Thursday, June 14, 2007

Then and now

1985: My first flight into mainland China was from Hong Kong. It wasn’t full. Most of the passengers were Chinese; the few Westerners were European diplomats or businessmen trying to carve a foothold into what a near-impenetrable Eastern market with great potential and little cash.

I had waited at the Hong Kong office of the China Travel Service for four hours before I talked the staff into giving me a visa. I ended up at a disco with a group of staffers later that night. I was the tallest person in the room.

Though the flight was billed as a direct flight to Beijing, we stopped first at another airport, small and dark, outside the capital. No one spoke English, but a sign indicated that we should fill out health forms, and I eventually figured out that this was a pre-entry health check. I was terrified a slight cold would land me in quarantine; I lied on the form.

Beijing was no more hospitable. The airport was dingy, poorly lit. I can’t remember whether my pre-arranged ride showed up or not; what I do remember is a vague panic on the long country road into the city that perhaps I was in the wrong place after all, that perhaps I’d be whisked away and never heard from again. The legendary harshness of a then-strict Communist regime gave me comfort; surely kidnapping or killing a foreigner would bring penalties too severe to risk.

2007: The plane from Chicago is packed: school kids and an American musical ensemble and Chinese families heading home with gourmet chocolates for the relatives. Everyone has a camera and a cell phone; many carry laptops.

Getting a visa has been a simple matter of popping down $75 and FedExing my passport to LA. Five days later it was back on my desk.

There are still a trio of forms to fill out: Customs, Entry and the Health Declaration, inquiring whether we’ve handled birds or poultry recently, or are suffering from fever, diarrhea, snivel, cough, vomiting, sore threat, headache, TB, venereal disease or psychosis. The psychosis question always gets me; If you’ve got it, do you know?

There’s an air of anticipation. For most in the Main Cabin (euphemism for back of the bus), this a Great Adventure, or at least a Homecoming. A brief ground delay – awaiting clearance for Russian airspace – doesn’t dim the cheer. Adrenalin is a power weapon against jetlag.

Kari Zuidema, 23, a saxophone player and music teacher in northern Illinois, is traveling with a group of 50-plus musicians, a wind instrument and percussion band that will be playing in seven Chinese cities over the next two weeks.

“I never wanted to leave the country,’’ she said. “Then this trip came up, and I went for it.’’ After the group leaves, she’s staying for another month to teach English. “Before I’m tied down, I decided I should do this. It’s a cultural opportunity I couldn’t pass up.’’

Harold Petty, 21, an international business student at Southern Illinois University outside of St. Louis, will spend the next two months studying Mandarin Chinese. He visited last summer on a school program and decided to return. Why? “The money is all going to China,’’ he said.

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