The day before I made the move from South Africa to China, I was having my last meal in my hometown, Bredasdorp, with my dad and grandparents. I had an avocado and bacon salad and thought that my choice of dish was actually quite adventurous and felt ready for my trip. We chatted about what might happen on my year-long adventure to a country where I could neither speak nor read the language. I was extremely nervous but ready as we drove to Cape Town where we would spend the night before my flight.
The last night in South Africa was absolutely suspending and throughout the evening I dreamed of leaving the country and being completely independent. I would be starting a new life and it would be perfect – nothing else was acceptable. Somehow, things would be different and I would just blossom into a social butterfly and ease through learning Mandarin Chinese. As I type this I realize what a stupid fantasy that was, but at least give me credit for having an imagination?
While clutching my seat during my bumpy flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg, I remembered my dad reassuring me that being on a plane is not as bad as car (I have terrible motion sickness) and wished to call him just to say “I told you so.” I looked to either side of me and saw a grumpy Russian man who, by the minuscule distance between his disapproved facial expression and the in-flight magazine, clearly didn’t want to engage in any conversation with a slightly green eighteen-year-old. On my other side was a sleeping middle-aged Chinese man. I just concentrated on not reintroducing my British Airways breakfast to the rest of the passengers. Close to the end of the flight the Chinese man resurfaced to consciousness and introduced himself as Jimmy. We started chatting, traded life stories and realized we were both going to be on the same flight to Hong Kong.
As we exited the plane, I prayed that I’d be able to navigate through the airport as a newbie flyer and I was fairly certain that I was definitely going to be floored by the Hong Kong airport. But suddenly, Jimmy was next to me and guided me to all the necessary points and even invited me to relax in the Shongololo Lounge with him. As I entered the lounge I realized that I definitely did not belong there. The couches were made of leather, there were flat screens showing cricket matches, there were only a few middle aged businessmen talking in hushed tones about the stock markets, and the food and drink was free. I told Jimmy that I didn’t think that I was allowed to be there but he explained that he exports wine from South Africa to China and flies to and from China quite often which had resulted in him having a Marco Polo gold membership card. He could invite one person to stay in the lounge for free and chose me. He then said that he had business to conduct, pulled out his laptop and went to sit in the furthest corner to confidentially mumble Chinese words into his cell phone. I thanked God for having given me a guardian angel, even if it was in the form a businessman who felt sorry for me, and – for the rest of my layover – tucked into the free buffet and a Bill Bryson book before my flight to Hong Kong.
On my flight from Johannesburg to Hong Kong I was seated next to a kind Aussie lady who, I learned during the course of our twelve-hour trip, liked to drink a large amount of apple juice. On my other side, across the aisle, was a Chinese teen who did not give a damn about staring being rude, and spent more time with his eyes fixated on me than Jackie Chan on his screen. I made myself comfortable enough to fall asleep when I discovered that the in-flight entertainment had the full season of So You Think You Can Dance: Next Generation and decided to conduct an experiment where I could see how many episodes I could watch in the span of twelve hours. My conclusion? I can’t believe Kida won. Apparently, the older version of Staring Steve, who was seated right behind him, couldn’t believe it either.
The first few hours were fine – until we hit the first air pocket. Now, I already believed we were going to die, but when I realized we had already started flying across the Indian Ocean, I went into an absolute frenzy. The next few hours were agonizing as we bumped across the air and, as we flew over different islands, I couldn’t decide if it was worse to crash in Madagascar and burn to death or drown and have my body become fish food. I kept waiting for the pilot’s voice to tell us that we were doomed and that we all had to start inflating life rafts or familiar ourselves with Daedalus’ story – and not to make the same mistake as his son. To my surprise, everyone remained calm and nonchalant about their impending doom and I concluded that hitting air-pockets was one of the apparent joys of flying in a big metal bird halfway across the world. I continued to marvel at Ruby and Paul’s cha-cha.
When we finally landed in Hong Kong, I made it through all the check-in-passport-visa-some-type-of-paperwork-points (where the officials looked as if they had never smiled in their lives) with Jimmy’s last guiding hand. As I waited for my luggage, I phoned my dad, told him that I was okay and tried to convince him to go to bed – it was two o’clock in the morning back home. But as I rung off I realized that in my mind it was also two o’clock in the morning and a wave of exhaustion hit me. I cursed Nigel Lythgoe for ever starting SYTYCD in the first place.
My host family had sent one of their employees, Flora, to pick me up and as we made our way out of Hong Kong and towards mainland China, I noticed more and more people staring at me. Flora laughed and explained that it is completely normal for Chinese people to stare at foreigners – it wasn’t even considered rude. The more inland you go, the worse it gets. I silently apologized to Staring Steve and realized how much I didn’t know about Chinese culture.
Fast-forward a week later (actually 5 days if you take into account my jet lag hibernation days) and I could have described my experience in one word: weird. The food, the drink, the clothes, the entertainment – everything was so unlike what I liked and what I was used to. Every meal I sat down to had me scared to death of some unidentifiable foodstuff – I learnt it was better not to ask what I was eating and just try to swallow weirdly textured substances in one bite. The drinks were rich and sweet, and combining that with their food made me feel nauseous for the first few days. The fashion was the “I grabbed the weirdest clothes out of my cupboard”- look. Bedazzled mega platform sneakers and the 5/8th length flared trousers (long enough to cover ¾ of your shins) were the norm and I saw a girl wear a hat with multiple hat-piercings. They were fabulous hoops, though. There was barely any English entertainment – television shows and music were all in Chinese and any Western pop culture reference mentioned in conversation were met with blank stares. It was as if Friends, Hannah Montana and Justin Bieber had never existed.
But on my first weekend in Asia, my perception completely changed.
That Saturday my host family and I crossed the border into Hong Kong to spend one night there. We went sight-seeing, took plenty of photos and ate traditional food from all over China. My idea that this country was just weird started to shift – I started to appreciate all the history behind the old run-down buildings and the ideas behind the new flashy skyscrapers. I started to appreciate the mixed up fashion sense, because I could wear whatever I wanted to and not be judged. It was the perfect time for me to experiment with my style without being judged for it. The food was still weird, but my host family realized what foods I liked and didn’t like and were really thoughtful with trying to accommodate me while still introducing me to traditional Chinese cuisine. I also became really good at using chopsticks. Rather than frightened, I was intrigued and wanted to know more about the country. I saw it the way locals did.