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No room at the inn: Shanghai edition

About a year ago my husband and I decided to take a babymoon to Hangzhou and Shanghai. Yes, babymoon is a real thing where expecting couples take one last vacation together before the baby comes. Genius idea that I wish I could take credit for. I was bummed because I was too pregnant to fly back to the US like I had planned but figured a 3 hour flight to Shanghai was safer than an 18 hour flight the DC! Surprisingly, after 7 years living in China I had still never been to 2 of the major tourist attractions, West Lake or the Shanghai Bund. We decided to spend a few days in each city and take a bus between the two.  West Lake was beautiful but the main attraction of walking around the beautiful scenery in the heat and rain was not a good match for my wobbling state; especially with my pregnant bladder and distance and numerous stairs between each public bathroom.

We arrived in Shanghai after what seemed like forever on the bumpy bus and I was so glad to be back in a major city. We booked a hotel online and found that the metro could take us within walking distance. However, this idea of walking-distance seems to have a very different meaning in China then my definition of 10-15mins walking tops. 30 minutes after wondering around outside the metro and asking directions from shop keepers at each intersection, we were completely lost. Daniel called ahead to the hotel for more accurate directions only to learn we had gotten off at the wrong metro stop. However, we were still “walking distance” from the hotel according to these new directions so we continued lunging our suitcase around the city.

By the time we finally got there we were completely exhausted and you guessed it, I had to pee! We go to the counter to check in and the clerk waves her hand in my face with a sharp, “No!” and goes back to whatever she was doing. My husband goes on to explain that we have a reservation for 3 days pulling up the ticket on his phone. She glances at me quickly and then says to Daniel in Chinese, “You can stay, but your friend is not allowed.” She waves her hand in my face again, “No foreigners!” I couldn’t hold my temper and wave my wedding ring in her face, “Not Foreign friend, WIFE!” To which Daniel committed the cardinal sin everyone knows is the universal worst thing you can do to an angry woman, He apologized for me.  I quickly switched to English and unleashed a string of tongue lashings any sailor would blush at. After which my pregnancy hormones switched to pending water works and I agreed to go sit down.

This crap hotel didn’t have a single chair, only a goldfish pond which I squatted on the ledge of to somewhat relax. My husband went around in circles with the clerk trying to make sense of the situation. I knew the hotels are required to register any foreigner who stays there, but what I didn’t know is that the hotel must have a license to do so. Many of the budget hotels are either denied this license or don’t want to pay the application fee and therefore cannot have foreign guests.

“Ok, fine. Give us our money back.”


“No? If I can’t stay with my wife, I’m not paying for the room.”

“No. It was in the fine print, ask the online agency.”

“Fine. Let me in the room and we will relax a bit and book another hotel.”

“No. Your friend can’t go in”

“Open the room in my name, she won’t stay here we just need to search for another hotel.”


“I’m paying for the room. Just let us in, she’s pregnant for God’s sake.”


I pipe up and say, “We are paying $300 at least let me use the dang bathroom! You let me pee in a toilet or I will use this pond! I’m serious! I have to pee!”

This got me escorted by security through the forbidden door, passed the hotel rooms, and into the janitors closet were I was finally allowed to use the bathroom! I had never in my life been treated like a criminal or even an undesirable. I couldn’t hold back the tears, angry tears and then frustrated tears not having the language to tell her exactly where she could stick that hotel key! And then the most overwhelming and honest tears of an outsider, that didn’t belong and never would.

On the same street there were 10 other hotels so luckily we didn’t have to search far for another place to stay. The hotel next door waved us away with, “No Foreigners!” before we can ask the question. Part of me felt relieved by this second denial, Asif this was justification that this was a rule nothing against me personally.  

Finally, my husband decided it was better for him to go in alone and ask about a room while I wait out in the street. We had used this technique before for any negotiable item as seeing a foreigner usually jacked up the price. Somehow this time felt different. I’d like to blame the pregnancy hormones but this feeling or fear of being an outsider is one of the struggles of living abroad. However, this was the first time I was ashamed to be foreign. Hiking up the price based on my face is annoying but actually shows a positive image of foreigners. I am white so I must be rich and they can make more money off me.

I remember one Christmas eve a group of friends were trying to get into a club and everywhere was packed or had a high cover charge. After several failed attempts, one of the guys came up with a plan that we should arrange ourselves in boy girl order with the foreigners upfront so the bouncers would let us in. It seemed wrong then too, but the wrong was in my favor so I didn’t mind as much.

We finally found a place to stay after 9 “no foreigner” hotels. We I vented to my other foreigner friends living in China they confirmed that several places have restrictions for foreigners. Our guess is the city doesn’t want foreigner tourists staying in the cheaper hotels because it gives a negative image of China.  I also realize how lucky I am to live in Shenzhen with a lot of western influences and less controlling government. I still get the stares and rude comments here, but not nearly as often as my travels in Hongzhou and Shanghai. I am also told Shanghai locals may look down on my husband as well, having an elitist attitude even among other Chinese. Should it make me feel better that they look down on everyone and not just me? The skyline was breathtaking but not enough to make me want to visit again. But I definitely learned to look for the passport restrictions for future travels.


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