REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

China looks a lot like U.S. -- at least at first glance

5/20/2011
BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

HONG KONG -- Get off a plane at the Hong Kong airport and you might look around and think for a second that it's JFK in New York. Maybe it was the 16 sleepless hours in the air or the brain-dulling effect of three in-flight movies will have, but the resemblance is definitely here.

I noticed how modern the airport is when I got off the plane at about 7:30 p.m. Hong Kong time Thursday -- 7:30 a.m. Thursday in Toledo. China time is 12 hours ahead of Toledo time.

Mayor Mike Bell, surprisingly spry after his plane landed 15 minutes later, swaggered through the terminal and noted the same thing.

Believe it or not, I couldn't find a single person at the Hong Kong airport who didn't speak English. I tried -- without luck. Then I started talking to people who looked like tourists, like Omir Samson.

"No I'm not a tourist or on vacation," said Mr. Samson, who was born in South Africa. "I live in Hong Kong."

Like many countries, the farther a person goes from airports and major cities, the less American influences will be seen. The Starbucks across from the 7-Eleven on the airport's lower level near the boarding area for the ferry to Shenzhen was a welcome sight.

Jen Sorgenfrei, Mr. Bell's spokesman, was first to get in line and use some of her Hong Kong dollars for a soy latte. (Hong Kong, the capitalistic center of China that once belonged to the British, still has its own money.) My coffee was 27 Hong Kong dollars. I tried to do the conversion in my head, but I will leave that up to Visa to figure out.

The differences between China and the United States start adding up quickly once you start to really look around. For starters, Chinese currency, the yuan, won't fit into a standard U.S. wallet; cutting in front of someone waiting in line is common and apparently not rude, and western style toilets are … well, in the west.

The mayor, his delegation, and I took the ferry across the harbor to Shenzhen, which is the first stop on the nine-day trade mission for Mr. Bell and others in his delegation. Everyone moved through customs with ease, except me.

I think my journalist visa raised the eyebrow of the police official who questioned his co-worker in Chinese before he gave me the two-minute stare. Ultimately, he stamped my passport and granted me access to the People's Republic of China.