Jet-lag is a state of being that I know all too well. My acquaintance with flying long distances was renewed just before July 4, 2015. The non-stop flight from Honolulu to New York City was uneventful.
As is the case every year in recent memory I was invited to attend the official Independence Day celebrations at Town Hall in my ancestral home town, Greenwich, Connecticut. I was there among family, relatives and friends as a descendant of one of the town's founders in the 17th century. The event was fun, patriotic, somber at times and traditional.
|That's me with Davidde Strackbein, Chairman of the Board of the Greenwich Historical Society.|
It was relatively routine on that Saturday morning in front of what was at one time my late-father's high school, now today the seat of the town government. After the speeches, ceremonies and recognitions were concluded all attendees filed into the front entrance of Greenwich Town Hall for slices of cake, water and conversation. I always find it a pleasure meeting up with old friends to catch up on things.
Unbeknownst to me I was soon to receive an invitation -one that would represent a turning point that I still live with today. Turning points rarely arrive by email, but this one did.
And so on July 8 a personal message arrived:
This message was signed by Zhu Jianzheng, vice consul of the Consulate of the People's Republic of China in New York City.
I just froze, read the email several times and just sat quietly. It wasn't the jet-lag, that's for sure. Never in my life did I expect this.
I really owe this invitation to Mr. Liming Guan of The China Press and to Dr. Dave Wang, too.
Dave and I met online regarding his pioneering research on the influences China had on the U.S. Founders in the eighteenth century as primarily published in his blog U.S. Founders and China. We had only recently met in person -in the Grand Concourse of New York City's Grand Central Terminal.
Dave, in turn, introduced me to Mr. Liming Guan, a fantastic reporter for The China Press based in New York City. Liming interviewed me for an article (click here) about my late-father, Herbert Bingham Mead:
That was a fun day with the three of us delighting ourselves with Chinese cuisine and lots of conversation, laughs and all the stuff that makes for fond memories.
It also helped greatly that The China Press is a Chinese language publication that is freely available in China and across the USA and the rest of the online-connected world.
The first thing I did was share the invitation from Vice-consul Zhu to friends Dr. Yiping Wan at Manhattanville College, Liming and Dave. Needless to say all were in agreement:
"Great! If I were you I'd take the offer!"
And so I did.
This would be my first trip to China. It would be a dream come true. But not just for me. Dad had always wanted to return to China. Cold Wars, geopolitics and other factors intervened not just for him but for so many of the U.S. China Marines who served there.
I was working mostly by email with Vice-consul Zhu's staff at the Chinese Consulate (pictured above). They were just terrific. My preparations included a trip to the Chinese Consulate off West 42nd Street in New York City to obtain my visa.
My friends were right: bring a book and be prepared to wait. It was worth it, and admittedly I got a lot of work done.
Initially, I thought about flying out of Honolulu for Beijing, but I was convinced that it was wiser to fly out of New York City for the 13-hour flight.
News arrived that I would be staying longer than the 3-4 days on the original itinerary. I was offered the opportunity to stay longer and visit as many of the sights and places Dad visited during his tour of duty in Beijing. My Konica-Minolta camera would be stretched to the limit -even to the point it overheated during the September 3 military parade in front of the Forbidden City. More about that later.
On the day of my departure I arrived at the Air China terminal in New York's Kennedy Airport. It was a partly-sunny September afternoon. I travel lightly. In my case I brought a computer briefcase and a collapsable duffle bag I'd been using for travel since I was nineteen years old. Both fit perfectly in any overhead compartment or under the seat in front of me.
Everything was routine when I approached one of the few staffed Air China counters. One of the agents smiled as I asked what gate I was to go to board.
He cheerfully looked at my boarding pass -and what he did afterward made my afternoon much sunnier.
After happily taking by luggage he walked me through all of the lines of passengers, moving me to the front of a very short line at the security screening. This experience was quite a new one for me. I felt it best to just go along and smile. I thanked the agent for his very kind services, went through security in the blink of an eye, and headed off to find my gate.
I lined up with all the other Air China passengers. Again, I found myself the object of courteous treatment -this time by a number of my fellow Econony-class passengers.
I should mention that when I travel I tend to dress-up a bit, harkening back to a time when air travel was, shall we say, more elegant, polished and refined. It's true what is often said: flight crews, airline personnel and even fellow passengers treat you better when you dress up stylishly and tastefully.
While it was pleasant, even sweet and endearing at times for passengers ahead of me to smile and ask, "Would you like to go ahead of me?" I drew the line when an elderly woman from India offered to have me go ahead of her. All the people who insisted on parting the Economy-class line for my benefit stood around with me engaged in pleasant conversation -hardly a habit you find in domestic U.S. airports.
When I entered the cabin I handed the closest flight attendant my boarding pass, asking where my seat was. That's when the excitement began.
"Oh!!!" She yelled aloud and, joined by two other Air China flight crew smiled broadly and saying, "You're a very important person!"
Well, how about that?
One ran and brought me a small bouquet of flowers and presented them to me. The others smiled and seized my luggage, taking me to the First Class section.
This was an unexpected surprise. The window seat made my experience even sunnier than it was already. The offers of magazines, drinks, blankets -you name it- made me glow. The empty seat next to me stayed that way. Wow!
With mobile phone in hand I called as many friends and family as I could between New York City and Honolulu to share all this. I never felt more excited.
It looked like my first flight to China was going to be an exceptionally special one- and it was.
Our 13-hour flight to Beijing took off on-time. Our route would take us north over the North Pole and then south over Eastern Siberia, Manchuria and ultimately to Beijing.
I fell asleep over Hudson's Bay, Canada and aside from a passenger on the opposite side of the First Class cabin who coughed loudly throughout most of the flight all was uneventful. The food we were served -a service that I miss on American domestic flights- was quite Chinese and superbly so.
There was no escaping -or any desire to do so- what it was that brought this about. I actually prayed, paying my respects to my late-father in the process.
The tumultuous times of the Second World War, the horrendous loss of lives and property, an ancient land that had been invaded and the stories of those like my Dad's and others like him was front and center. I was on this trip duty-bound in my estimation to see fit that Dad and the history he witnessed were not to be forgotten.
What I would soon encounter was beyond my expectations -delightfully so!