I couldn’t help it. I could feel an ATT (Adult Temper Tantrum), or meltdown, was about to commence. I started crying.
This Japanese woman’s full pink lips that was upturned in a plastered smile immediately went down. She shook her head and gently repeated in halting English, “I’m sorry. It is typhoon. No flight to New York from Beijing. First flight Beijing to New York is first thing tomorrow morning. Stay overnight in Beijing.”
Fat tears just rolled down faster. I was exhausted and nauseous. My stomach was grumbling noisily. My back and shoulder blades were knotted and ridden with sharp pangs from carrying my heavy book bag and duffel bag of souvenirs. I had been up since 4AM to catch a 9AM flight from Kyoto to Beijing. Beijing was supposed to then go to New York directly. Because of the typhoon, I missed my 13-hour connecting flight from Beijing to New York. Now, I was going to have to stay overnight in Beijing. I was almost out of my transplant medications. I was all alone.
I squared my shoulders, tried to stand up as tall as my 4’11” could muster, and wiped the tears away. I once asked my father who was the ultimate survivor in life, “How do you do it? How do you survive in life?” He said, “You do not think about it. You do what you have to do. You just do it. You do it.” So, I would do it. Just like I always had in life.
I tried to explain to the woman as slowly and calmly as I could, “I have had two kidney transplants and health issues. I need to get home.” I showed her documents of all my transplant medications and transplant center notes.
She showed the documents to a steely-eyed man who I guessed was her boss. His eyes were cold and unsympathetic. Both of them just shook their head at me. That was when I realized that they really and truly could not help me AND they did not care about my health at all. The woman slowly said, “Cannot help you. No flight to New York today. Only tomorrow. Check with United Airlines.”
She pointed to the kiosk next door that seemed to bling and blink brighter, as I had flown United Airlines many times compared to this first time with Air China. I shuffled to United Airlines where the waterworks started again. A very kind woman said, “We have flights that will go to New York, but you must call United Airlines.”
With little energy but still feisty as ever, I sputtered, “But, you are right here. I do not have access to call on my cell phone.”
She beckoned me to follow her, and presented a yellow pay phone. Do pay phones still exist? Apparently so. She explained, “You feed 100 yen coins every 3 minutes.”
I waited on hold for up to 10 minutes with each of my 100 yen coins disappearing into the pay phone. A very calm gentleman got on the phone and said, “There is flight. Over $5000.”
“Over $5000 USD?” I exclaimed.
“Yes,” he paused, “Why is Air China not helping you? Have you told them your situation? About your health?”
“Yes, I don’t know why they aren’t helping me, so that’s why I’m on the phone here hoping you can help me get back home. But, I cannot afford $5000 for a one way ticket back to the U.S.A., so I guess I will have to figure it out and let it work out on its own.”
I hung up. I was all out of 100 yen coins. I took a deep breath, thanked the very kind woman at United Airlines, and said I would figure it out with Air China. I marched back to the Air China kiosk desk. They arranged for me to fly out first thing the next morning. “OK,” I thought to myself and tried to think positively, “I tried. I’ll see what they say when I arrive in Beijing. I am meant to stay in Beijing overnight. I am meant to practice my broken Chinese. Maybe they will put me up at a good hotel and I can eat a nice bowl of hearty dumplings.”
The 9AM flight from Kyoto, Japan to Beijing, China ended up leaving at 2PM. I kept my eyes and ears as open as I could to anyone who spoke English. My ears perked up when I heard a couple speaking English. I learned that this couple were originally from Oklahoma, U.S.A., and now lived in Israel. They told me of their travels in Asia and the Arabic and Hebrew languages they spoke in Israel. The wife wished me good luck on my travels to try to get back home. I would need it.
From October 10-October 23, I was in Taiwan and Japan. During that entire time, I only saw sunshine probably two or three days in Okinawa. Excluding those days, it rained and rained and rained some more. My umbrella broke from the rain. Torrential fiery rains that soaked right into the cores of my feet and body and that left my shoes sopping wet and having to dry them out with scrounged up balls of newspaper. I walked up to 6 miles one day, with at least a mile or more in flooding waters of a typhoon. I never knew what my body was capable of until it was forced to be capable. I forgot what sunshine looked and felt like. In Beijing, I saw sunshine for the first time and my lips lifted in a big wide smile.
The Beijing airport is huge. I remembered that back in 2014 when I visited. It seemed even bigger and more monstrous this time around. I bumped into a whole cluster of people who had missed the connecting flight just like me. I got to talking to a woman with magenta-dyed hair who was trying to get back to London and a man who was trying to get back to Paris. We scrambled to find our way to the area to find out about connecting flights. The line was excruciating and painstakingly long and required utmost patience, casual conversation, and humor.
“I love New York!”the woman with magenta-dyed hair clamored happily in her British accent, “Everyone is so friendly!”
I gave them my email address and cheerfully said, “You are always welcome to New York!”
I thought about vital it was to stop and see all the beauty and experience all the awe and awesome in the midst of the unpleasant. Select few gems of people as the United Airlines representative, the Israeli couple, and now these French and British passengers had certainly been the bright sparks in the dark. When have you stopped in the midst of the most unpleasant times to see and experience the pleasant? In the picture that looks so ugly, are you still able to find the beautiful parts?
When finally meeting face to face with a frowning woman who sat sternly behind the connecting flights desk, I pleaded desperately in my broken Chinese, “I’m sorry that I speak very little Chinese. I am American. Please get me to the U.S.A. Please get me to New York. Please get me home.”
She examined the paperwork I gave to her that outlined I would have to stay overnight in Beijing at a hotel because the first available direct flight to New York from Beijing was the next day. Without any emotions and not even looking at me, she was on the phone speaking in rapid Chinese that I could not completely make out but was able to understand that there was some other option to get home sooner.
When she finally hung up, I looked at her with hope. Honestly, she was my only hope at this point. I could hear my father saying on the phone before I boarded the plane to Beijing from Kyoto, “Get out of Beijing as soon as you can.”
“We can get you back to New York, but you have to leave from here in Beijing to Los Angeles and then Los Angeles to New York. You will arrive in New York at about 6AM the next day.”
“Yes!” I practically screamed before she could fully finish her sentence.
With quick and precise stamping and stapling, she handed me new paperwork. I had to wait on yet another long line to receive immigration clearance to leave Beijing, collect my bulging and hefty navy blue and striped red suitcase, and then re-check in to International flights from Beijing to Los Angeles.
The Beijing airport is so massive that there are frequently running underground trams to bring you to another area of the airport. On the tram, I encountered an elderly couple who had to be close to their 80’s looking to sit together. Tired, but still believing in kindness, I slowly forced my aching body to move to an uncomfortable area of the tram so they could sit together. They were incredibly grateful and started speaking to me in Chinese. I repeated my same line in Chinese: ““I’m sorry that I speak very little Chinese. I am American.”
The couple seemed to understand and nodded politely. The elderly woman smiled gently at me with a twinkle in her eyes.
We made our way to the security. The Beijing security makes the JFK airport security look like wimps. A young security guard roughly shoved my bag on the conveyor belt and then started yelling at me a word that I couldn’t make out.
The elderly woman tried to translate for me: “Battery, Battery.”
“Battery?” I repeated confused. I did not have any battery. What was that about? I immediately said I did not have a battery. They dug through my bag and found a battery pack that my friend had gave me to charge my phone when it was completely out and started speaking quickly and nervously.
I tried to explain it was a battery pack to charge my phone. They ignored me and proceeded to wipe it down with what looked like perfume samples.
Another woman in security continued to go through my bag with gloved hands and then yanked out my remaining pillbox of transplant medications yelping in Chinese that I could only assume her saying: “What the heck is this?”
The elderly woman looked at me and then looked at all the brightly colored pills and tried to translate for me to the security woman: “Medicine.”
The security woman gave her an icy glare and snapped, “I know.” The elderly woman cowered back, looking down on the ground. I could not believe this. What happened to respecting the elderly? I wanted to snap at the security woman to give me back my bag and leave the poor older woman alone, but I heard my Dad in my mind saying: “Keep quiet. Do not get hot headed. You can get away with that in the U.S.A., but not in China. Leave Beijing quietly and quickly.”
I gave the elderly woman a sympathetic, understanding, and appreciative nod. I gave the security woman a slight disgusted and fully bewildered expression. It took every ounce of me to close my mouth and bite my tongue to not say anything to the security woman. I just wanted to and had to get to the gate as soon as possible. At the gate, I encountered the elderly woman again who was curled up in a ball trying to sleep on the two hard chairs at the gate. I thanked the woman in Chinese and she immediately asked: “Do you want to sit?”
My face softened into such humble gratitude. I told her in Chinese to rest and that I would be fine. Again, seeing and experiencing the beauty and kindness in the midst of the unpleasant and the difficult kept me grounded and revved me up again to keep on going.
The flight to Los Angeles was a direct 11 hours. I had been on longer flights to Hong Kong and Taiwan that ranged between 13-15 hours. All I wanted to do was sleep. As luck would have it, there was nearly no one on the flight and I had all three seats to myself. Times like this, I was full of appreciation for my short height as I laid down fitting snugly and perfectly in the three seats. I slept like there was no tomorrow.
In the pockets of moments I was awake, I found a movie that I really enjoyed called “Bakery in Brooklyn.” It made me miss home even more. Mind you, I had never stepped foot in Brooklyn, but just the fact that it was in New York made me nostalgic and impatient to land in New York again.
When the plane finally touched down in Los Angeles, it was about 6PM California time. Wired tired and going on adrenaline, I tried to get out of the plane as soon as my body and the crowds could allow me. I dreaded the fact that I had another 5 to 6 more hours to go to NY, but I had never been happier to be on U.S.A. soil. Rather than fully rejoicing, a sinking feeling of fear landed in the pit of my stomach when I saw that the plane ticket that was given to me in Beijing did not make any sense as I had no clue what airline and what time my flight was from Los Angeles back to New York. I was not out of the woods yet.
It took over 30 minutes, but felt a whole heck of a lot longer to get my poor luggage that was enduring the same nightmare itinerary as me of three countries (Japan, China, U.S.A.) and four cities (Kyoto, Beijing, Los Angeles, and New York). I was petrified (yet would not be the slightest surprised) that my luggage had not made it to U.S.A. soil as I had. You would not imagine my sigh of immense relief when I finally saw my luggage tattered and torn on the conveyor belt. There were two more rounds of security I had to get through in Los Angeles without even knowing what airline and the time my flight was. For all I knew, I had missed my connecting flight from Los Angeles to New York.
The security guard looked at my Air China airplane ticket and spouted, “This ticket looks weird. But, it is able to be scanned that you are taking JetBlue airlines to New York at 9PM. Go to Terminal 5 and get a JetBlue representative to issue you a new ticket.”
I checked the time that it was about 7PM. I breathed a sigh of relief that I still had time. The walk to Terminal 5 seemed to last forever. I was sweating bullets and my body was on the way to collapsing. A hefty gentleman behind me who was panting said, “Wow, they really make you work it to get to Terminal 5.”
I had never been happier at the sounds of booming rock n’ roll music blasting, the people chattering cheerfully, and the loud and joyous laughter in Terminal 5. I had never been happier to whip out green United States dollars to buy a bottle of water and a bag of chips. So close to New York that I could just feel it.
I braced myself that I would have to deal with a window seat and be sick for 5-6 hours. I do not do well with window seats. I popped in Ginger Mints and chewed peppermint gum in preparation for the nausea and lack of sleep that was to come on this red-eye flight. Imagine my shock and surprise when I had my ultimate comfort zone of an aisle seat right near First Class and the unlimited supply of snacks and bathroom. I also had extra leg room to stretch out! I was so thrilled that I could cry tears of joy! It was the little things! I probably had the biggest and goofiest grin on my face!
On the 5-6 hour flight from Los Angeles to New York, I managed to catch some sleep, watch “Beetlejuice,” and pack up on snacks that JetBlue offered. I was practically jumping through my skin that I would soon be back in New York and reunited with my kitty cat Ricky, family, and friends!
It was 5AM when I landed in New York. I was so dazed, exhausted, and exhilarated. I was just numb at that point. Everything went so smoothly with my luggage practically the first one waiting for me at baggage claim. However, most sadly and not shockingly, my luggage handle had broken. My taxi driver was stuck in traffic from a bad accident and I had to wait over 30 minutes for her with my broken luggage and two other bags on a cart that I paid $6 for. So close, yet so far away.
Outside, I stared up at the wide sky that had slivers and slices of pinks and blues. The sun was rising. I breathed in that familiar and fresh and cool air. A sense of calm with honking cars wrapped me up in comfort. I was finally here in New York. I was almost home.
My taxi driver talked the entire almost two hour ride that was bumper to bumper back to Ossining about food. I was so nauseous, sick, and tired that I did not even have the energy to ask her to please let me sleep so I would not vomit. I nearly fell out of the car when I got out. I was woozy and unsteady. My taxi driver helped steady me and I saw her concerned face through my half opened eyes: “Are you OK?”
“Yes,” I managed weakly.
She helped me with my broken luggage and gave me a big hug before she left saying: “Welcome back home, Mary!”
I opened the door to my kitty cat Ricky meowing like crazy and nearly jumping on top of me. I passed out on the ground sprawled out next to my broken baggage and worn out backpack and duffel bag. Ricky was meowing all around me and stepping on me like a welcome mat. I could kiss the ground. I could not believe everything and everyone it took to get back here. I could not believe that I was finally here. I could not believe that I was finally home. Home.
There is no place sweeter than home. I had never been so grateful to be an American until I was in Beijing. ‘Home’ is a different place and holds a different meaning for everyone. Are you a wanderer who loves to move/travel and not stay in one place? Is there ONE place that is ‘home’ to you? What is ‘home’ to you? Where is your ‘home’?
Home Sweet Home.
Keep smilin’ until we meet again,