Monday, June 14, 2010

Business As Usual

Back in my little town in rural Kentucky, it takes two hours just to get to the nearest airport. It feels so middle-of-nowhere, driving along country roads, passing but a few small towns along the way.

This evening I'm going from Shanghai Normal University, just west of the Inner Loop, to Pudong International Airport, as far east as I can go before meeting the sea. It'll take me two hours to get there, and I'll never leave the city.

I walk to the station and take a train to People's Square, where I change to another for Pudong International Airport. Still an hour to go.

The train pulls into Guanglan Road, halfway to the airport.

“Everybody off,” the conductor announces. “End of the line.”

I step onto the platform and see the sign. Service to the airport ends at 4:00 p.m. It's around seven now. I follow the crowd upstairs. With so many people heading that direction, there surely must be some other way to get to the airport, I think. But this is China.

Hawkers swarm the ticket gates.

“Pudong?” they ask. “Airport?”

Enterprising car owners have found a way to make a quick buck ferrying disgruntled subway passengers to the airport. If I knew the standard taxi fare from here, I could negotiate a better price. But I don't know where I am.

I also don't want to get caught in a bait-and-switch scam, where the driver offers one price but demands a much higher one at the end of the journey. I'm the foreigner. No one will take my side.

So I go up to street level to hail a cab from a legitimate company. But when I get to the surface, there are no taxis, not even much of a road. I'm in a narrow lane lined with farmhouses from who-knows-what-dynasty. And it's getting dark.

I go with the flow of humanity along this alleyway, trusting in the wisdom of the masses to get me back to the twenty-first century. I see the glow of street lights in the distance, I hear the honking of horns.

Scores of taxis are lined up along Guanglan Road, and I pick one, making sure it has a meter before I get in.

“Pudong Jichang,” I say, but the driver already knows where I want to go. The trip costs me 88 RMB, more than half what it would have cost if I'd taken a cab from home.

I've come to the airport to pick up my son, who's studying in Chongqing this summer but visiting Shanghai for the five-day Dragon Boat Festival. He's bringing a friend, and my wife is also in Shanghai now, so the hotel suite that seemed spacious when I was here alone is now cramped. Home life, Chinese style.

The clerks at the front desk want me to register my guests. My suite is set up for the typical Chinese family of three, but they offer to add a bed for 80 yuan a night.

“One of them can sleep on the couch,” I say.

“We're going to charge you for the extra person anyway,” they tell me, “so you might as well take the bed.”

I'm pulling four hundreds out of my wallet when my wife walks in and addresses the clerks in Mandarin. All three are talking at once, voices rising in pitch and volume. But they're smiling. This is a negotiation, not an argument.

Suddenly, my wife shifts from Mandarin to Shanghainese. This is no accident. She's playing her trump card, letting the hotel staff know she's a local, she knows people, she has influence. She's also playing on the reputation the Shanghainese have for being the toughest negotiators in China.

In the end, we pay for one night, and the desk staff forgets to collect the remainder. Everyone saves face, no feelings are hurt. It's just business as usual in China.

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