Disclaimer: I do not suggest anyone should follow my example in this story. It is not the ideal way to be taught a life lesson in humility. You can try it at home, probably to greater effect. Or, you could learn through this post: a day in the life of Tanya Riches.
When I was studying my second degree (I have a LOT of university memories), my mother was asked to give a presentation in Montpellier, France as a Psychologist working in the field of Disability. She invited my Dad, who promptly declined – having accompanied her on other conference trips, I think he realised it was not exactly a romantic European vacation. So,she invited me to join her in a farmhouse just outside the city. Not only had I never been to Europe, I had been forced to give up two European trips in my short lifetime, and so I happily accepted.
I promptly did what every Australian university student would do, and booked the cheapest flight I could – with “China South Eastern” Airlines. I’m not sure this is a real Airline – but I promise you, that’s what it read on the ticket. I did reach Europe… which proved life changing to say the least, sparking a passion that will not be quenched, and a desire to help European churches in a profound way. But I’m sure that will be content for other blog posts.
The point is, I had a twenty-three hour flight stopping in Shanghai, China. And, intrigued at the thought of using this opportunity to visit ‘The Sleeping Giant’ and gaining another stamp in my passport, my travel agent organised a ten hour stop-over in Shanghai on the way back. He assured me I could easily find the information desk, book myself into a tour of the city and return for the flight that night.
It was 2004, and I was twenty something, Western and blonde (admittedly from a bottle, not from Scandinavian genes). I should have probably thought about it, but I didn’t realise until I arrived that I was the stereotyped face of the West in Chinese marketing.
I spent my flight from Paris to Shanghai chatting to a businessman who claimed to have launched the iconic Australian brand Mambo and introduced the concept of Green bags to Australia (you know, eco friendly bags that they sell in Coles)… and we discussed all kinds of philosophies. As the plane landed on the tarmac, the man concluded warning me not to enter the fashion industry, as “everything had gone to pot” (as if that were an option for a fashion-clueless Christian academic whose brain immediately questioned the origins of the phrase ‘gone to pot’). We walked to the baggage collection area, and he disappeared into a crowd of black heads.
Shanghai was less straightforward than the travel agent had suggested. For starters, there were no English signs, just a series of black and white Chinese characters. I had gotten so used to ignoring Chinese writing on products like Mamee monster noodles that I literally couldn’t see ANYTHING… there were NO signs as far as I was concerned… so where was the desk to book a tour of the city?
There weren’t even images, except for a host of skinny blonde Western girls posing in the most ridiculous of manners in front of housing developments, and strange objects such as porcelain toilets. As I walked through the white airport, most people turned to stare. It was as if I had literally jumped out of a billboard and come to life. I wanted to point out that these advertising women were about ten kilos lighter and considerably taller, but saying this probably wouldn’t have helped, given that I had suddenly realized I don’t speak Chinese.
Confused, and sick of the attention, I stopped to survey the surroundings, hoping for a clue. There were people everywhere in a huge room filled with unrecognizable objects, all seemingly appropriate for an airport… silver boxes that obviously took tickets, and queue posts that seemed to lead nowhere. Poles with signs were set in systematic places, but I could read none of them, and with a sinking feeling I realised I was completely and utterly out of my depth. It was at this point a Chinese man in a sharply ironed white shirt and tie saw me. He walked over, shoes shining black.
“Can I help you?” he asked in perfect English.
I was completely relieved. “Ah… perhaps.” I said, assuming he was an airline pilot or an airport worker. “Do you know where I can book a tour around Shanghai?”
He pointed and said, “Well, the desk is right there. But, the tours are not very good. The Government runs a bus but you can’t get out, and so you don’t see very much. They visit only things they want you to see. And smoking is allowed on the bus.”
I was disappointed already… and with ten hours to see the city, I did not look forward to the thought of being inside a smoky bus. “Which airline do you work for?” I asked.
He proudly announced, “I’m a university student studying economics. I run private tours for businessmen who would like to see Shanghai. I learn better English from Americans than in my classes”.
We talked for about fifteen minutes, until he realised that I may be a prospective client, at which point he offered to take me around the city for twenty American dollars. When I agreed, his face darkened, he suddenly disappeared, and arrived back with another perfectly dressed younger man about the same age, who he declared would join us. The friend was less chatty, but was happy to trail along as this man showed me the “absolute best of Shanghai”.
We visited as much as we could fit in one day. The three of us climbed in and out of shiny black taxis on a whirlwind tour of Shanghai that included Nanjing Road, ancient temples, and the University district. They happily obliged my every thought. With a simple question about Pashminas, a command to the shiny black taxi driver meant we were suddenly at the fabric market, gazing upon hundreds, each vendor excitedly showing their best wares. I wandered around happily, picking shawls priced at a dollar each, and counting off names of friends as I bought. Even with my account left shabbily low after my European vacation, at this rate there was enough for splurging. My guide suggested we cross the road. As I did, a Chinese woman started shouting at me, and both of the men turned around. One spoke back to the woman in a respectful but strong tone.
“What did she say?” I asked
The younger Chinese man shook his head. “You don’t want to know,” he said.
“No, I do!” I urged him. “Is she angry at me?”
“No, it is not you she is angry at. She is just angry.”
I gasped. “What is she saying, then?” I asked. “Will you translate?”
Reluctantly, he began to translate this woman’s shouting, continuing until we walked out of sight, “You whore. Go back to your own country, to your own economy, to your own place. We do not want you here. You are filth. You have ruined us, you have ruined China. We do not need you”.
“This makes me sad,” my friend said.
“Why?” I asked him.
“Because the West is the future of China. We will become strong through economics, we will not be peasants any longer.”
A shiny black car rejoined us magically and one of the men decided to take me somewhere more pleasant after this strained interaction. We turned up at a marble foyer of Astor House, an old hotel. Sipping tea, the men began to smoke. It was clear the younger one was bored and now wanted off the strange tour with the blonde Australian woman. As we got to the airport, I suddenly remembered that I needed to pay the men, and began to worry. We had not really talked any further specifics about payment, and cash was difficult to access. I regretted the seven flat pashminas filling my backpack. As we gathered my luggage and they walked me to the departure gate, I started to worry about the transaction. Was it fair? Ethical? Surely the price of twenty American dollars was not enough for their time. But I withdrew the money anyways, and gave it to them.
I will never remember the look on their faces as I handed over the cash. They were so pleased with themselves, it was clearly a fair transaction from their end.
As I sat on the plane, I struggled not to cry. I was so humbled at the thought of me, a University student having paid for two grown men’s wage for a day. There is no greater privilege than paying a human a fair wage. To have resources beyond your own need to cover the needs of another is an honour of immeasurable proportions. To do this fairly, and equitably is the greatest of honours. And I suddenly realised that I, with my backpack and small bank account, was truly in the highest income earners of the world. Maybe that woman had been right to yell at me so. What a lot of weight for one little blonde Australian to carry home.