More from our friends retired to teach in China for 6 months


Our scheduled 20 hour trip began at 6:00pm when we left my mother-in-law’s home in suburban MD, for Dulles Airport.  My brother-in-law, John graciously offered to drive us through the infamous Washington Beltway traffic. It was slow going but we arrived in plenty of time to make our plane.

Traveling from the east coast to Texas was unremarkable.  Smooth, timely and familiar in every airline flying way.  Once in Houston and waiting at the China Air gate the transition from west to east began.  First, over 98% of the passengers waiting for our Boeing 777 were speaking Chinese.  Airport employees continued to  speak exclusively in English, but that changed as soon as we were aboard the aircraft.  Language (Chinese followed by English), food (Chinese and American with western utensils), Movies (Chinese, English and French), and labels around the aircraft (Chinese Characters and English), were used seamlessly to help us move from one culture gently into the other.  Once in Beijing, the airport continued to use bilingual signs for travelers making their way onto their next destination.  However, I am getting ahead of myself.

To avoid jet lag as much as possible, we tried to figure out the best sleeping strategy.  Washington to Houston found us staying awake by watching the feel good movie, “42”, about Jackie Robinson.  That was easy.  The 15 hour flight from Texas to Beijing that departed 30 minutes late at 2:00am was a bit more challenging.  Do you sleep as much as possible to be fully  rested when arriving in Beijing 5am local time, or stay awake as much as possible to ensure that you will sleep when finally arriving in Hohhot?  This decision was easier for those in first/business class who had new age curvy recliner seats that stretched out into beds.  They had the comfort and leg room to sleep to their hearts content. We in econo class had the usual scrunched seats, nine to a row: three to the right, left and center.  Rich and I were in the center where he sat next to the aisle to my left and a gentleman of Chinese descent to my right.  Our fellow passenger was asleep almost before he tightened his seatbelt.  Clearly, he was skilled with jet lag avoidance.  His strategy was so set that he missed the first “feeding”.  While he slept, I kept trying to pretend I was on China time.  If it was 5:00am daylight savings time, then it was 5pm Hohhot time.  Not late enough  to doze.  I would check my small personal video screen on the seat in front of me, alternately scanning movie options, listening to contemporary Chinese music and following the flight track and interesting aviation data provided.  Despite my best effort I found myself nodding off for an hour or so only to wake with a kink in my neck the seat back that is just shy from straight up and down caused.  With about 6 hours left in our flight, I decided to watch the movie “Mama Mia”.  A fluff film at best, it worked as a source of diversion. During a scene in which young women are drinking, dancing and partying as a pre-wedding celebration, I was surprised to hear my previously sleeping seatmate, speak to me. “That’s what kids are like these days.  I have a daughter who plays and parties and causes me much frustration.”  “And she doesn’t’ listen to me, her father!” .  This now wide awake gentleman, (Dan Tan)  proceeded to tell me his life story.  (not an uncommon thing to happen to me, as Rich often points out) .  Dan is an oncologist who grew up in  China during Mao.  He went to college (I think after Mao) in China and trained to be a physician in Germany.  He then further pursued medicine at Yale and worked as an oncologist in Buffalo, NY before moving to Houston where he teaches, does clinical work and research on gastro-oncology.  Dan is a middle aged man with two adolescent/young adult daughters.  He bemoaned the fact that his eldest  was not conforming the way a young woman  “should”.  He expressed great worries about her and was quick to ask for understanding.  Dan was an immigrant father with first generation daughters. He was stymied by his oldest daughter’s “American adolescent behavior.”  Because his younger daughter behaved in a manner more typical of Chinese children, he was more perplexed and worried about “Connie”.  A sweet man who presented a conundrum of many parents who have moved to the United States wanting the best that the US has to offer for their children, but lamenting the fact that their progeny do not hold onto the family culture as much as they would prefer.   I could only provide supportive words that his daughters both sounded “normal” though different from each other.  “They sound like they will be just fine.”

What was special about Dan is that he spends a good deal of his vacation time to return to China to teach, do research and practice medicine for free.  He had such a need to give back to his home country and people .  Though his family apparently isn’t quite on board with his quest to bring advanced medical care to China, his sense of purpose has kept him going for several years.  A very kind man.  Dan was the ultimate in cultural transitioning. We were fortunate to have him as a seatmate.

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