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.
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.
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.