For those of you unfamiliar with the airport we used, it has three distinguishing features. The first is its name: locals just call it "Dulles" but the airlines have to use its full name of "Washington Dulles International Airport" because too many non-English-speaking foreigners have accidentally wound up there thinking they were flying to Dallas, TX. The second is its terminal: the entire building is one huge, wide-open swoopy shape designed by Eero Saarinen, and it's so unique it's become the visual trademark of the airport. The third... well, Dulles was designed as The Airport Of The Future back in the late 1950s, so instead of that long walk across the open tarmac to your airplane they designed everything around mobile lounges that would carry you from terminal to plane in climate-controlled comfort. Essentially huge scissor-lift buses, these vehicles move people from gate to aircraft by rising up to match door height with the departure lounge of the terminal, dropping down to a safer height for the drive out to the waiting aircraft, then rising up again to match the height of the plane's doors. Unfortunately, this means you have the usual crush & inconvenience of boarding & disembarking twice... with the added attraction of diesel fumes.
So we pushed & pulled our way to the 777's door and boarded the (crowded and stuffy) mobile lounge for the trip to the terminal... and didn't go anywhere. And then we didn't go anywhere some more. And then we didn't go anywhere for a while longer. Most of the flight crew had squeezed on behind me, and I overheard the last hostess who'd boarded explain to the others that there was a somewhat confused elderly Chinese gentleman on the plane who thought he'd lost something. He couldn't remember what he'd lost; he couldn't remember where he was sitting; he couldn't remember if he'd lost it on the plane or left it back home in Beijing; he just knew he'd lost something and didn't want to get off the plane 'til he knew what it was and where it was. (No, I'm not making that up.)
Eventually the airport schedule overrode the needs of the one confused passenger and we slowly sank to the tarmac, drove around a couple of other aircraft, dodged a few trucks, then rose back up to match doors with the terminal and everybody piled off. Then we walked down a corridor... and walked down a corridor... and then walked down a corridor some more... Apparently the delay had made it necessary for the mobile lounge to drop us at the far end of the terminal from where we had been expected to deplane! Eventually we reached the Customs area and stepped to one side to catch our breath.
AJ had to make a pit stop, so I gladly held the Pipsqueak while her mommy ran off to take care of business. I realized it might be the last "alone time" I had with her for a while, so we had a quiet little talk, just the two of us, and I think she actually understood part of what I was saying. I'm not going to detail the conversation here; it was a private moment between me and my niece, and I'm glad we had those few moments before I had to start sharing her with the rest of the family.
Luckily, we'd been told we didn't need to stand in the Foreign Arrivals line back at the Consulate in Guangzhou; ours was just one of five jumbo jets simultaneously disgorging passengers from around the world, so the U.S. Citizens line was much shorter. Still, we zig-zagged back & forth for at least 20 minutes, slowly working our way toward the line of kiosks where an officer would open that all-important brown envelope and stamp a couple of pages that would magically turn the Pipsqueak into a U.S. citizen. During this time, I marveled at the variety of people around us: a rainbow of shades of pinks and browns and tans, dressed in everything from African tribal designs to Middle Eastern thobis to semi-formal cocktail dress to plain ol' cutoff jeans and tees... an amazing variety that we simply did not see in China.
We finally got to the front of the line, and a young guy in uniform overalls that looked amazingly like what the security guards in Beijing had been wearing motioned for us to come forward. He took a quick look at the papers, did what he had to -- the only glitch being there was no SSN application in the package as we'd been told there would be -- and then all of a sudden we were through, and the Pipsqueak's Chinese passport was no longer valid. (I think it was at this point that my sister stopped holding her breath for the first time since first filing her adoption papers roughly half a decade earlier; Miri was her daughter and a U.S. citizen, and that -- finally! -- was that.)
There was a surprise waiting for us, though... We don't know what happened, but when we got to the baggage claim area we found all the carousels shut down and several planeloads of luggage simply spread out on the floor. By this time, we probably could recognize our luggage with our eyes closed, so it only took about 5 minutes to find all three suitcases and load them on a baggage cart. Then we pushed through the double doors...
...and found ourselves on another line. (Do you detect a recurring theme here?) This time, there were two uniformed guys -- just two! -- in the middle of the hallway collecting those little Immigration cards we'd had to fill out on the plane. (AJ wound up needing a 2nd card after the Pipsqueak got her hands on the first one.) I handed ours to the guy on the left, he smiled and said, "Welcome home," and then we pushed through another set of double doors to the actual arrivals area.
I was concentrating so much on navigating our baggage cart through the people zig-zagging in front of me that I failed to see Dad standing on one side, waving his arms like a semaphore and snapping his first photos of his new granddaughter. Eventually I realized that the noise I heard behind me was my sister telling me to stop and wait, and then we found both our folks and everybody jumbled together in a big happy family "HI!" for a couple of minutes. (We all enjoyed the little in-joke of the pink "Made in China" tee AJ had put on the Pipsqueak shortly before the plane landed.)
Miri had "met" her grandparents on Skype while we were still in China, even interacted with them a little during our sessions, but we were amazed to see that she seemed to actually recognize them as familiar faces in the crowd. Dad managed to get our first photo of all three generations of L family wimmenfolk together before Mom took the camera for some photos of the happy Grandpa, and we slowly began making our way up the familiar ramp to the exit and out into the parking lot.
It was a beautiful night, and after two weeks in subtropical southern China the usually uncomfortable heat & humidity of a late July Washington summer felt cool and comfy. Our folks had picked us up in AJ's SUV because it offered the most room, so there were a few comical moments as everyone tried to remember what button did what and how to open the doors, but AJ & I had so much practice with those minibuses that we had our luggage stowed in under five minutes. Both Dad & I took photos of the moon rising above the main terminal building...
...and then the peace was shattered by the Pipsqueak's discovery that she was going to have to ride strapped into a baby seat instead of sitting loose in her mommy's lap. I swear, they must've heard her all the way back in Guangzhou! We were all wondering how we'd manage the long ride home with that sound in a small, enclosed space, but by the time we'd gotten onto the Dulles Toll Road the Pipsqueak had begun drifting off to sleep. (Aaaahhh...)
We got to AJ's house in good order, and discovered that one of her neighbors had decorated the entire front as a surprise to welcome her home with the neighborhood's newest addition. We unloaded everything and transferred my suitcase & carry-on into our folks' car before hauling everything else up the steps and into the house. It felt weird to leave my stuff in a vehicle instead of bringing it through the door with me, but the idea of "home" was slooowly beginning to settle in. We spent some happy time just hanging out, watching Miri begin exploring her new home with a little help from Mommy and Grandma. Everyone enjoyed watching Grandma feed Miri for the first time while Grandpa taught her how to play pattycakes and give high-fives.
By this time, even the Pipsqueak's latest nap was wearing off and AJ & I had pretty much exhausted our reserves of adrenaline so the newly-minted grandparents forced us to all say goodnight and drove me home. I had thought it felt strange to be traveling without the other families or not bring my luggage into the house -- but there was no comparison to how weird (and kinda lonely) it felt to be going somewhere without AJ nearby with the Pipsqueak in her lap. (Dude, you've got some adjusting to do...) I thought I would be too wound up to sleep, but I simply dropped my suitcase inside the door, hauled my carry-on up to my room, and had to force myself to stay awake long enough to wash up a bit before collapsing into bed. (I used to complain constantly that my bed was much too hard -- but after a series of Chinese hotel beds, it felt like I was dropping into a cloud!)
I did manage to stay awake long enough to check the clocks and do a little basic math. For the three of us, it had been one day since we woke up... but (even with our last flight touching down almost 45 minutes early) we'd spent about 16 hours aboard airplanes and because we'd flown "backwards" across so many time zones, "Friday" had lasted about 30 hours!
I'd like to say I closed out this longest day marked by so many family firsts with some pithy thoughts or meaningful insights, but what I actually did was turn off the light and doze off while wondering how long it would take me to catch up on all the laundry in my suitcase...
We'd gotten the Pipsqueak home.