If you’ve ever spoken with someone who’s lived in China for any extended period of time, you’ve probably heard talk of “China days.” China days occur with varying frequency and are usually triggered when you try to accomplish what should be a straightforward, simple task but it turns into an hours-long debacle, and by the end of it, you’ve locked yourself in your apartment, shamelessly ordered a shameful amount of McDonald’s delivery and binge on hours of American television shows until your China frustration has subsided.
Today, as I made my second attempt to embark on a personal well-being trip to Thailand, I had perhaps my most extreme China day ever.
In truth, this “day” had started about 48 hours earlier, when I had shown up for my original flight to Bangkok, scheduled to depart Tuesday, July 24. Not 10 minutes after I had walked through the airport doors was I alerted by a bored-looking staffer that my flight had been canceled. Immediately irked by her nonchalance, I asked what she meant.
“Your flight canceled. Call the airline.”
She handed me a slip of paper that confirmed that my flight had been delayed due to bad weather. Apparently a typhoon had hit Hong Kong, where I had a layover. That's a fairly legitimate reason for a flight cancellation, so I called Hong Kong Airlines to inquire about getting on another flight. I struggled to maintain my composure as the woman who answered the phone repeated that she didn’t know when she would be able to book me on a new flight because “maybe there are no seats from today until July 28.” But, she suggested, maybe I could call the website from which I had purchased the ticket and pay for an upgrade.
I explained to her that it was not my fault that there was bad weather and that the flight had been canceled, and while I recognized it wasn’t hers, either, I should not have to pay additional money just to guarantee a seat sometime within the next week.
She laughed and repeated that she could not guarantee me a new seat any time this week, but would call if she could. Certain that I would be spending a lot of time arguing with her and her co-workers over the course of the next few days, I shuffled outside into the rain and hailed a taxi. The driver glanced at my bags, then at my red eyes (I might have cried a little out of frustration and sheer exhaustion before leaving the airport), and offered me a cigarette. I was touched, but declined. Foolish move. By 8 a.m. this morning, I was fiending for a cigarette. Or a drink. Or a strong opiate.
To my great surprise, a Hong Kong airlines rep. called a few hours after I left the airport on Tuesday and told me they had secured a seat for me on the same flight, two days later.
Well, because this is China, I prepared myself for the fact that things would probably not go smoothly. And of course, this was exactly the case, once again. It was like deja vu, getting to Terminal 2 of Beijing Capital Airport and immediately sensing that something was wrong.
For one thing, the lines seemed strangely long for 5:45 in the morning. For another, I observed quickly that the lines were not moving. Determined to not let a little delay in check-in harsh my vacation mellow, I pulled out my Kindle and started browsing the articles I had Instapapered for the flight. That, I thought, would keep me cheerful.
But when another 20 minutes had passed and still there had been no movement, I could feel the frustration stirring. I glanced around and saw that those who did make it to the front of the line came away still carrying their luggage and with a cheap voucher tucked into their passports where a boarding pass should be.
Of course, because this is China and because customer service essentially does not exist here, no one alerted us travelers to the fact that there was no 7:40 a.m. flight, the phantom trip for which we were all queuing.
I had to push my way to the front of the line and find out from another frustrated foreigner that “there is no flight. All these people are here for the same flight, and there just isn’t one. There's no plane.”
My roommate, who is British, once told me that she has observed that Americans are quick to complain and far more likely to be assertive and verbal about their displeasure than Brits or other Europeans are. At that moment, I was thankful that I had grown up in such a culture. I could have been waiting all day for a shred of information otherwise.
Among the other foreigners was a Canadian woman who was originally from Hong Kong. She looked to be in her late 40s or early 50s and was traveling with her husband. This was apparently her first trip to the mainland and she appeared thoroughly disgusted.
“If I had known this is what it’s like, we never would have come here,” she said. Excellent, I thought. A middle-aged Western woman of Chinese descent. She will get answers from these people. I'll team up with her.
She and her husband managed to glean that Hong Kong airlines claimed there would be a flight at some point today, they just didn’t know when. The plane was still in Hong Kong and no one in Beijing seemed to have any clue as to when it would arrive here or when it would take off again.
Obviously, these things happen sometimes when traveling. Bad weather occurs, flights get canceled or delayed. It’s frustrating, but all part of the experience.
I can accept that, however disappointing it may be that my sorely needed and much-anticipated vacation has been delayed.
What I cannot accept is when the people who are supposed to be able to give reassurance and direction begin blatantly lying to shut customers up temporarily. This is a common trick employed in China; it just seems even more outrageous under these circumstances.
I told the woman at the counter that I had a connecting flight in Bangkok that I was clearly going to miss, given the circumstances. Was there another flight I could get on later in the day? Would the airline compensate me for a hotel room in Hong Kong if there was not?
She smiled nervously and said, “There is a departure time now, so go eat and when you come back, I will help you.”
“There’s a departure time?” Ten minutes earlier, an airline rep. had told us no one knew when we’d leave.
“Yes, there is.”
“What is it?”
“I’m not sure, but if you go eat and then come back, I will tell you and I will find out, maybe the flight to Bangkok will not leave.”
"But you just said there's a departure time."
"Just go and eat, and then come back here. I will tell you the departure time then."
All of this, I knew, was fabricated to get me away from the counter. I wasn’t through, but I could see I was getting nowhere with her for the time being.
The comrades in misery I had met while waiting in line and I headed to The Lucky Shamrock clutching our breakfast vouchers (I finally figured out what those passengers ahead of me in line had been carrying). You might expect that, after your flight on a particular airline has been canceled twice, said airline might consider comping you a night in a hotel while you wait out the storm or wait for an available plane. Not Hong Kong Airlines. Instead, they gave us vouchers to The Lucky Shamrock, which purported itself to be an Irish pub.
Now, I’ve lived in China long enough to know better, but my growling stomach and throbbing head could have really done well with some sturdy Irish food. Perhaps they'll have some sausages and eggs with toast, and a nice cup of tea, I thought hopefully. I could refuel before going back into battle.
Ha. Again, this is China. An airport eatery in Beijing that bills itself as an Irish pub is probably anything but, and such was the case with the Lucky Shamrock.
It turned out the vouchers were only good for 50RMB, which was less than the cost of most of the dishes on the menu. The photos of the English breakfast and the French toast looked like the little plastic toy foods I kept in my Playskool kitchen in 1987, but I was so hungry, I would have gone for it anyway … except, the kitchen was only serving two meals: Japanese noodles with strips of chicken that looked like flayed Vienna sausages and Japanese noodles with beef that smelled like wet dog.
So, no eggs, no toast, no bacon, and apparently, no juice, no large bottles of water…my companions were aghast but I just shrugged. This is so absolutely typical of China, I told them.
After powering through the bland noodles (and leaving the questionable beef simmering in the broth), I headed back downstairs to go another round with Hong Kong Airlines.
Evelyn, one of the foreigners I met, who had landed in Beijing after a 13-hour flight from Brussels only to find that her connecting flight to Hong Kong was non-existent, stood in line looking more upset than before.
“They’re saying there’s another typhoon in Hong Kong,” she told me. I started laughing. How convenient. There actually was a typhoon in Hong Kong earlier this week, but it had reportedly moved away from the city by the end of Tuesday night and when I checked the weather there before leaving the house this morning, the report was of light rain. I just checked again while writing this post, and the status is partially cloudy. Must have been a quick typhoon.
“They’re lying, I’m fairly sure,” I told her.
“Probably,” she said, but looked uncertain.
“No, really,” I said. “That’s standard in China. They don’t know what to say about the flight and everyone is angry, so they’ll lie and say there is another typhoon to get everyone to calm down.”
“But that’s just not true!” said a bewildered British man behind me. “I just came from Hong Kong. There’s no typhoon.”
Oh, China. It’d be funny if I didn’t feel like I was banging my head, hard, against a wall every three seconds.
I couldn’t take it anymore. Unfortunately for most of those people, they were actually heading to Hong Kong and needed to get there for business. For me, it was just a layover. My destination was Bangkok. There seemed to be no clear guarantee that Hong Kong Airlines would get me there.
So I decided to hedge my bets on Air China. I walked back out of the check-in area to the international ticket office, where a French man was semi-good-naturedly, semi-expasperatedly trying to secure seats on a flight for him and his wife, after they had been bumped from their original flight a few days earlier.
I felt his pain. As I stood listening, and the minutes dragged on, I must have looked increasingly miserable because a staffer standing next to the counter asked what was wrong and if he could help me.
I tried to be calm but my guess is that I came across a little bitchy and shrill. I told him that Hong Kong Airlines had been useless and would not give any information, assistance or support even though everyone was waiting for their flights.
“I just want to go to Bangkok,” I said, almost pleading. “Are there any other flights there today that don’t go through Hong Kong?”
As it turned out, there was one. A 7:35 p.m. direct flight from Beijing to Bangkok.
I hustled back to the Hong Kong Airlines check-in.
“Can I still cancel my reservation?” (They had offered that option earlier in the day: cancel your reservation with a refund, or wait it out and hope a plane arrives).
“No cancel? But I saw you let another passenger do it earlier.”
“No cancel. Just delayed.”
“Right, the flight is delayed. But I don’t want to be on it. I just want my money back.”
“Refund or wait?”
“Refund. I just want a refund.”
They gave me some paperwork and promised I would get a full refund for my ticket. I hope that wasn’t another lie, because the cost of my new ticket was not even close to cheap. I’m sure I’ll have a nice freak out over that tomorrow but for the moment, I’m too exhausted to focus on it, and have ill-placed faith that I will get back the money I spent on the original ticket. All I knew in the moment was that I needed to get out of China for my mental and emotional health and for practical reasons - my visa expires tomorrow and seeing as I had no idea when Hong Kong Airlines was actually going to schedule a flight that would make it out of Beijing, I had to take desperate measures.
If China is done screwing me around, I will be in Bangkok by sometime tonight. If not, I’ll probably be slinking around the duty-free, spending my dwindling cash on something strong and alcoholic to make me forget I’m still in China and not relaxing on a massage table - or even better, watching “The Dark Knight Rises” - in Thailand.