My niece joined the family on July 12th, 2010. This special young lady's mother is my younger sister, which in classic Chinese culture makes me her Jiu Jiu (舅舅) -- thus the title of this blog. Here I intend to semi-regularly post reflections, thoughts, stories, and assorted whathaveyous pertaining to our trip to China, adoption in general, and (mostly) watching my niece grow up. Since the web is a very public place, I will attempt to maintain my family's privacy while telling the story... but I invite you to follow the blog and come along for the adventure!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Flight Lasts HOW Long...?!

The official flight time for United 897 was listed as fourteen hours and one minute. (That extra one minute always amuses me... Like, they're gonna be that accurately on schedule flying halfway around the world...?)  As we moved into July, it began to loom large: We're going to be in a small, enclosed space... nerves on edge over the culmination of five years of waiting & emotional ups & downs... breathing canned air & eating airline food... for HOW many hours...?!?

It's easy to intellectually know that travel to China used to be a months-long process fraught with danger and uncertainty and that we'd barely notice passing over the once-impassable Arctic on our way there in climate-controlled comfort with food & drink easily available during the flight; it's a little harder to emotionally "know" that we were getting to the other side of the planet in what is essentially the blink of an eye. Most of our days had seen us awake & active for much longer periods of time; it couldn't be that hard to sit still, watch TV, and catch up on missed naps for 14 hours... Could it...?

Regardless of the concerns, July 9th was suddenly approaching with all the speed & inertia of a fully laden freight train... on a long downhill slope... without brakes... and I had one last hurdle to overcome: I couldn't see worth a damn.  I had put off going to the opthalmologist for so long that even with my glasses on, I could barely read 12-point type and anything smaller quickly blurred into illegible smudges. As June ended, I made an appointment, got my prescription, and found a nearby store that accepted my company's insurance. I told the salesguy (who turned out to be the store manager) why I needed the glasses quickly and he said he'd expedite the process. I picked up my new glasses on the morning of July 4th... and felt seasick the instant I put them on. The manager fiddled with them and assured me it was just a case of getting used to a much stronger new prescription, so I put my old glasses in a case and wore the new ones. By the time we headed out for the fireworks I felt seasick, had a major-league headache, and was enjoying (not!) the worst eyestrain I'd had in years. I finally gave up and put my old pair back on so I could enjoy the fireworks and went back on the 5th.

Well, the manager of the My Eye Doctor franchise in Aspen Hill, MD isn't paid enough by his employer; I told him there was no way I could use the new glasses on my trip, and he pulled out all the stops. He took me to the back of the store and insisted the opthalmologist on duty (a distractingly attractive young woman ironically from China) give me a complete eye exam right then & there; reviewed all the results with her, then ran a couple of extra tests on me himself; then placed a special order and told me he'd make sure they were ready in time and that he'd call as soon as they came in. He was good to his word; I got a call early on the 8th, went in, and the new glasses worked like a charm. They weren't cheap (of course!), and I took along the old pair "just in case," but I could read even teeny-tiny print for the first time in years.

Now all I had to do was finish packing.

I'll explain why this was a problem by harking back to the mid-90s when our folks were posted overseas and I flew over for a 2-week visit. We arranged for A and a friend to take me to the airport, arriving in plenty of time to check in, eat a leisurely meal, and board without breaking a sweat. An hour after our planned departure time, she called me and I admitted I still had the suitcase & its contents spread across my living room floor while I desperately tried to fit everything in (including 4 pounds of Oreos, 12 boxes of diet Jell-O, some boxes of Zip-Loc bags, two kosher salamis, and a new raincoat for Mom).  A & her friend zoomed over to my house, my little sister pushed me out of the way, and I swear the suitcase was neatly & logically packed in all of 5 minutes and we were on our way. I had been trying to pack & close the #$%@! thing for over an hour.

So there I was, 30-something hours from departure for China, thinking I'd need every minute of that time to pack -- and then Mom reminded me we'd have to haul everything to A's house that evening before locking the suitcases to make sure we balanced our load & had enough of each other's things to cover for misdirected luggage. I honestly don't know how, but I was ready on time; my big new suitcase (already crammed full) was open on A's living room floor right on schedule, and we divvied up the clothing, required gift bags, et al. with occasional pauses to weigh it all. Of course, Dulce wanted to lend a hand...

We had to be on the road by 8:15 the next morning, so around 12:15am we decided we'd cut all the weight we could and my folks dropped me back at my house. That's when my old super-power of  Inability To Pack came back in full force, and I literally worked on packing my carry-on until about 2:30am. Then I reviewed my packing lists (yes, that's plural) and tweaked what was in both the carry-on and the suitcase. Then I got nervous and re-checked everything. Then I realized I hadn't checked any of the new TSA-approved locks and discovered that no, they did not all use the same key but all the keys & locks looked identical, so I went on safari to find my set of colored permanent markers and practically dyed my fingers kelly green, navy blue, fuschia, and cornflower while painting the locks & keys. Then I hunted down a better keychain for all those little keys I hadn't planned on taking. Then I looked at the clock and realized it was almost 6:00 in the morning...!  I managed to squeeze in a 30-minute nap before the alarms jolted me awake from a weird dream, and suddenly I was heaving my suitcase into the trunk of my folks' car and we were on our way to A's house and then the airport. (Yes, I did say "alarms" -- I set my clock radio, the 2nd alarm on the clock radio, the timer on my stereo, and my loud animated model of a B-17G bomber to go off at 5-minute intervals beginning at 7:00am. Have I mentioned that I tend to sleep through my alarm in the morning...?)

Happily, we got to Dulles without incident and early enough for a quiet family breakfast in the terminal. I don't remember exactly what we talked about, but I do remember there was a lot of anticipation of what we'd see on the trip, what Miri would be like, how she'd adapt to all the changes, and (mostly) how much everyone's life was about to change. A and I finally headed through the security checkpoint after "just one more" hug, checked in without incident (and were thrilled to find both suitcases weighed almost exactly the same, with one full pound to spare under the limit), and hiked to the gate. (It felt like we were walking all the way to China!)  There were some interesting characters waiting with us... a family with the prototypical disinterested teen; a tall young Black guy dressed like a caricature of a ghetto pimp; a harried businessman who couldn't sit still; a couple of "old hands" comparing notes on who'd had the more horrible air travel experiences; an entrepreneur who didn't stop using laptop and/or cell phone until the last possible second; a college student returning home to China who didn't seem to have any of the proper travel paperwork; and a check-in desk crew that seemed to get more harried by the moment even when not doing anything. A high point of the wait was being told we were going to have a good tailwind and would arrive in China almost an hour early. (The estimate was good; we touched down in Beijing 48 minutes ahead of schedule... but more on that in a future post.)

Finally(!) we were able to actually board the Boeing 777 and rolled through First Class... and walked through Business Class... and pushed through Economy Plus... and squeezed through Economy... all the way to The Very Last Row Of Seats On The Plane. Back in mid-June, when we received our final itinerary, I'd looked up the seat arrangement for our flight and immediately told A that we needed to see if we could upgrade to Economy Plus. She said it was too much money, was one more complication we didn't need, and that it would only be for a few hours on one flight. Well, I squeezed into the 2nd middle seat, she squeezed into the 1st middle seat... and after about 15 seconds A turned to me and said, "We are upgrading for the flight home." (Holy understatement, Batman!) All either of us could think about was fourteen hours in seats that only reclined a few inches and had less leg room than the back seat of a Chevette.

Well, the airline gods were smiling upon us that day; after just a few uncomfortable minutes one of the stewardesses leaned over and said, "We have a couple of open seats available, would you be more comfortable up there?" while pointing at a pair of regular seats several rows forward by the wing. Never mind leaving the carry-ons in an overhead bin 40 feet away; we practically teleported from KneesInFace to a window seat (which I let A have) and the middle seat in a row of three. Aaah... nice.

And then there was the push-off... the grand tour of what seemed like Dulles' entire network of taxiways... the traffic jam of Boeings and Airbuses... and then the engines' whine became a roar, there was that familiar feeling of push in the small of my back, the comforting thunk of landing gear stowing itself in the plane's belly... and we began spooling away the almost 7,000 miles of air ocean between us and Beijing.

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