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A little context for the flight

This post will be about a past traveling experience so if any reader would prefer to stick with the present then please feel free to ignore.  However, let me say that I consider the day I’m writing about to be one of the most important experiences of my life.

I don’t get nervous for trips anymore, but I feel nervous for this one.  This is why.

A little over eight years ago I woke up on the day I was moving to China.



Look at that cosy not-so-clean room.  My swimming medals on the wall, a TV in the corner, and a dragon-crucifix tapestry that would scare any possible girlfriend away from my bed. So lovely.

After waking up on the big day, I felt something in the back of my throat.  You know, that, “it feels like I’m getting sick but I don’t really know, so I’m just going to not think about it” feeling.  I had this enormous adventure ahead of me.  I was going to live in China for six months!  Yayyyyy!

After I got on the plane for my thirteen hour flight to Beijing and made myself snuggled and comfortable in my chosen window seat, a chubby Chinese child sat down next to me and then a women next to him.  They began hugging and calling each other weird names like they hadn’t seen each other in a while and I deduced that they were mother and son.  Isn’t that nice?  A mother and child reunion happening right next to me.  “Just like the Paul Simon song,” I thought.  A few minutes before take off the mother looked at me and said, “When plane takes off, you move to another row?”

“Um, excuse me?”

“Yes!” she said. “It’s better that you move and we have the row.  Please.”

Confusedly I replied, “Uhhhh, um, well, I don’t. . .I don’t know?  No I don’t think so.”

What was I supposed to do?  The plane hasn’t even taken off and I’m being guilt tripped by a mother who barely speaks english.  So this kid pulls out a controller from the screen on the seat in front of him and starts hitting the buttons, buttons that do absolutely nothing unless you’ve paid for a service.  It’s like when you’re at the arcade but you don’t have any coins so you stand in front of the screen acting like it’s you that’s making the characters move.  He’s so chubby that his elbows are jabbing into my sides and while his mother is caressing his face awkwardly and whispering things in his ear, he’s bopping around on the seat, kicking my knees and the whole time I’m just trying to take in Newark International Airport outside my window.

FINALLY the plane took off and I have to say, those first four hours of the flight weren’t bad.  In those days only one movie played on the screen in front of you and it played the whole flight.  That’s it, you turn it on or you turn it off.  Spider man 3 was playing.  You know, the one where Toby Maguire dances.  Eh, not the best movie but whatever, I’ll deal.

About four hours into the flight the diarrhea hit me, explosive diarrhea.  Then came a rising fever with the sore throat, followed by gas pains that actually brought tears to my eyes. And I had chosen the window seat!  So I had to politely ask the hyperactive adolescent and the mother who hates me to let me into the aisle so I could stand cross legged waiting for the bathroom, squeezing my eyelids shut as if that might stop me from shitting on everyone in the seats next to me.

Five hours later it hit me again.  Harder.  The gas pains actually made me keel over in my seat.  I desperately needed distraction so I turned on Spider man 3.  Let me tell you something about Spider Man 3.  Spider man 3 is the worst fucking movie I have ever seen in my entire life. It is so unbelievably bad that I couldn’t even watch it to divert my attention from my exploding bowels.  This isn’t me being a hipster critic, that movie really blows.  Why on earth would Continental airline decide that this movie, and only this movie was worthy to put on repeat for thirteen hours?

So there I am, nine hours into a thirteen hour flight.  The mother in the aisle seat is caressing and saying really questionable things to the chubby kid next to me, who is jumping up and down playing a video game that doesn’t even exist, jabbing me in my already bursting bladder and kicking my knees while Toby Maguire dances on top of a bar in front of me for NO REASON, which I try to avoid by bending over to stare at my feet with a 101 degree fever, no ability to swallow, and pains in my chest that make me want to kill myself.  All of a sudden, the panic starts to set in.

Anyone who has had a panic attack will understand how impossible it is to stop.  Unless you have serious medication, once you hop on that train there is noooooooo getting off.  “What have I done?” I think.  “Oh my god I’m on my way to China for five months?  Jim are you insane!?  China?!  Five months? You don’t even know anyone there.  Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, calm down.  Look out the window.  What are those mountains?  Those aren’t American mountains!  They look dangerous!  This plane is so small!”

I don’t remember anything from that moment until I was in the airport in Beijing.  I remember going into a stall in the bathroom and sitting for 15 minutes trying to unload quite a few things and change my clothes.  After dropping about 30 pounds I wandered around looking for my connecting flight when a woman in a security outfit asked for my ticket and offered to show me the way to my gate.  When we got to the gate she suddenly put out her hand and demanded money.  No, no, no, I wasn’t in any mood to get hassled, but then suddenly I was surrounded by ten people in similar outfits grabbing at my wallet and yelling numbers at me.  I looked to the actual security guards in the corner but they did nothing.  I only lost $10 to get them away, but being hustled by a 50 year old women in an airport really did more damage to my ego than anything else.  Of course my connecting flight to Shenyang was delayed by three hours but I sure did sleep soundly for the one hour flight.

Upon arriving at Shenyang airport I learnt two things:

1.They had lost all my luggage.

2.Because the flight was delayed for three hours, there was no one there to pick me up from the airport.

That’s it.  I was stranded alone with all my University paperwork in a suitcase god knows where.  I needed to figure out my next step and tried stepping outside to evaluate the situation, when I was bombarded by maybe 25 taxi drivers screaming at me.  I tried to say where I needed to go but they couldn’t understand me because Chinese is a tonal language, and although you might think you’re saying the word for “mother”, if you say it in a different way you’re actually saying either “horse”, or “marijuana”.  So trying to say “Shenyang Normal University” was tougher than I originally thought.

I needed room to breath so I rushed outside and found a curb to sit on.  At that point I really thought I was going to die.  I would die in this stupid airport parking lot and no one at home would hear about it for weeks until after my body had decomposed.  A half hour I sat crying on that curb, exhausted with fever and my face in my hands.  “Hold on” I said to myself.  “This is the moment. It’s time to put up or shut up.”  After gathering some courage I began to ask everyone if they spoke English.  Everyone either shook their heads or started touching my hairy arms and smiling and nodding to each other until finally a young man said, “Yes.  My name is Aaron.”  Aaron, my sweet, sweet, kind-hearted Aaron who I will someday name my child after.

Aaron got me a bus and made the bus driver promise to take me to the center of the city where he would then find me a taxi to take me to the University.  The bus ride was, well, difficult.  There were 50 chinese men, many of which had clearly never seen a caucasian as hairy as me before, who thought it would be a great idea to rub my arm hair and poke my shoulders while I cowered in the corner of the seat trying hard not to scream and/or kill someone.  An hour I sat there contemplating whether or not to run off the bus and try to run back to the airport and buy a ticket home.  Miracles do happen, and in the middle of the night the bus made it to the center of the city where the driver found me a taxi to take me to the university.  I threw whatever money I had in my pocket at the cab driver when we got there and the guards at the gate just let me in.  Shenyang Normal Universtiy has 24,000 students and sits on a massive campus.  I had forgotten how late it was and there was no one who could tell me where to go.  So I wandered around in the dark for 20 minutes until a tall man who resembled Yao Ming saw me sitting on a bench with my hands in my face.  He touched me, and, seeing that I was a foreigner, he pointed towards a building in the distance with a light on.  I thanked him and rushed over to the building that had 15 international flags outside, one of which was the American flag.

Those who have never been in desperate situations outside the their home country can’t understand how beautiful that flag looked to me.  It was the most beautiful thing I had seen in my life (up until I got robbed in Ecuador four years later and had to travel to the American embassy and saw THAT flag).  Outside the building I saw three Russian men drinking vodka and, although they didn’t speak much English, they spoke great Chinese and understood enough of what I was saying to get me a room for the night at the foreign student’s dorm, which was where we were.

That was my first day.  I woke up after four hours of sleeping, chugged some water and took this picture.


Bad day

It might sound like I’m reaching for a Hemingway-esque moment of entrance into manhood, but I consider it to be the moment when I became an adult.  It was as if my independence was a muscle that had been stretched and ripped apart, and from there it built itself back stronger.

For the next few days I experienced the harshest loneliness I’ve ever felt.   My mentality had collapsed under the weight of those first two days and I was in shock.  I desperately wanted to see my mother so she could comfort me and I felt like such a child.  I walked around with fists clenched because I was certain that someone wanted to poke me with an AIDS infected needle.  I was ready to fight anyone who crossed me.  I had 5 meals in seven days.

After a week they located my luggage which had penicillin in it for my strep throat.  I started classes and met Ren.  We made friends with locals and slowly I became more and more confident until I felt right at home.  It ended up being the best time I had ever had.  So no, I don’t get nervous for trips anymore, but when it comes to flying into China, I have some serious baggage.

One comment on “A little context for the flight

  1. Karen L says:

    I’ve been in similar situations — not as dire, true — but ones where you realize it’s all on you. And you don’t have many options. So you get off your ass and start moving in a forward direction and, lo and behold, things change. You change. That feeling inside you — the “WTF have I done??” feeling — gets chased back into a dark corner (until next time) and you can finally begin to enjoy yourself. Or if not “enjoy” then at least get some solid ground under your feet. Because the alternatives — to not sleep, not eat, to lie somewhere in a fetal position, or worst of all, to go home — are unacceptable. Traveling to a foreign land and trying to exist when you know no one or the language is one of the most confidence-building experiences you can have. But that “WTF have I done?” feeling is kind of addictive. It’s the best antidote to complacency that I know of.


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