It’s midnight, and I am in the back of a black sedan speeding through Brooklyn. “The BQE is hella fucked, let’s go local,” shouts my driver Jorge, as he turns the music back up and rips a right turn into what I recognize as Bushwick. Destination JFK Airport, and despite my flight departing at 1:40AM, I am running my usual 30 minutes behind schedule. Jorge slams the car to a stop in front of the terminal for international departures, and I feel my chest growing tight as I march toward the counter for Cathay Pacific. I didn’t even bother to dress cute, it’s the middle of the night and I am about to have an anxiety attack as the busy terminal swirls around me. I feel like I am at Six Flags; I feel a special kind of nausea.
I know I am not mentally prepared for the 15 hour flight, and everything that comes with it. I keep looking at my phone wondering when I should take my first Xanax. ”Good evening Mr. McBride. My name is Helen, welcome to Cathay Pacific, are you flying business class or coach this evening?”, The silence let’s her know that I am headed straight to coach class, “Please, Helen, don’t seat me next to any children,” I mumble as she laughs nervously, her glittered eye makeup sparkling under the otherwise horrific lighting of the overhead sign. She slides my passport back across the counter; I am busy with a few final instagrams.
On my most recent trip to China, a 12 day whirlwind of factory work, meetings, product development and counterfeit hotels, I set out to document the world that surrounds my work life when I travel abroad in Asia. Armed with two disposable cameras from the Rite Aide across from my office, I tucked the two tiny boxes into my work bag and set off on my normal work routines. It felt foreign to not take snapshots with my phone, and I vowed to capture the things that intrigue me, inspire me, and surround me on what is my 5th trip to China. I chose the format of disposable cameras, as I feel it matches the vibe of China, a place where for me, everything is backwards, made 10X more difficult and completely archaic–despite being the epicenter of money, the most populous country with a booming 1.35 billion inhabitants, exponential power and unending growth. China is booming, the new middle class that is developing out of thin air is taking the country and local economies to new heights.
The enclosed pictures document my experience of my October 2013 journey to China. While I am in a constant blur of jet lag and work, during these hectic and confusing trips, I attempted to capture the most episodic slices of daily life, routines that might seem simplistic and everyday to the normal local citizen, but no matter how many times I visit, everyday happenings which continue to wow, shock me, and keep me extra thankful for the life I lead stateside. In these five trips, I haven’t actually developed a concrete opinion either way about China, all I know at the end of my travels is that everything, down to the smallest detail, is the exact opposite of what I know as my daily life in the US. It’s this bi-polar level of operation that keeps these trips so inspiring, challenging, and completely eye opening. China is based on the foundation of surviving, it’s their past– no matter where you are at class wise, it’s about getting to the next place.
When in China, we typically split our time between Guangzhou, the capital and largest city of Guangdong province, and bordering city Dongguan. Guangzhou is located on the Pearl River, nearly 75 miles north-northwest of Hong Kong, and a key national transportation hub and trading port to the world. The smog lies low over the city, the dense, tangible, grey air clouding the even grayer buildings, hovering over the crowds of people, bikes, motorcyclists and motorists that clog the busy streets in a panic inducing and stomach turning commute. When shuttling between these two cities, we are running constantly behind schedule, an entourage of drivers picking us up at random locations, tearing through back alleys, dropping us off at remote locales, clandestine offices, and simple and unmarked doors in stone buildings. I am usually instructed to hand each driver a slip of paper with an address scribbled in Chinese, they nod “OK,” and then I get in the car. China has become a mystery to me, a place that becomes harder to understand with each visit, a place that in many terms, could be considered simplistic, is actually a complex culture where everything, every task and every experience, is as unique as the language they speak. I have yet to be lucky enough to visit the cultural hubs of Shanghai, or Beijing, instead I am normally sandwiched between manufacturing cities, in back-to-back meetings about wedges or next season’s strappy heel. I attack my trips to china with an arsenal of items, I carefully pack Cliff Bars, Wet Ones, trail mix, hand sanitizer and at minimum one roll of toilet paper in between my wardrobe of grey American Apparel tees, a few button ups and gym clothes that I swear to myself I will use every trip.
I suppose, after these five trips I keep coming back to the same feeling, the same fascination from this culture shock of a work and travel experience. Once I get past the shock of everything being different, the food, the smells, the time difference and the customs, I cannot escape the feeling of being small. Despite the fact that I am over 6.1 inches tall, blonde and very Caucasian, on the opposite side of the planet, my home and friends all living 12 or 13 hours in the past, busy in their own timezones, I feel tiny. On the streets of China, I often find myself standing still, feeling the buzz of the city whirl past me, and realizing just how small I am, how tiny everything I do is. Worlds away from what I consider normal, from my home, more often times than not I find myself standing still on a busy street, stealing a few moments a few moments to myself, simply breathing, thinking about my own gratitude, where I am from and about the world around me– at that very moment, realizing that people are people, and that in the end we are all very very small.
All photos: Ty McBride / All Statistics Via Wikipedia.