I love going to China. This was the eighth time in the last nine years that I have done so. I stay anywhere from three to six weeks. However, I say every year, “the only thing I like better than coming to China is going home!”
I left home in the early morning hours of May 9th, and here it was May 31st. It was now time to make my trek up the eastern seaboard, and over the Pacific Ocean on route to my home in Searcy, Arkansas, U.S.A. via Beijing, Seattle, Detroit and Little Rock. It’s always such a long trip. I always measure the length of my trips from “pillow-to-pillow.” This trip home ended up taking me 32 hours. It was brutal.
Returning home today was actually a few days earlier than my original itinerary read. I was supposed to return on June 4th. My original plan was to visit one of my Harding students in her hometown of Hangzhou. I’ve always wanted to visit Hangzhou. I’ve heard it was beautiful. Apparently it's a twin city to Suzhou. There is an expression in China that says, “There’s Heaven… and then there’s Hangzhou and Suzhou.” The plans were set. On this day my plan was to take a train to Hangzhou. One of my teaching colleagues from the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies was to accompany me. Earlier in the week my teaching colleague cancelled on me. Then a few days later my student texted me to say that she and her parents would be out of the country and they would not be able to host me. I thought about going up there by myself. I really wanted to go home, but to change my flight reservations would probably cost me about $300. I calculated the costs of transportation, hotel and meals and decided the Delta ticket change fee was still less than staying in China until my Delta ticket was schedule to depart. I decided to cut my trip short by three days and I cancelled my trip to Hangzhou. I had trouble connecting to the Delta Airlines website from China. So, I called Donna and asked her to help me with my ticket change. I also sent a message to my favorite customer service representative, Katie-Delta-Bravo! Between the two of them I got my itinerary changed to leave June 1st instead of the 4th.
The last thing the directors of BITZH did for my accommodations was to make arrangements for me to get to the Zhuhai airport to catch a flight back to Beijing and on to the states. The morning after the conference in Zhuhai ended Li Junli, and a driver picked up me and Ms. Zoe Li (another conference attendee) at our hotel and we set off for the airport. Li Junli was one of the coordinators of the conference and employees of the university. Li Junli went by the English name Julie.
She graduated from a university in Delaware, U.S.A.. Julie had great English speaking skills and was pleasant and friendly. I had met Ms. Li, as everybody called her, during our two and a half days together, but I didn’t have much time to get to visit with her as much as some of the others. So, I was delighted to be able to ride with her to the airport and sit with her as we waited for our flights to board and fly to different cities in China. Ms. Li was a Chinese national living in the United States working as the director of a Chinese student program at Jacksonville University in Jacksonville, Florida. I always referred to her by name, Ms. Li. Soon, Ms. Li asked me to call her by her English nickname, Zoe.
Zoe and I made our way through ticket and baggage check-in, then security. I am so glad that she was with me. It seems that every airport in the world has a different protocol for security checking. This time was no different. The security guards were nice enough but they kept asking me questions for which I didn’t understand. After the second attempt to communicate with me Zoe stepped in and acted as my translator. I have never feared international travel but it’s really hard when you don’t speak the language as good as you would like to. I was so thankful for my new travelling companion. Who knows, I might have been detained much longer had Zoe not been there to help me?
On our way through the airport I noticed there was a currency exchange service. I had accumulated a fair amount of Chinese cash and I knew that the exchange rates were not as low as they are in Beijing, and even worse, absolutely immorally outrageous once I got back to the states. So, after an inquiry, and Zoe helping me do the math, I decided to cash in my Chinese RMB back to American dollars, leaving enough to get around Beijing for another 24 hours or so.
I had gotten out the door of the hotel without coffee so I asked Zoe if we could stop at the nearest coffee shop in the airport for me to buy a cup? I asked if I could buy her a cup of tea? As we discussed this we looked up and was staring at a Burger King in front of us! The problem was that the price on the sign for coffee said ¥9, but they charged me ¥18. When I asked to explain they could not do so in English so once again Zoe stepped in and spoke to them in Chinese. The counter workers told her the sign was wrong… but Zoe suspected that they were just charging me more because I was an American. The ¥18 still only came to about $2.75 in American dollars for a large cup, and it was airport food. $2.75 was not going to keep me from getting my morning coffee.
Soon Zoe and I waved goodbye and hoped we would meet again sometime in the future, maybe even in Florida or Arkansas?
I flew to Beijing. I have been in and out of the Beijing airport so many times I was beginning to think I was Chinese. I had arranged my lodging but was unsure of its location. I normally stay at the Park Plaza hotel when I am in Beijing. But, the Park Plaza was booked full for the night so I found another place on line. I was unaware of this hostel but I did however, have their address. I made sure I got into the proper taxi line. I wanted a regular taxi that would use a meter instead of a flat-rate fare. The flat-rate taxi’s almost always end up costing me more, sometimes even twice as much as they should. Often taxi drivers will not start their meters for American and then simply tell them a price (writing a number down on a sheet of paper when they arrive) to tell the rider how much the fare is. I once was taught by my Chinese friends how to say, “Qǐdòng yíbiǎo,” “start the meter,” in Chinese.
The taxi ride seemed very long. It was afternoon traffic around Beijing, one of the biggest cities in the world, and traffic was heavy, but still, it seemed like a long time. I had made trips from the airport to the city center many times before. It usually took 45 minutes or so, even when the traffic was bad. This was going on an hour and we were still on expressway type roads and not in the city center style roads. The driver asked several times to see my phone that had the address of the hotel written in Chinese. He stared at it a few seconds smiled and off we went. I decided he was lost and called the Hotel on my phone. Most Chinese hotels can put somebody on the line that speaks enough English to answer your basic questions. I asked if they would be willing to tell the taxi driver how to get to their location? Of course, they said, so I handed the phone to the driver… he spoke in Chinese a few words, hung up the phone, and handed me back my phone. About 20 minutes later and maybe an hour and a half after we left the airport the driver pulled up in front of my hostel. By now the meter was ¥150! That was more than I had ever paid before to go from the airport to a hotel or Hostel. Then to top it all off, as I was getting my bag out of his trunk I looked up and saw the Park Plaza hotel across the street. The place where I wanted to stay to start with and a location that I had paid about ¥65 previously. Yep, he really “took me for a ride!” I had previously cashed in my Chinese RMB, leaving what I thought I would need to get to my Hostel, meals, and to the airport the next day. I spent about ¥100 more on the taxi ride than I should have. Now, I was going to need to find an ATM to get more cash.
After a Chinese rest and a period of cooling off, (I was still angry with my taxi driver), I got back in touch with Zhang Haoyang, or Amy Michelle. I have an eight-year history with Amy Michelle. She was like my Chinese daughter. In fact, I gave Amy, her middle name Michelle. Most Chinese people do not have middle names and Amy wanted one, so as to feel more like an American. Michael is my middle name and since she was like a daughter I gave her the middle name Michelle, to be used as Amy Michelle, not just Amy. I first met Amy Michelle in 2010 when I was a visiting professor at Nan Hua Da Xue in Hengyang. In 2013 she came to Harding for three years. Now she has been living in Beijing for two years. I could write a book just on what we have been through in the last eight years, but I’ll save that for another day. I was just happy to see her again, and I knew she could help me finish out my annual trip to China.
By now I was hungry and needed more Chinese Yuan. I knew that Amy Michelle was on her way to my hostel so I waited out on the front steps until I saw her coming down the street. We asked the hostel desk where an ATM and a noodle restaurant were located. I had been in China for a bit more than three weeks, and while I had been served noodles a few times, what I had been served, while good, had not exactly been my favorite style. I knew that if I could find a Noodle restaurant their selection would be broader and I could find what I was looking for. Noodle restaurants are very popular among low priced restaurants.
Amy Michelle helped me find the ATM and read the Chinese directions for withdrawing some more RMB. We found a very good Noodle restaurant close to the ATM. When we walked into the restaurant she spoke to the Fúwùyuán and asked what their house specialty noodle dish was. She ordered it for me and we sat down. It was really good. Just what I had been wanting!
After dinner I knew it was time to say goodbye to Amy Michelle. Maybe for good this time. This was a hard one for me. Amy Michelle and I had been through so many life changing emotions for her the past eight years. When Amy Michelle left the states two years previous she was angry with me for insisting that she go home, take some time off, so she could get some rest and find some contentment. I wanted to see Amy Michelle again if not just for some closure. I said my goodbyes… Not knowing what I would be doing next summer, or beyond. When it came to China, I knew that this really might be a last good bye. I didn’t say it, but we both knew that maybe we would never see each other again. My plans, at this point, don’t have much China in them going forward! I knew that Chinese culture people don’t really do goodbye’s very well. They like to think of it as “see you later.” I insisted that we both just walk away and waive at each other… Just a few minutes later I received the following text from Amy Michelle;
“Technology made life so much easier, but nothing makes goodbyes easy. I don’t cry at goodbyes like when I was a teenager, because I think one day we’ll meet again in heaven, but I still feel like crying…”
Early Friday morning, I headed out to the airport. I left plenty early but thought I would rather get there early and wait, than wait at the hostel and get to the airport to late. I learned that I never know what delays and adventures lie ahead of me. I got to the airport so early that no one was at my check-in counter yet and I was the first in line when they did arrive. Good thing. I had trouble scanning my one checked bag. I didn’t know what the problem was but they kept making me open the bag, search and rescan… again, and again. Finally, they found the problem. It was my extra camera battery for my Nikon. The battery for the Nikon in the camera wasn’t a problem, just the spare battery. I finally made my way to the gate and sat down.
I love people. And I love to people watch. I will often say hello or something to those who glance my way. The fact that I was a white male, more than a little beyond middle aged, and traveling by myself was something for which many Chinese people marveled at anyway. I never really understood this, but many of my Chinese friends said they couldn’t believe that a man of my age would travel around the world by himself. Hmmm… Beijing was better than most places in China about seeing Caucasian people and especially at the airport.
I scanned the available seats and found my best opportunity was next to a bright friendly looking young lady. When we made eye contact, she moved her bag so I could sit down. I thought for a moment, so as to say it correctly, and said, “Zǎoshang hǎo. Nǐ jīntiān hǎo ma,” (Good morning. How are you today?). I love the surprised looks on the faces of Chinese when I speak their language.
“You speak Chinese,” she said with great delight! “Bu, yidian… (no, a little), I try…” Of course I reverted to English when I had to speak conversationally instead of something planned. I sat down and met Jiang Lulin. We introduced ourselves and traded first meeting pleasantries. We conversed for about an hour before we had to load our plane. Lulin is a professor at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, LA. She has a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering. I looked on the UofL website and found that she has some groundbreaking work in combustion! She and her husband, also from China had been there several years. He was a business professor. For the next hour or so we talked about where we were from, why we were in each other’s countries, and she heard all about my travels… I’m sure I was boring but she seemed interested in what I was saying so I kept talking. It came time to board. Knowing we had a 10 to 11-hour flight ahead of us to Seattle (and points beyond), I thought maybe I would catch up with her later. Unfortunately, that never happened.
When I boarded and got settled into my seat my traveling seatmate showed up Rachel (Rae Rae) Milner. If you think I’m extroverted, you should meet my new friend Rae Rae! This young lady came bouncing up the aisle, stopped and said, “Hi, I’m Rachel! I’m you’re traveling partner for the next 10 hours!” She had the window seat, I had the aisle on a two seat configuration on this aircraft.
Rachel was a young twenty-something recent college graduate doing some sort of ministry mission work in China. She was now on her way home via Seattle, Los Angeles and home to Florida. She had just spent several weeks working as a tour like director for Christian tour groups coming to China. I never really understood who she worked for. She seemed to be a bit elusive about telling me directly for whom she worked and exactly what she did. I did ascertain that it was some sort of ministry. As we chatted she noticed my Bible APP on my phone and asked if I was a Christian? That’s always a great connector when you’re half way around the world traveling alone. We shared a few stories, showed a few photos on our cell phones from our recent adventures and eventually drifted off to sleep and movie land.
After we landed in Seattle I looked for Jiang Lulin as we each went through customs in Seattle, but she had a different line than I did because of our different home countries. I never caught up with her in person. I thought I would just text her later (we traded WeChat friend connections), hoping that I could tell her “God’s blessings.”
I was still with Rae Rae as we went through immigration, customs and onto our Delta connections. I had a but a two-hour layover, she had a three-hour wait. I suggested we go get real food instead of the airline fare we had been eating for the last 10 hours. We ordered sat down to eat and eventually realized it was time for me to make my way to the gate. Rae Rae and I agreed it was God’s plan that we meet. We hugged and I was off to my next city, Detroit.
The flight to Detroit was about four hours. Seattle is in the Pacific Time Zone. Detroit, of course, is in the Eastern time zone, three hours ahead of me. When we landed it was a seven-hour time difference from when I left. I was scheduled for a four-hour layover. Then I found out that my flight, to Little Rock, because of storms, was going to be delayed, by at least two hours. This trip home was one of the longest I had ever experienced. I was once told by a good friend of mine that was a commercial airline pilot, “It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than in the air praying you were on the ground!” So sat I did, frustrated that I was delayed but happy I was in a safe, dry, comfortable place and had plenty of resources to wait out this delay. I sat down, put my head back on the back of the chair, and… the next thing I knew it was 90 minutes later. I called Donna at home in Searcy and told her of the delay. I instructed her not to leave the house until I knew that I would be on the flight to Little Rock. I wasn’t sure yet if I would be spending the night in Detroit.
I walked around to stretch my legs and found something to drink that had calories, (something for which I rarely do). I thought about the fact that I missed seeing Lulin in Seattle. I knew she had a connecting flight to Atlanta. I sent her a WeChat message.
Hi Lulin: I hope you are having a safe trip home. I got stuck in Detroit. Bad storms! I may not get out until tomorrow. It was so nice meeting you and visiting with you in Beijing. God bless you.
She responded by texting: Dear 谢爷爷, that was so nice meeting and talking to you as well. I am very touched by your stories and your genuine heart to Chinese people. Those kids are so blessed to know you and your wife!! So sorry to hear about the storms! But it's better to stay until safe. I hope you will get a hotel room and have a great rest. I just arrived Atlanta and was thinking to text you after arrival. The situation is a little similar here. Our flight is delayed for more than two hours. Hopefully, they can finally make it. God bless you as well!!
As it was getting close to my departure from Detroit to my final landing airport Little Rock, I saw a familiar face. It was one of my Harding professor colleagues, Dr. Tim Westbrook. He had been at a conference and was now returning to Little Rock and was to be on the same flight as mine. I had always admired Dr. Westbrook from afar and knew him casually. He had been so helpful and kind to many of my Chinese students. As we talked I offered him a ride back to Searcy, because Donna was coming to get me. But, he said, I have a car at the airport and I will give you a ride back to Searcy! I called Donna and told her I was on my way!
I had been out of bed since 5:45 a.m. on Friday in Beijing and now pulled into my driveway about 32 hours later. I was exhausted. But it’s always exhilarating to see my sweet wife after being gone for so long.
My wife and I just looked at each other knowing we were together again… It’s always such a comforting feeling. But, Addy, my Black Labrador Retriever went wild! She missed me. She squealed and barked while dancing around me for about 20 minutes. I rubbed her ears furiously and assured her it really was me, her favorite human in the world!
Finally, after more than three weeks, meeting old and new friends, traveling to places far away and experiencing some amazing, life-changing events I was home… and I landed on the bed… and crashed!
The next morning, I saw that Lulin had sent me a message… Dear 谢爷爷, hope you have safely arrived. I arrived at 2 am and passed out till now. Please bring my best wishes to your wife who has such a merciful heart.
Hi Lulin: I got to my house about 12:30 a.m. and was in bed 15 minutes later. I did get up early this morning and ONLY took two short naps today, (one in the late morning and one in late afternoon). Now it's about 9:00 p.m. and I hope to be in bed soon and sleep all night. Jetlag is always hard for me to adjust. It usually takes about 10 days for me to get back to normal. I told my wife today how nice it was to meet you at the Beijing airport. Somehow, I think we may meet again! God bless you and your husband.
She wrote back and said,
Dear 谢爷爷, Great to know you have arrived and had some good rest. I may take long to adjust jet lag as well. I believe we will meet again as well! I also told my husband about you both and how nice you both to Chinese people with your kindness in practice! I told him that you both might have a lot to talk if you meet each other. My husband is in business major. He loves public relation a lot! Please let us know if you and your wife will visit Louisiana. You are very welcome to live in my house. God bless you and all your family! Good night!
Steve Shaner, also known as Xie Yeye, is a professional story teller that delights in traveling to meet new and old friends. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.