My ride home: Our Cathay Pacific Boeing 777 awaits at Hong Kong International Airport.
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And so once again I'm at the end of my journey to China, this time in the telling of the tale. Monday, September 24 was Going Home Day, a personal occasion that is the product of many a long business trip. My ritual on a Going Home Day is this: get up, get out, hit the road, get home fast and woe to anything that stands in my way.
I caught a cab down the block from my hotel and the driver wrestled my whopper suitcase-on-wheels into the trunk. Apparently, it had gotten heavier, US$100 dollars heavier to be exact. My suitcase was awarded a bright orange tag at check-in, identifying it to baggage handlers as a potential nut-buster.
Nothing about Hong Kong impressed me more than their Mass Transit Railway (MTR) system and the express service to Hong Kong International Airport. I checked my luggage and checked in for my flight at Hong Kong Central Station, where my cab had left me off. The train ride to HKG took 23 minutes. The next time I saw my whopper suitcase was stateside. Wow.
One more time through airport security, another exit stamp on my passport. I walked to my gate, sat down and heaved a huge sigh. Nine months of anticipation, a few months of preparation and a week of sensory overload were behind me.
A couple of hours after takeoff, I hunkered into my seat for a snooze. I had told my doctor if I had to sit in an airplane for 14-hours, I didn't want to be around for most of it. Thanks to my pal Ambien, I had slept 10 hours of the 14-hour Chicago-to-Shanghai flight and had zero jet lag on a 13-hour time difference. I did well on the way back, and awoke in time for lunch: beef with mashed potatoes and veggies, a salad and some Haagen-Dazs.
Our Hong Kong-to-Chicago flight path was considerably further south than the Chicago-to-Shanghai route, which took us to nearly 79 degrees north latitude. We made landfall over north of Vancouver, BC. I watched "Men In Black 3" and a few episodes of "New Girl" on in-flight video. Another snooze. When I awoke, the video map showed we had passed over South Dakota and were west of Rochester, Minnesota. I looked out the window. In less than two weeks I would be down there on I-35, headed for the Wisconsin north woods.
Our airplane overflew Chicago's far western suburbs and before long, the land gave way to water as we circled out over Lake Michigan. I could see my own set of tall buildings again. Familiar neighborhoods rolled by below as we made our final approach to Chicago-O'Hare along the Kennedy Expressway. The blanket landscape of homes and other buildings on their own postage stamps of land had never looked so sparse to me. Or maybe the word I'm looking for is "horizontal", because there weren't endless clusters of apartment high-rises. I thought of all the Asians on the plane including my seatmate, an older gentleman who didn't speak English. I wondered what the first-time visitors were thinking as they looked out the windows. Our Boeing 777 touched down. We were about to swap worlds.
I am never mentally "back" until I'm off an airplane. I emerged from the jetway tunnel and the fog of distant lands into the International Terminal and suddenly there I was, 15 minutes from the neighborhood where I grew up. Well, Chicago is a city that excels in mental "reorientation". It was less than five minutes before I got my wake-up elbow to the chops.
Passport control has two lines, one for visitors and one for American citizens. As we shuffled into the gallery towards the U.S. side, a short, obnoxious, brown-haired uniformed woman with glasses and a thick eastern European "cheezborger cheezborger" accent began to yell.
"American citizens, form a line against the wall!"
Uh... say whaa-at?
I looked ahead. There was no break in the line dividers, nowhere for us to get to a wall, much less get up against it. "American citizens, form a line against the wall!", yelled Cheezborger impatiently, walking briskly and waving her arms.
Now... I had just returned from a week in a Communist country that is cognizant of and careful about the face it presents to foreign visitors. Passport control security people did their jobs professionally and quietly. Those stamping passports were personable and there were even small panels with five buttons at each agent's window, encouraging customers to rate their experience. In Chicago, the bottom three buttons should be connected to 10,000-volt shock collars.
"American citizens, line up against the wall! Form a line against the wall!", yelled Cheezborger, with all the charm of commissar at a May Day parade.
Against the wall, Tovarisch (Comrade)? Really?? Make that 20,000 volts.
This kind of "welcome home" to the United States, plus the fact it occurred in full view of visitors from other countries, had me nail-spitting angry but I bit my lip. A woman behind me stepped in. "But there's nowhere for us to go," she snapped. Cheezborger looked around and opened some of the line dividers. Problem solved. Well, DUH.
I will hasten to add Cheezborger was not TSA, but an employee of a local private firm that provides crowd control services at O'Hare. Cheezborger's employer heard from me, but good. They responded apologetically: "Subsequent counseling was completed with her concerning proper attitude and courteous communication with customers." That's more like it.
I got through passport control and boarded the monorail for the American terminal. As I walked up to the gate for my Kansas City flight, the chatter coming from the news channels on TV seized my attention. The tone was breathless and ominous, the kind used when the $#** hits the fan and the U.S. military is about to open a can of whoop-ass. What the heck had happened since I left Hong Kong? Something about Iran's nuke program, I gathered, with "reactions" from both presidential campaigns. That was it. Translation: nothing out of the ordinary. Good grief, is this really the way we sound, anymore? I took refuge in the peace and quiet of the Admiral's Lounge until they called my flight.
Back to my Missouri and a quiet 40-minute drive on mostly rural interstate highway. Almost exactly 24 hours after I had left my hotel, I pulled into my driveway. It was nearly 8 p.m. and, thanks to the International Date Line, still Monday. I had knocked down a 7800-mile double Going Home Day. I gave my wife a big, long hug and greeted my cats.
We headed right back out to my favorite local barbecue place for some Kansas City-style burnt ends and sweet tea. I'm a regular there and the servers know me. When the check came, I pulled a roll of Asian money from my wallet to pay. My server laughed and called the others over to see Mao's face on the Yuan and the plastic-looking, partially transparent notes from Hong Kong.
The journey was done. It was time for the storytelling to begin...