Thursday, September 8, 2011

Borders; Or, the Passport-Stamp Motherload

Shenzhen's a border town. And living in a border town has some strange perks.

Hong Kong and Macau are part and parcel of the People's Republic of China, but under agreements made before reunification, the two territories established their own customs and immigration (along with independent educational, healthcare, linguistic, and human rights and free speech systems). This arrangement is not unique - for example, parts of Malaysia have it, as do the US territories of Guam and the Northern Marianas. So to get to Hong Kong or Macau from Mainland, one crosses a border.

I did not originally intend to cross over to Hong Kong nearly as much as I have, even though my employer is awesome and somehow snagged me a coveted unlimited-entry visa that's only available to residents or extremely frequent travelers (cue Daddy) to China. But I've had to cross over for a few reasons:
                      1) I have friends there (see the post on dim sum and hiking).
                      2) 3 of my 4 domestic flights in China were to or from there - easier than from Shenzhen. And free. Yay miles! So is my flight back to Chicago.
                      3) I went to the doctor there the day I went to Hangzhou. The doctors there are better, and I get insurance coverage. Win.
                      4) I had to go for work - our English-language resource office wanted books, and they're way cheaper in ex-British Hong Kong. I brought back a box load.

Add to that the trip down to Singapore, a visit to Macau scheduled for next week, a trip to Hong Kong on Monday for my birthday and to see my dad (who's there on business), and a last crossing over to Hong Kong the day before I fly home, and I will have had my passport stamped....thirty-three times between the time I stepped on the flight from Chicago to LA all the way back in July and the time I step into the airport shuttle back to campus on the 23rd - 17 entry stamps and 16 exit stamps. Let's just say that I know how to handle immigration lines.

 It's a really interesting experience to cross over so much. Even though Hong Kong is part of China (inviolably so), it's really strange to walk off the subway in Shenzhen, go through two lines, and suddenly be in Hong Kong, on Hong Kong's subway. It's anticlimactic, but totally climactic. You feel achieved, but it's so well blended that you don't feel like you've done anything. I've crossed borders by plane (lots), boat (Hong Kong-mainland), car (US-Canada), train (UK-France), foot (Italy-Vatican), and now public transport interchange. This is definitely the wonkiest.

Shenzhen has several crossings with Hong Kong. All of them are humongous and all of them are quite chaotic. The first time I crossed, I was greeted by what was probably 2,500 people waiting to cross in. The Mainland side is always more chaotic than the Hong Kong side - Mainland China doesn't really have a culture of orderly queues. Being the good Israeli-South African-American New Yorker, I know how to push and shove my way through a chaotic queue (even though my favorite line is the orderly one where people are quiet). But here it's something else to queue - it is a constant battle until you get through. You should see the cafeteria on campus. Hong Kong is long, but efficient. Hong Kong people are brook-no-bullshit about queuing and demand that everyone outdo the former colonial masters in the queue culture; there are customs officers monitoring the orderliness of the line. You will be burned and scorned if you jump the line.

It's also fascinating to see how integrated the border is into the infrastructure here in Shenzhen. At two subway stops, you don't even have to go outside to get to the border; the biggest border crossing is attached to the biggest train station. People cross over for a day of shopping, or to eat fancy dim sum, or to catch a flight from Hong Kong's enormous and pretty airport. It's like a suburb that has a different currency. And drives on the other side of the road - it's pretty wonky to see cars here driving the British way, or cars in Hong Kong driving the American way. Shenzhen and Hong Kong are unique in China in that you'll see a car with the driver on the right driving behind one with the driver on the left. That's something I'll miss in the States.

It's made me reflect on borders: not on their (obvious) artificiality, but on their diversity. Travel is not just about instant change, but about slow change, or just crossing over in general. A border can be a domestic thing, but it can also be something totally forboding, a gate to a land one has gone far and for long to get to.  (I'm used to that. Immigrant's kids often think "going to visit the family" when you mention customs checks.) But a border can also be a gate to diversity in one's own normalcy, a way to see the world but sleep in your own bed at the end of the day. Crossing here in Shenzhen has made me reflect on this: short, but sweet travel.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. I want to know what you think! This is particularly the case if you live in a border town - El Paso, Detroit, San Diego, Bellingham,  or Buffalo anyone? Any Harlingen people, or is someone from near a border in another land?


  1. I think it depends very much on the border. Both in Buffalo and Rochester (where my Dad's side of the family is from) and Detroit, the US-Canada border is a very important cathartic boundary. Crossing into Canada is a way of leaving behind your work and (to a greater extent in Detroit than NY) your restraints - it's the place you go to have fun when you want nothing to do with the rest of your life (this is one reason why Windsor/Detroit has so many casinos!).

    On the other hand, Minneapolis (which has a lot of contact with Canada, despite the distance) viewed the Canadian border crossing as much more momentous. Even though crossing was commonplace there was a feeling of... not desperation, but determination. Possibly because much of the crossing was for prescription drugs. Going to Canada for something meant you cared about it deeply.

  2. That's interesting. I guess Hong Kong is like that for some richer Shenzhen people. Minus the gambling, because, for that, you go to Macau!

    Have you made the crossing over to Windsor yet?

  3. Not yet, but I'm hoping to soon!