I sat in the passenger seat, my door open and rain pouring down the right side of my body. Outside the cab two students from South West Jiao Tong University were trying to explain to our taxi driver where he should take Dan and me. The other three team members had left five minutes earlier in another taxi. Despite the student’s best efforts, the driver had no idea where the “Lazy Bones” hostel was…and this was well into the sixth minute of their explanation. I began to question if the driver was going to get so frustrated he’d order the foreigners, and our 100+ lbs. of baggage, out of the cab and back into the pouring rain. My eyebrows rose slightly, and I comforted myself with the thought that “At least it can’t get any worse.” That’s when my phone rang and Josh informed me that the other taxi driver was lost and had no idea where our destination was. As words in Mandarin and Sichuanese flew back and forth across the cab, I took a moment to ponder how we’d ended up in this situation.
Twelve hours earlier
“They are just going to have to wait for the power point slides until I’m done.” I said to Janet, one of our undergraduate translators. Having always been a perfectionist about presentations, I could not be moved to give my slides to the China Entrepreneurial Network (CEN) until I was satisfied. Janet smiled, she’d become acquainted with the American habit of directly refusing requests rather than indirectly excusing oneself from them as the Chinese typically do.
CEN is an organization dedicated to cultivating a entrepreneurial spirit and ethical mindset among its members. It also hopes to foster social innovation and environmentally focused business practices throughout Greater China. For the uninitiated, “Greater China” is a term that refers to Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. It is typically used to skate around the prickly political relationships that exist between the territories that have historically been parts of China, but have varying degrees of autonomy today. CEN was having a major conference in Chengdu this weekend, and we’d been invited to represent Thunderbird.
The team had decided to leave Anyue around 2:00PM that afternoon. Some of our team was looking forward to the three hour bus ride to Chengdu as a chance to catch some sleep. I was looking forward to three hours away from the internet where I could read a book. Only one of us was upset at losing three hours of office time (high five to any reader that can guess whom that was.)
The bus ride was uneventful and it was no problem catching a taxi to the hotel that the conference sponsor had reserved for us. It was right next to the conference location and fell well within our budget range. As we approached the hotel, each carrying 30-40 lbs. of dirty clothes (we had heard tales that Chengdu had machines that do laundry for you), Janet rushed out of the hotel with a smile on her face. This worried me.
Contrary to American tendencies a Chinese smile can have a few different meanings. While it undoubtedly can express joy and happiness, it can also mean “I’m in an embarrassing situation.” Janet’s smile suggested it was the second option. (Re-enactment pictured left)
The hotel which we’d had reservations at did not host non-Chinese people. Someone suggested that the hotel needed a special permit to host foreigners, or perhaps it was an internal policy. Either way, we were not getting into our rooms and the only explanation we got from the hotel, which even I could understand in Mandarin, was “This hotel is not suitable for your needs.” That means: Don’t even try and argue because you can’t stay here.
Our five American team members and two Chinese interns gathered on the steps of the hotel. We called the conference organizer and asked if she could book another hotel for us. Upon hearing our troubles she, and five other CEN members, ran to the hotel and started calling other hotels in the area. They were all booked. Then the rain started.
Looking at each other’s faces we all saw frustration, but more at the helplessness of our situation than anything else. Internet was nowhere to be found, and anywhere we went we had to carry our luggage. Finally we found a travel guide and started making phone calls. We’d determined that we had to take care of this ourselves in order to ensure any measure of success. That was when the CEN sponsors triumphantly told us that we had a hotel. It was a taxi ride away (two taxis, to be truthful, since there was five of us plus luggage.)
We marched to the front gates of the university to find taxis and the rain intensified. Within a few minutes it had become torrential. We all crowded, along with ten to fifteen other locals, under a small structure while Tim stood on the side of the road trying to hail a cab. After ten minutes he’d succeeded and Josh and Matt went to join him. A student gave hurried instructions to the taxi driver and ran back to our huddle of bodies. When the boy returned his t-shirt clung to him as though he’d just gotten out of a swimming pool. Dan and I looked at each other, having a psychic duel about which of us would try to hail the second cab when one appeared at the gate. Dan dashed to cab (hero points) and secured it. I followed with the students so they could give instructions to the driver. Everyone, and everything was soaked. We’d been in Chengdu for three hours and in front of the hotel for two.
Back in the taxi cab
One student finally got the Lazy Bones hostel itself on the phone and the hostel manager told the taxi driver where to go. That took another three to four minutes, but it worked. The same instructions were given to the driver of the first group’s cab. We arrived at the Lazy Bones soaking wet and somewhat foul tempered. It had been almost three hours since we’d arrived in Chengdu. The rooms they gave us were nice. I took the triple, sharing with Tim and Dan. When I walked into the bathroom and looked in the mirror I resembled the soaked Chinese boy who’d helped us. My hair was flat against my head and my clothes clung to my body. It was then that I noticed a sign on the shower which said “This part of China is still in drought. Please be careful with water usage.” I looked again at my clammy and soaked image in the mirror, and took a long shower. Stay tuned for a future blog about the CEN conference itself.
Pictured Right: Nick Ford