Chapter 1

 

FOR THE umpteenth time, Jeff stood up to let the young couple and their baby sidle past him into the aisle. He gave them a tired smile as they thanked him and apologized again for waking him. He sat back down in his seat and closed his eyes. He was at the back of the plane, and the flight was full. The recirculated air was chill and stale, and several passengers had been sneezing and coughing. It would be surprising if he didn’t catch something. Jeff already felt the haze of jetlag settling on him, and the fourteen-hour flight wasn’t even over yet. He was just drifting off again when the family returned, and he stood yet again to let them get back to their seats. He closed his eyes once more.

It seemed to be only a moment later when the chime sounded and a nasal voice instructed passengers to stow their tray tables and return their seats to an upright position, first in English and then in Mandarin. They were beginning their descent into Shanghai Pudong International Airport.

Jeff caught a glimpse of the city lights when he looked toward the window. He thought about how anxious he had felt about going on this business trip. Originally, his coworker Travis, who had visited the China office before and was familiar with Shanghai, had planned to accompany him. At the last minute, Travis stayed behind, due to the earlier-than-expected birth of his baby girl. Their boss still wanted Jeff to make the trip, though. Despite the assurances from Travis that he wouldn’t need to know any Chinese to get around, Jeff still worried. He had hardly done any international travel, and his list of foreign countries visited was short: Canada, and Mexico if you counted a brief jaunt across the border to Tijuana for drinking as a high schooler. Now he would be in Shanghai for two and a half weeks, by himself.

The passengers were jostled as the wheels of the plane kissed the tarmac. As they decelerated and drifted into a slow taxi toward the gate, Jeff turned on his phone and saw that it was ten p.m. in Shanghai. His watch displayed seven a.m., the time in San Diego, and Jeff adjusted it to sync with the current time zone.

An hour and a half later, he was standing in a taxi queue after disembarking and going through customs. While he waited, he shrugged out of his jacket and stuffed it into his bag. It was October, but it felt like a balmy summer evening. When it was his turn, Jeff got in the sedan; it was a Volkswagen Santana, a model he had never seen in the US. He managed a self-conscious ni hao and handed the driver a printout of the address to his hotel. It was a relief to be in the quiet of the taxi after the claustrophobia of the plane and the extensive lines in the airport.

The taxi merged seamlessly into the thick traffic, but the ride was anything but smooth after that. They wove between the cars, switching lanes constantly, only to brake hard when the car in front of them stopped, just barely avoiding a collision. There didn’t seem to be any seatbelts in the back, so Jeff just gripped the seat as best he could. He was rapidly becoming carsick with all the sudden stops.

Jeff’s adrenaline spiked when they slid between two semitrailer trucks, with mere inches of clearance on either side of the car. Jeff was sure that they would be crushed when one of the trucks started drifting into their lane, closing the gap between the two large vehicles. The taxi squirted out of the space just before it was too late. He lost count of how many near misses he witnessed. It seemed to be the norm to drive with your bumpers almost touching, and to slam on the brakes at the last possible minute to avoid crashing into other cars. It appeared chaotic, but there was a rhythm to the way people drove here. Somehow it worked.

Jeff was relieved when they got off the highway. Although the same guidelines about the acceptable distance between cars applied on the smaller roads, the speeds were lower, and there were stoplights. They entered an area with less traffic, and the driver slowed down and peered at each building as he crept the taxi along the street. Jeff guessed he didn’t know exactly where the hotel was. The driver cursed loudly, ta ma de, which made Jeff startle. He didn’t understand the words, but he got the sentiment.

Without warning, they pulled a sudden U-turn, bumping the curb in the process. The driver finally stopped and stated curtly, dao le. Jeff was relieved that the ride was over and that he had managed hold his nausea in check for the duration. He read the price on the meter and was fumbling in his wallet for cash when there was a knock on the window.

It was a policeman, already shouting at the driver before he had fully rolled his window down. Jeff guessed they were arguing about the driver’s U-turn. It turned out there were some things that weren’t legal to do while driving in China. The driver hastily pulled out his papers from the glove compartment before exiting the car. He thrust the documents at the policeman, all the while continuing to argue with him. Jeff exited the car as discreetly as possible and handed the taxi driver the fare and tip. The policeman barely spared him a glance.

Jeff walked away quickly. He scanned his surroundings but saw nothing resembling a hotel. The nearest buildings looked dark. Apparently, the driver had dropped him off in the wrong place on top of giving him the wildest car ride of his life. As he walked down a side street, he recalled that he hadn’t needed to tip, since it wasn’t expected in China. He supposed he wasn’t the first tourist to make that mistake. Just as he was starting to think he should hail another taxi, he saw the glowing sign for the Shanghai Garden hotel, just a block away from where he had been dropped off. Jeff sighed with relief.

The hotel was a tall and modern building. The clerk spoke some English, which comforted Jeff. He slid his keycard into the slot and entered his room. When he flipped on the light switch, he was pleasantly surprised to discover that his lodgings were much larger than he had expected. The place was more like an apartment than a hotel room.

He dropped his duffel bag on the bed and went to the window. He pulled the curtains open, unveiling a large picture window with a spectacular view, twenty stories up over the crowded city. Directly across from the hotel, he could see a residential building, its lights warm and yellow in the night sky. People moved about in their apartments. In the streets below, cars intermittently honked, the sounds muffled through the glass. Neon signs flashed and winked, and in the distance, white and red lights from the cars glowed along the freeway. From up here, the organized chaos that ruled the roads was not discernable.

He explored the rest of the apartment, which included a small kitchen and a miniscule balcony. When he went outside, the hum of traffic greeted him. There was just enough room for him to stand and turn around. A squat, cube-shaped device took up most of the space on the balcony. He was unsure of its function, and there weren’t any buttons visible, but he guessed it was the condenser for the air-conditioning. He slipped back into the apartment and slid the door shut. After the cramped space in the airplane, the roominess of the place felt like a largesse.

It was coming up on midnight in China (midmorning in California), and Jeff knew he had to try to get some sleep. He had been awake for approximately twenty hours now, so he figured he shouldn’t have a problem falling asleep. There was the matter of food (he hadn’t eaten since the small midday meal they provided on the plane) but he was wary of venturing out at night in an unfamiliar city when he was dead tired and didn’t even know the language.

He found a crumpled granola bar in his pocket, and ate it, washing it down with the water bottle from the plane. Mindful of the warnings about water quality in Shanghai, he filled the electric kettle in the kitchen. Due to the high levels of contaminants, water had to be boiled for drinking and brushing teeth. He fell asleep before the water finished boiling.

Tomorrow was Thursday, and he was supposed to be at the office bright and early at eight.