit by the blue glow of a television screeching in Cantonese.
I pride myself on my shopping determination. I’ve elbowed my elders at the underwear bins at the Nordstrom Rack, snatched the last Calvin Klein down jacket in my size at Costco during the Christmas rush, and argued with the Gypsy “Prada” handbag vendors in the Porta Portese flea market in Rome.
But like countless naive foreign invaders before me, I was overwhelmed by China. Despite the guidebook’s promise of excellent bargains to be had “with a little patience,” my synapses overloaded, my brain seized up and I could go no further. Grabbing Steve once again by the arm, I yanked him out of Luohan Commercial City and staggered back out into the smog, followed by a cometary trail of helpers. We fled down the steps from the plaza to receding cries of “Viagra?” “I-phone!” “Massage” and “I’ll help you shop!”
Once we escaped the mob’s clutches, I realized I was hungry, as it had been a whole two hours since my mornng chocolate doughnut and latte in a Starbucks in Hong Kong. For most travelers this development would be of minor significance, but when I announced my new condition to my husband he turned pale. Years of travel while married to me have taught him that my metabolism is disastrously inefficient. I can walk ten miles through museum corridors on bleeding and blistered feet, sleep on icy campground dirt in the thinnest of sleeping bags and sit through an entire opera performance without nodding off, but the first pang of a less-than-full stomach turns me into one of the world’s least-desirable travel companions. Steve has the constitution of a camel and can cheerfully go from dawn to dusk on one cup of coffee, but he has learned through painful experience that any attempts to impose a similar regimen on me are doomed to failure.
We set off through the soupy air down a vast dun-colored boulevard in search of a meal. We quickly discovered eateries in abundance, mostly chain-looking establishments with large illuminated photos for the benefit of illiterates like us showing platters of noodles, piles of ribs and other mouthwatering delicacies. I marched into the first restaurant and held up a Hong Kong dollar. The hostess shook her head. Only yuan were accepted. Steve and I had blithely assumed that that our money would be good everywhere and had not bothered to change it for our day in Shenzhen.
One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over with the expectation of a different result. After our money was politely refused at the fourth restaurant, it began to sink in that I might really not get anything to eat. I started to panic. I envisioned collapsing on the street, being carted off to a local hospital and put on intravenous fluids. Steve rolled his eyes. “Maybe it would be some of that noodle soup you’ve been admiring in the windows.”
Finally, we saw a Vietnamese restaurant. This was my last stand, I would eat here or die. I tried my well-worn drill of holding my Hong Kong money up to the hostess. Instead of shaking her head, she pointed down the street. I ran off in the direction she had indicated, thinking she meant there was a restaurant that would take our money. Instead, I saw an ATM. Oh, blessed hope! Never mind that I didn’t recognize the name of the bank and couldn’t read most of the writing. Heedless of all danger, I shoved my bank card into the slot and typed in my password, to be rewarded comforting whirr of machinery as the device spat out the tickets to my digestive salvation. Clutching the equivalent of twenty dollars, I raced back to Steve and the hostess, who smiled and waved us in.
The warm, comforting aroma of noodle soup filled my senses as we made our way past the crowed tables. The smog parted briefly to admit shafts of golden light into the restaurant window. We pointed at the plastic menu cards to pictures of beer and soup, and settled back into the leatherette chairs. A waitress came around and poured clear warm water into our china cups. “See,” I said to Steve, calling upon the vast Old China Hand wisdom that can only be acquired through thirty-six hours in Hong Kong and careful perusal of the Lonely Planet guide, “this is jasmine tea, so it’s not dark.” I took a sip. Oddly tasteless. Oh, well, I thought, I’m just too unsophisticated to appreciate the nuance. We gulped it down and looked to see if the waitress would bring us more.
I suddenly realized that the formerly bustling restaurant had grown strangely quiet. The other patrons were trying not to be too obvious about staring at us. Mothers shushed their children and men ducked behind newspapers. I looked at our cups, then at the rest of the tables. We had been drinking out of the finger bowls.
The walk back to the Hong Kong border station was quiet. Back at Plaza Viagra the “Helpers” resumed their devoted attentions. If any had offered Maalox instead of marital aids I might have been inclined to accept. Instead, following the sign reading “Go Down to Leave the Country,” we descended a flight of steps past the Vanguards and pushed through the crowds back to the train platform. We settled into the spotless car as it glided away from the border exactly on time, to take our place among the generations of overconfident interlopers who were unprepared for China.