Archive for category: A Trip Back Home to China

China: A Cultural Mishap

05 Oct 2013
October 5, 2013

During June and July 2013 my wife and I took our children, both born in China, back to see where they came from. It was an incredible trip for all of us. For my children it made a very abstract part of their lives real. For my wife and I it completed a circle we began in 1997. This is the fifth post in a series of stories about our trip. But if you know me, you’ll know I’m attracted to the fringes of any narrative. That’s where the memories are. I won’t be giving any interminably long and boring slide shows of the trip but if you want to take a look at some of the photographs I took, feel free to do so in the comfort of your own Internet café.

A week before the end of our trip it was time to go to the city and orphanage where both my girls are from. Yangchun is where our children spent the first few months of their lives. It’s a “town” of two million people a few hours west of Guangzhou, capital of China’s southern province of Guangdong. After we split off from the rest of our tour group we flew to Guangzhou and met our tour guide and driver for this part of the trip, Tom and Jerry. Yes, Tom the driver and Jerry our guide. And they took great pleasure introducing themselves, knowing the cultural significance of their names.

Airport Transit Bus

The Diaolou of Kaiping (Click on image to view entire panorama.)

Our drive to Yangchun would be four hours on a new nonstop freeway, much shorter than our two previous trips down bumpy back roads. The back roads allowed us to see a part of China off the tourist track. However, this time we took pleasure in driving the quicker and smoother road. Jerry asked us if we’d like to stop about half way at Kaiping, a town very distinct from other Chinese towns. This is where many immigrants to the U.S. and Canada came from in the early 20th century. I had noticed the distinct European colonial buildings called Diaolou on our previous trip and thought they were remnants of European rule in that part of China. Instead, I learned they were homes built by those first immigrants when they came back to China. And many of these homes were now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.


I found out about the Super Typhoon from the TV in a Kaiping Restaurant. (Click on image to view entire photograph.)

As we ate lunch at a huge restaurant in Kaiping, I noticed they were talking about a “Super Typhoon Soulik” on the large screen TV at one end of the room (Chinese love to watch television while they eat in restaurants). I couldn’t understand what they were saying but I know what a map showing the path of a storm looks like. And it looked like it was heading right for us. I asked our guide about it. He watched the news report and told me not to worry. It would hit landfall in between Guangzhou and Shanghai (our next stop). “But, what about flying,” I asked. “Don’t worry. He’ll fly over it.” Oh so simple. I knew this was not the tidy end to this story.

A few days later, as we arrived at the Guangzhou airport to fly to Shanghai I noticed our flight was listed as “Normal” (China’s way of stating it was on time). As we said goodbye to Tom and Jerry at security, Jerry told me all would be fine. This would be the first time we on our own, without a tour group or guide. Once past security, what could happen? And, at the appointed boarding time, everyone lined up. Of course, without a translator I queued us up in a line that was boarding a flight to Kumming. The gate attendant pointed us to the next gate over.

Our boarding passes in hand for Shanghai, we stood at the door where a transit bus would take us to our plane. Now, there is a huge cultural dissonance between an American’s expectations when standing in a line and a Chinese’s. Americans politely take their place at the back of the line while Chinese just make their way to the front. Think of the chaos that used to be Southwest Airline’s boarding procedure. It was hot, we were tired, and it was getting near the end of our trip. And, to be honest, my adventurous and open approach to this very different culture was starting to wear thin. I made a few snide comments about these line cutters but they were under my breath and in English. (I was secretly hoping those people had good hearing and understood what I was saying.) We stood there for quite a while until there was an announcement over the public address system in Mandarian, of course. All of sudden, my fellow Chinese passengers started yelling. With no guide, I had to take extraordinary actions to find out what was going on.

I stood at the gate with other passengers who were yelling at the airline agent. I had no idea what they were saying but somehow I thought that if I stood there I would pick up everything I needed to know by osmosis. No chance. When the conversation seemed to be just an exercise in Chinese venting, I slowly backed away.

I scoped out the crowd and saw a European man (my sleuthing showed he held a Portuguese passport). “Do you speak English?” I asked. “Why of course,” he replied. He also spoke Chinese. Through him and a Chinese American I got the news that our flight had been delayed. First we were told that the plane had electrical problems. Apparently, no one believed that. Then were were told it was because of the typhoon. Air control was holding the plane. I braced for a 5 hour wait (as we had in one of our previous flights). The airport had free WiFi, but you had to get the password in a text message on your phone. In my case, that would be an international call and not free at all. My Portuguese friend kindly used his phone to find out the password. I braced myself and the family for a long wait.

I was sitting there writing emails to my friends apprising them of our international incident when, about an hour in, all of a sudden, everyone started lining up at the gate. I quickly ended my emails, leaving my friends on the hook and rounded up the girls (only after I got home did I get an email from one friend, frantically wanting to know what happened). Glory be, I thought. But wait. By this time in the trip, what I lacked in mastering the Chinese language, I had gained in understanding Chinese bureaucracy. Yes, we were boarding the plane. But until we took off I wouldn’t count on our good luck.

Airport Transit Bus

An International Incident Unfolding (Click on image to view entire photograph.)

As we got on the bus to be taken to our plane, I thought it would be great to document this experience. So I took a panorama of all of us tired passengers. As I turned the camera the woman you see center right yelled “Don’t take my picture!” Without thinking twice, I said “Look away, if you don’t want your picture taken.” My daughter, the devilish looking one just to the left of the woman) immediately and publicly scolded me. Yes, it had become a cross-cultural incident. Our first of the trip, mind you. Neither the woman nor I said anything else (although, I glowered a bit as we walked up the stairs to the plane as she and her family stood at the foot of it having their photo opp). And, I only took that one photo. In my defense, I didn’t think taking a picture of a crowded transit bus would be objectionable. I didn’t even look at the photo until we got to Shanghai. The look on her face captures the moment perfectly. Henri Cartier-Bresson would be proud (maybe). It was, indeed, the decisive moment.

And, true to form, we sat on the tarmac for two hours before being cleared to take off. Still, a three hour delay is nothing in China. And I got a great photograph.

China: The Search is the Holy Grail

25 Aug 2013
August 25, 2013

During June and July 2013 my wife and I took our children, both born in China, back to see where they came from. It was an incredible trip for all of us. For my children it made a very abstract part of their lives real. For my wife and I it completed a circle we began in 1997. This is the fourth post in a series of stories about our trip. But if you know me, you’ll know I’m attracted to the fringes of any narrative. That’s where the memories are. I won’t be giving any interminably long and boring slide shows of the trip but if you want to take a look at some of the photographs I took, feel free to do so in the comfort of your own Internet café.

Beijing Apple Store

Our first stop: Apple's newest and largest store in Beijing

My first escape from our tour came with a shock. I had decided to buy a new 11 inch MacBook Air to accompany us on our trip to China. Ostensibly, I had convinced my wife we needed this so we “all” could connect to the Internet while we were there. In reality, I wanted to make sure I had a place to store my photos in a backup place while in country. So, on our second day as I sat down to upload my first photos to my, I mean, our new computer, I was shocked to discover there was no SD card reader slot on the machine. With no slot there’d be no way to copy my images over. I was so surprised, despite having looked in all the right places, I kept looking. “It’s got to be here somewhere,” I remember saying out loud.

Once I accepted my new reality I made plans to visit the huge Apple Store I had spied just a few blocks from our hotel on Beijing’s largest pedestrian street Waifujing. And, my oldest daughter wanted to come with. Perfect. Seeing the “real” China on our own would be a great experience for her (despite the fact that Waifujing is in one of the classiest parts of the city). This would be a teaching moment as she watched me converse with the locals without guide or translator.

In 1974 I took my first overseas trip on a seven month odyssey throughout Europe and the Middle East. My first stop was London. I remember how scared I was to open my mouth and speak to shopkeepers I encountered. And English was their native language! I was afraid of being tagged a crazy American the moment I said anything. That would be pretty evident in Beijing but in the last four decades I had learned to ignore those pesky insecurities. I was now the guy who conversed with strangers in elevators. I wanted my daughter to share that sense of adventure. And I was to be her guide.

As we exited the hotel and started to walk down the street we were pretty excited to be “in” the culture. Now it was real. No tour bus to insulate us. And I knew my daughter would be watching me talk with the locals. But I couldn’t have anticipated where this would take us.

When we entered Apple’s largest store in Asia I walked up to one of the greeters at the door and asked “Do you speak English?” Yes? Good. “I’m looking for an SD card reader for my MacBook Air.” The look on his face said it all. “You know, a camera card reader. (I pantomimed the camera, taking a photo, turning the camera upside down, taking out the SD card and putting it in a slot of the computer.) “Ah!” (I had always been good at charades.) He went to find a salesperson who could help me.

When the savvy Apple employee approached she asked me in English: “You’re looking for an SD card?” No, I was looking for an external SD card reader. She took me down a beautiful circular glass staircase to look in their accessories department. I was encouraged. My daughter was taking it all in. The Apple lady looked around. Not finding it she excused herself to ask for help. When she returned she told me the bad news: “We don’t sell those here.” I was shocked. Yes, that’s the only way to describe it. If the Apple Store didn’t have a reader who would? And if they built their laptop with no reader the least they could do was to sell something I could plug in.

So surprised, I thought perhaps she still didn’t understand what I was looking for. I repeated. “You don’t sell a reader?” I started to play charades again when she stopped me. “I know what you’re talking about,” she said in perfect English. “No, we don’t. You might try the Sony store a few blocks away.” Resigned to this twist in our plans I asked her if she could write down the address so I could show it to someone in case, no, when we got lost. As she handed me the paper I said in my best Mandarin: 謝謝。Thank you.

Directions to the Sony Store

Our Apple saleslady gave me directions to our next stop.

So began our quest. She told me the Sony store was a few blocks away and drew me a map. So, if the store wasn’t visible from the street, we’d have to ask a stranger for help. We were walking down one of the best known pedestrian streets in central Beijing and my daughter was absorbing everything. “Look, there’s a white woman on that billboard!” It was full immersion into Asian culture and biases.

After a few very long blocks we had no idea if we were on the right track. I found a street vendor and silently handed her my piece of paper. She had a short discussion with her coworker and pointed us “that way.” We continued another few long blocks, finally stopping in front of an expensive jewelry store. “Let’s go in here. I’m sure they speak English.” Once again, I handed the salesperson my note and she took me by the hand and led me to another door that opened into the biggest high class mall I’d ever seen: the Oriental Plaza. It was so big it was divided into zones and once inside we could have been anywhere in upper class America. She pointed across the walkway to the Sony Store. We had passed the first part of our quest. As we entered I went directly to the counter to find my English speaker. They grabbed a guy from the back and I repeated what I was looking for. He started to laugh. “There’s no need to sell SD card readers here. All Sony computers already have them. Don’t all Macs have them?” You think? Sigh.

He had no suggestions as to where to look next but I asked him to write down “SD Card Reader” in Chinese (you’ll be interested to know that “SD” in Chinese is “SD”). I was tired of playing charades. Perhaps I could stand on a street corner handing strangers my Chinese translation. Now that would be an experience my daughter would never forget (but one she’d never, ever agree to —death by parental embarrassment is a universal teenage angst).

We had failed. But then I remembered my prime directive: my daughter was learning how to navigate an alien landscape. We hadn’t failed; we had scored big time. We headed back to the hotel, now a few miles away. And, suddenly, something wonderful happened. As we waited to cross a busy street she suddenly wrapped her arm around mine and held it tightly. She had already learned that Chinese drivers and bicyclists simply ignored traffic lights. Dodging cars and bikes, along with the locals, I cherished that moment. When was the last time she held onto me that tightly?

A few blocks later we passed a tiny electronics store. It looked like the whole family was behind the counter. I handed one of them my Chinese “SD card reader” calling card and he immediately opened a case and pulled one out. Thirty yuan (about $9). Perfect.

The goal of a quest is to take it and to experience it. My daughter and I shared our first encounter together with Chinese culture, making it back just in time to get on our tour bus, once more somewhat insulated from the country we had come to experience. The bonus: crossing that street with my daughter (yes, and finding that card reader too).

Thanks Apple for not putting that SD card slot in the 11 inch MacBook Air!

China: The Economics of Teenage Shopping

18 Aug 2013
August 18, 2013

During June and July 2013 my wife and I took our children, both born in China, back to see where they came from. It was an incredible trip for all of us. For my children it made a very abstract part of their lives real. For my wife and I it completed a circle we began in 1997. This is the third post in a series of stories about our trip. But if you know me, you’ll know I’m attracted to the fringes of any narrative. That’s where the memories are. I won’t be giving any interminably long and boring slide shows of the trip but if you want to take a look at some of the photographs I took, feel free to do so in the comfort of your own Internet café.

China is a cultural shock. Any similarities to America (and there are many) are only skin deep. The object is to take notice but never assume that what you see is an exact replica of what you know back home. I know this and my wife knows this because this was our third trip to the country. However, the focus of this journey was to introduce China to our children. This was their first visit to the country of their birth—to any foreign place actually. And there were lessons to be learned. Yet, they were raised and are American teenagers through and through. Very few Chinese would mistake them for fellow citizens (well, except for the hostess standing outside a first class lounge at the Guangzhou airport who mistook my youngest for my interpreter, but that’s another story).

The focus of our trip was cultural. We toured with other families who were also bringing their girls back to China for their first look as burgeoning adults. So, most of the trip focused the landmarks of Beijing (like the Forbidden City), centuries-old traditions (like visiting a tea research institute and learning the ways of a traditional tea ceremony), and the landscape depicted in art from dynasties past (like the limestone mountains of Guilin).

While my girls enjoyed these cultural lessons, there was always a universal thread they continued to bring to the surface: they wanted to go shopping. Not for the kitsch their father was focused on and not for traditional Chinese souvenirs—they wanted to go “clothes shopping.” My youngest was most eager and reminded us every time we arrived at a new metropolitan area. My answer was consistent: Shanghai, our last stop, was the fashion mecca of China. That is where she should go shopping. However, delayed gratification was a hard concept to hold onto. We had to tour a new mall in the town where they were born, far from the traditional city centers. But I was sure she’d find something in Shanghai. So, for my daughter, a visit to that city could not come fast enough.

Nanjing Road

Shanghai's Nanjing Road (click image for larger view)

At the end of a long day touring historical places in Shanghai (and after an arduous three weeks of tooling all over China) we went to Nanjing Road. This was supposed to be the shopping center of Shanghai and, therefore, of all of China (although, I doubt Peng Liyuan, stylish wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping would ever buy her clothes there). It’s a huge outside pedestrian mall where the hawkers of fake Rolexes just might outnumber those looking for real things: real fashionable things. The girls wanted to buy clothes. Our guide, Iris, gave us 90 minutes to walk around before our rendezvous. We were on a mission and, with no time to spare, we went looking. But where to start? We knew none of these stores. Which ones had the cool clothes? Stopping strangers on the street and asking “Where do the cool girls shop?” was out of the question. First, no one would have a clue what we were saying. Second, even if they did, my teens would sink below ground if I opened my mouth to ask. We entered a store that had big end-of-season sales and lots of women walking in. We looked around.

I was clueless. What were they looking for? Well, any woman will tell you: “When I see it I will know.” So I was of no help. But, of course, that didn’t stop me from calling them over to say “What about this?” This is why I don’t go and wouldn’t be allowed to go clothes shopping with them at home. Although, in my defense, sometimes —sometimes— my oldest has been known to ask my opinion in matters such as this. She knows I have a good eye but is suspicious because I am a man and her father: two strikes that are hard to overcome.

We found an interesting part of the store and the girls grabbed some dresses. I sat down as the young salesladies parted the curtain to let them try them on. My eye told me they looked pretty retro, like 1960s cocktail dresses, which I liked. But they didn’t look haute coutre by any stretch of the imagination, even in the teen sense. In fact, they looked a bit dumpy. They weren’t made very well. And they didn’t fit right. They were almost great, if you know what I mean. My youngest was enthralled with one and asked if she could put it on “hold.” That is, she asked me to ask if she could put it on hold.

She’d been with me the whole trip and knew I didn’t speak Mandarin. What was she thinking? But I tried. First, the salespeople didn’t speak English. Using my hands to describe the meaning of “hold” was useless. I tried my longstanding last resort: “Does anyone here speak English?” (Remind me to tell you the first time I used that in a Prague bus station in the 1970s). A saleslady brought over a young man, a customer, to help. But I didn’t get far. “Hold. Hold. We want to hold it and come back within the hour to buy it.” “You want to buy it now and come back later to get it?” he replied. I was useless. The concept seemed to be alien. No one puts something on hold. I had to break the news to my daughter. Either she bought it now or she would have to forget it. And, time was running out. We would have to meet Iris soon.

We left empty-handed. My daughter was not happy. Some day she may appreciate our efforts to help. But not then. She was getting in a bad mood and that did not bode well for a family of tired tourists. I pulled my oldest aside and said, “Have you noticed, Chinese “style” is, well, a bit different from our standards. It’s not what Americans would call stylish.” She had to agree. I knew they had been eyeing Chinese women throughout our trip. I played my hand. However, her agreement did not end our quest.

Forever 21

Shanghai's Forever 21. Very Chinese.

Suddenly, my oldest spied something familiar. A woman was carrying a bright yellow Forever 21 bag. “Go over and ask her where the store is,” I suggested. She shook her head. But the second time we saw the bag I went over, pointed to the bag, and in my best English said “Where is it?” It took a minute but she finally understood. She pointed that way. We started walking fast looking closely at each store. Time was running out.

Four long blocks later we found it. I wish I had a photo of their joyous faces. They ran in. We trailed. Suddenly, we weren’t in China any longer. We had finally bridged the cultural differences we had come to know throughout our trip by embracing globalization. I thought about discussing the concept with the kids but wisely jettisoned the idea immediately. They were very busy, looking around. My youngest was the first to find her Chinese souvenir, then my oldest. We got off pretty easy: both tops were under US $15. But, as we walked back to our pickup point, I couldn’t help myself. “Couldn’t you have gotten that cheaper at the Forever 21 close to our house?” “But these are made in China,” they responded. It’s all made in China! And then I had to tell them the truth.

“Yes, it’s all made in China. But here’s what happens. American and other foreign companies have their wares made in China because manufacturing costs and wages are low. The ship them to the States. Then these same companies sell them back to stores in China but the Chinese have to pay duty on them, which, in turn, raises the prices. These clothes are cheaper in the States than where they were made!”

My impromptu economics lesson fell on deaf ears. They had their authentic Chinese souvenirs and that was that.

Related posts: Read other stories about our trip back home to China.

China: Good Kitsch is Dead, Long Live My Good Kitsch

11 Aug 2013
August 11, 2013

During June and July 2013 my wife and I took our children, both born in China, back to see where they came from. It was an incredible trip for all of us. For my children it made a very abstract part of their lives real. For my wife and I it completed a circle we began in 1997. This is the second post in a series of stories about our trip. But if you know me, you’ll know I’m attracted to the fringes of any narrative. That’s where the memories are. I won’t be giving any interminably long and boring slide shows of the trip but if you want to take a look at some of the photographs I took, feel free to do so in the comfort of your own Internet café.

Body builder figurine from China

Finding more of this good kitsch was my quest. Click on image for a larger, more amazing view.

Just before our recent trip to China I waxed poetic about a Chinese treasure I brought back from the Middle Kingdom the last time we were there. My Chinese bodybuilder statuette was the perfect embodiment of good kitsch and I was hoping to find its long lost relatives on this trip. So I brought a photo of the figure with me, eager to show it to any shopkeeper I was forced to encounter. Amazingly, this didn’t happen until we got to Guangzhou, about two-thirds through our journey.

With each arrival to a new city we were introduced to a new tour guide. Up until Guangzhou we were with a group but this time we had our guide all to ourselves: Jerry. Jerry was not his real name, nor were Emily, Lily, or David the English names of our other guides. No subterfuge intended, everyone who works in the Chinese travel industry takes on a Western name. It’s easier for travelers to remember. Jerry was hard to forget.

When we first climbed into our Dongfeng minivan, Jerry introduced us to our driver, Tom. “You know,” he said, “we’re like Tom and Jerry.” A sense of humor I could appreciate; we’d get along just fine. And, in fact, this encouraged me to share my quest with Tom and Jerry. As soon as we strapped ourselves in, I got out my iPhone and showed Jerry my ceramic he-man. “I’m looking for more of these,” I said. Not surprisingly, he laughed. I explained its history and how important it was to find good kitsch. “Do you know what kitsch is?” He wasn’t sure. “You know, souvenirs that are so bad they’re good,” I replied. “There’s bad kitsch and there’s good kitsch. Bad kitsch is so bad it’s, well, just bad. But if you push a bit harder it can be so bad it’s good.” Considering this convoluted mindset was conveyed in English, I was gratified he got the nuanced gist. “Yes,” he said. “So bad it’s good!” We were going to get along just fine.

As we traversed Guangzhou that day he’d stop in front of a shop and say “Bad kitsch.” Yes, his training was almost complete. And as we left the famous Ancestral Home of the Chen Family in the center of the city Jerry announced “It’s time to go to a Friendship store.” Friendship stores were built in the 1950s to sell souvenirs and Western items to foreigners. By the time we first traveled to China in the late 1990s they had become forced stops for tourists who wanted to bring home “authentic” crafts, jade, and pearls. It was in one of these stores I found my ceramic man. Boy, was I excited.

But, Jerry warned me. “I don’t think you’ll find what you’re looking for. Now they sell only high price Gucci bags and other famous brands. They’re catering to Western tastes.” Well, not this Westerner’s tastes. Why go to China to buy something you could get at home? We entered the store and Jerry introduced me to one of the salesladies. I pulled out my phone and, with Jerry translating my story, showed the woman my figurine. “I’m looking for these,” I said.

Guangzhou saleswoman

"What?! You're kidding me." I think that's how Jerry translated it.

Well, she started to laugh. “No, I’m serious.” She laughed even harder. I went to the next woman and repeated my quest. The look on her face says it all. Like the Ming Dynasty, the Golden Age of Chinese Tchotchkes was no more. And I had to settle for a terra cotta soldier reproduction instead.

When traveling to exotic places historic souvenirs are nice; but there’s nothing like finding good kitsch for that perfect memory.

Related posts: Read other stories about our trip back home to China.

China: The End

04 Aug 2013
August 4, 2013

During June and July 2013 my wife and I took our children, both born in China, back to see where they came from. It was an incredible trip for all of us. For my children it made a very abstract part of their lives real. For my wife and I it completed a circle we began in 1997. This is the first post in a series of stories about our trip. But if you know me, you’ll know I’m attracted to the fringes of any narrative. That’s where the memories are. I won’t be giving any interminably long and boring slide shows of the trip but if you want to take a look at some of the photographs I took, feel free to do so in the comfort of your own Internet café.

Flight to China

Proof we were on that flight to China (click image for larger proof)

To begin talking about our trip to China, let me start at the end. China is far, far away—12 hours ahead of us. This makes it easy to reset our real clocks. Well, we don’t have to. Our internal clocks were something else. Our trip home began early Monday morning, July 15 in Shanghai. We had to get up at 5 a.m. to catch our 8 o’clock flight to Beijing where we would catch our lift back to the States—New York’s JFK airport—and then a leisurely change of planes back to DC.

Flying within China is filled with intrigue and mystery. Throughout our trip we were constantly tested. And our flight home was no different. We always had a guide with us when we checked in for any flight and as we got to the front of the line at Shanghai’s Hongquio International Airport the agent took our passports. We had our tickets but something was wrong. I listened to our guide, Lynn, talk to the agent, trying to squeeze out any meaning I possibly could. Their exchange in Mandarin gave me no hint of the problem. Finally, Lynn told us “They have no record of your flight into China. Yes, they see the electronic ticket but they’re saying you weren’t on that flight [see photo proof above].” While our entry was stamped right there in our passports that didn’t seem to matter. We had to speak with her boss. I was getting antsy.

In addition, the agent informed us our luggage was overweight. This was certainly not news to us. We knew that from the beginning and were constantly reminded every time we checked in for a domestic flight. Luckily, because we were traveling in a larger group, others’ teensy-weensy bags offset our jumbo ones (so huge, by the way, that my strong youngest daughter was the go-to when each needed to be lifted onto the scale or retrieved from the rolling baggage claim—shameful isn’t it). So we never were penalized. But now we were alone, just the four of us. A little bit of Chinese obviously went a long way and she tagged our bags and sent them on, admonishing us not to do it again. Well, that was doable since we were leaving.

And, in hindsight, the four of us had come to the obvious conclusion: we could have—should have—packed lighter, smaller, better. Way better. In fact, we didn’t even leave any room for souvenirs. So heavy became even heavier. Even a small 12 inch Terra Cotta Warrior is not light. But it wasn’t like we didn’t think of it. Before we left I bought special space-saver bags for all of us. But even compressed, 18 days worth of underwear was pretty big and heavy. No need to throw it in our faces. We admit to our crime.

Once we were relieved of our luggage we felt victorious, light even. We had gotten through the entire Middle Kingdom paying no penalties for our heavy load. It was time to celebrate. We flew to Beijing and caught our 14 hour flight to New York. No matter how much entertainment appears on the video screen on the seat back in front of you, 14 hours is a long time to be crunched in Economy. My wife and I reminisced about our last trip to China to adopt our youngest. We got the deal of the century: business class on China Southern Airlines that was cheaper than United’s Economy. Now that was the way to fly. And when I was making our plane reservations this time, my wife implored me to “just see how much it would cost” to repeat our roomy lifestyle. Her hopes were dashed when I told her to add $12,000 to our travel budget for the four of us.

A Sea of Tranquility at the Beijing Airport

An oasis of peace and tranquility at the Beijing Airport. JFK should consider something similar for its valued customers flying in from Shanghai.

Upon arriving at JFK we waited as the line slowly moved through immigration. When we got to the front, guess what? There was no record of us being on the flight we had just come in on (what was that Shanghai ticket agent doing all of that time?). Once again, I was ready with proof. But the officer waved it off saying “I can see you just got off that plane. I’ll just scan your passports into the computer if I can get this piece of junk [the scanner] to work.” I thought “geez, the scanners all worked throughout China. The sequester really is hindering our government.” But I wasn’t worried; we had three hours to catch our final ride home.

Exiting immigration we took our bags and started looking for the American Airlines terminal. Elevators going the wrong way. Escalators broken (there never was a broken escalator in China, I reminisced). Time was moving and I was walking fast. At one point, my wife caught my arm and asked “Is there a reason you’re rushing?” With the prescience I am known for (well, okay, it’s anxiety but I choose to see it as a plus) I said “I’d rather be early than run to catch our plane.”

When we got to the self check-in at American I went to the kiosk and input our reservation code. It found us but said we had to see an agent. We waited in line; 50 minutes until our flight. I left the girls and the bags to find someone who could help us more quickly. Aren’t they always calling out “Anyone on the 5 p.m. flight to Scranton? Come to the front of the line.” Yes, this was America and they would take care of us. Nothing and no one came to our aid. I was afraid to look at my watch. But we finally got to a special agent.

Because of the time, they had closed the flight. But 50 minutes was more than enough time to get us to the gate. She reopened it and gave us our boarding passes. Finally, she said, “Please put your luggage on the scale.”

“Two of your bags are overweight.” “Please,” I told her, “we’ve been on planes and in airports for over 20 hours and just want to get home. Can you cut us some slack?” “I’m sorry but there’s nothing I can do. My boss is standing right here.” My wife offered money (to pay for the overweight luggage but one could consider it a bribe if you stretch it). At that point we didn’t care. We were tired. We were cranky. We were out of our minds.

Finally, the agent gave us an out: “One of your suitcases is underweight. Why don’t you move your excess to that bag?” Yes, we were out of our minds but not enough to realize that the total weight would simply be the same. What difference would it make? “I can let one heavy bag through but not two,” she said. Quickly, I unzipped the outer compartment of my own bag. It was filled with with all that, now dirty underwear I was traveling with. All of us grabbed it and stuffed it in the carry-on with our terra cotta statue and in my daughter’s suitcase. I’m glad we weren’t on The Amazing Race. Social media would have had a field day. We would have been the laughingstock of Twiiter.

One, two, three: we were done! She tagged our bags and off we went. Yes, of course, the whole excruciating and humiliating exercise was bogus. No one believed my bag was now underweight.

We ran to Security. I decided to stand in the shortest line for “Preferred” people. I didn’t care. I handed the agent our boarding passes and passports. “Please put the right boarding pass with the correct passport,” he said (gatekeepers, it seemed, were the same the world over). Geez, was I really home on American soil? We threw off our shoes. (Did you know you don’t have to take off your shoes when you go through Chinese airport security? Of course, you’re given a very intimate pat down instead.) And, despite my jet lag, I found room to multitask: checking the gate number while making sure I had all of our electronics, keys, and passports. We started running.

And we ran. My oldest led the way, followed by me, my youngest, with my wife falling farther and farther behind. Just one of us had to get to that gate to stop them from taking off without us. Ten minutes until boarding. And we ran and ran, for Gate 31 was, of course, at the very end of a very long concourse. We ran on moving escalators (I think there were four); we dodged fellow travelers who actually had enough time to catch their planes. We flew down that strip trying to keep hold of our souvenirs and dirty laundry. Hours later, or so it seemed, and totally out of breath, I arrived at the gate. Gulping for air I asked “Have you boarded yet, have you boarded!?” “Sir,” the agent calmly stated, “where are you going?”

Yes, we made our flight but it was now 24 hours since we began our trip back in Shanghai. It was a fine welcome home.

Related posts: Read other stories about our trip back home to China.

A Word About “Good Kitsch”

25 Jun 2013
June 25, 2013

My wife and I are taking our girls back to China at the end of June. Now that they’re old enough, we think it’s important for them to see where they came from. That being said, where they came from is not what China is today. However, I have no doubt they will be amazed and, well, more amazed. This will be the first time we’ve been back since we adopted our youngest in 1999. So, many of the changes will be apparent to us. Yet, I want to experience the country through my daughters’ eyes at least part of the time. The other part of the journey will be devoted to, um, other, more idiosyncratic pursuits.

Body builder figurine from China

The epitome of good kitsch. Click on image for a larger, more amazing view.

When you go to China on a tour, as all new adoptive parents do, your guides are required to take you shopping. You know, jade, cloisonne, and souvenirs that are usually quite mediocre—what I call “bad kitsch.” Susie and I were always surprised by our co-travelers, most of whom we had known for a year as waiting parents back in the States. When we stopped, they shopped till they dropped. The strange thing was all of us had voiced our disdain for these forced shopping sprees. In fact, we had a series of clandestine “meetings” to discuss these tchotchke pit stops and when we put it to a vote, we all agreed the next time we would dissuade our tour guides from taking us to these bargain vortices. We grudging acquiesced only when we were told they could get in trouble if they didn’t stop the bus in front of these stores (for foreigners only of course). But, surprise, surprise, each time we did all of our fellow travelers didn’t hesitate to buy, buy, and more buy.

So, on our last trip to China to adopt our now 15 year old (who was 15 months at the time), I hesitated to go into a shop for our latest shopping adventure. In fact, Susie decided to stay in the bus with our daughter while I perused. I told her “I’ll be back in a minute.”

Now, I should tell you that we are the consummate kitsch spotters. But it has to be good kitsch, not bad kitsch. And we know the difference. When I walked in and spotted this partially glazed ceramic body builder figurine, suddenly I was in 7th heaven. In fact, there were many of them in all sorts of poses all in satin-lined boxes. But I only bought this one and it now proudly sits on my bookcase.

When I came back to the bus and showed my treasure to my wife, she was very excited. It was the best thing we brought back from China (excluding our daughter, of course). Yet no one else was excited for me (they were very happy with their new “authentic” Chinese swords and earrings). But I was the outlier. Purveyor of fine junk, all these years I kicked myself for not buying one of each pose.

Last week it suddenly occurred to me: I’m being given a second chance. I took this pic (with a little Photoshop “this and that”) to show both sides of my treasure. And I will bring this photo with me to China, showing every shopkeeper I am forced to confront. I’m on the prowl for this good kitsch. And now that I am on a quest, I’m getting pretty excited.

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