Jan takes iPhone photos of the United Airlines planes lined up at SFO. One of them will take Jan and Nikki to Hong Kong. (Photo/Dick Schmidt)
(#1a in the Annie series)
Friday, June 17, 2016, 4:51 p.m. California time
We are aboard a big ol’ jet airliner, Nikki and I, as we have been for two whole hours, but it feels like at least four, and we have eaten lunch—Korean chicken and rice with quinoa salad… not bad for airline food—and they have played a whole movie, “Zootopia,” which Nikki and I talked through, even during the little bit of ice cream served at the end of the meal (Haagen-Dazs vanilla bean).
My partner and best friend Dick Schmidt drove us to the San Francisco aero-puerto this morning after a night when neither Nikki nor I got much sleep. We are traveling light—lighter than I’ve ever traveled for a bit more than two weeks away—with one small rolling backpack for me and Nikki’s soft orange hiking backpack as our checked luggage and a small bag each for us. Oh, and a ginormous box with a car seat and soft things to prop up the small child we will be bringing back on the plane with us.
We got that box shrinkwrapped at SFO (I had no idea you could do that) and checked it with our luggage, too. We boarded the plane in the third boarding group and, after a couple of hours, we have settled in for a 13-hour ride. At the end of this long journey is an overnight in Hong Kong, then a fast train into China, all the way to Changsha, where Nikki will adopt a 7-year-old girl named Annie, who will train with us back to a city called Guangzhou and then to Hong Kong, and who will return with us on a plane much like this one in 16 days.
We have each visited the bathroom at the aft of the plane, not very far behind us in row 51, and our male seatmate in the window seat got up then, too, and now we are settling in for what could be a bit of a nap for Nikki, though she is struggling to get comfortable, with one knee up, wrapped in her navy blue airplane binkit, after putting her tray table down and seeing if she can get her head on it. She can’t. No adult can squeeze into these tight rows. The plane has no more room—leg or arm—than the planes Dick and I fly on to Hawaii, but fortunately, the person in front of me is not trying to lean back.
“You don’t want to let them do that,” Nikki told me as we were getting settled, and I can imagine her piping up and telling that person NOT to recline. She is not easily intimidated, which I love about her. I feel as if I’m in the company of a mama bear ready to defend her cub. And though I am not the cub—Annie is—Nikki will Not Be Messed With. I like that about her.
And it does not escape me that when we make this flight home (a whole hour shorter coming back—“only” 12 hours), we will be accompanied by a new someone coming to a new country with her new mama. I cannot quite wrap my head around that.
So Nikki’s listening to her podcasts on her phone, and I’m typing because why not? I’m still getting used to the iPad and it’s small keyboard. It’s a freepin’ long flight, and we still have a good 10-plus hours to go here. Nikki says it always feels longer going than coming, which makes sense to me—even on a driving trip it seems to take forEVER when you’re enroute and not nearly as long on the return.
We had a fair amount of turbulence earlier, even as we ate. This is why Nikki hates to fly, why she goes rigid as adrenalin courses through her, why I held her hand as it bumped us around. I sat in my middle seat thinking/pleading/praying to the gods of airplanes, “Find some smooth air, guys,” and I could tell that they were working on that from the way my head expands the slight elevation changes that a plane makes at 30,000-plus feet. It feels as if the top of my head is coming off, and I can get a wicked headache at altitudes of tens of thousands of feet. But I took a couple of aspirin early in the flight hoping to forestall that, and so far, so good.
The pilot(s?) found some smooth air, though it took a while, and Nikki loosed her grip on my fingers, and I remembered then why I’m here: for support. This trip is so not about me, not vacation or sightseeing, though I’m sure I’ll see plenty—just not what most Westerners come to China for.
This is a Very Different Trip, and in a way, though I’d never have the courage to do this, I’m dazzled by my friend Jodi Angel, who is traveling through Southeast Asia right now, has been for a couple of weeks, not speaking any of the languages in the countries she’s having a Grand Experience. She’s posting on her blog (jodiangel.com) amazing pieces of writing that are part memoir and part adventure tale. I feel like my stuff will be so much blah blah, and I want not to blah blah. This is a Very Big Thing that Nikki is doing. But Jodi’s getting tattoos—one from a renegade Buddhist monk—and riding scooters all over the countryside and climbing through one of those tunnels the Vietcong hid in during the Vietnam War. I am the observer here in a middle seat on an airplane heading for Hong Kong. Then we take a train into China.
And here is one of my first lessons about this place: Hong Kong is not China.
“Really?” I said to Nikki. “Don’t the Chinese think it is?”
“Yeah,” Nikki said, “but people in Hong Kong don’t.”
Even though Hong Kong is an island, it also extends to the mainland (the Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories) and was a British territory for 156 years. In fact, the anniversary of the “handover” as the Brits called it, or the “return,” as the Chinese call it, is July 1, 1997. This year marks the 19th year that it has been officially part of China. Many people feared that Hong Kong would be absorbed into Communist China like steam from a rice bowl fades into the air. But in fact, Hong Kong is more like a dumpling in a bowl of broth—it continues to be an island unto itself. Not just Hong Kong Island, but Kowloon and the New Territories, too. And, it turns out, life has pretty much gone on as usual since the takeover.
“You’ll see the difference, though” Nikki promises. “China is verrrry different than Hong Kong.”
The way she says it, it doesn’t sound like a good thing.
Here’s another thing I’m learning: I can type on the iPad and listen to music I downloaded from iTunes at the same time. I am so grateful to Marquita for helping me acquire the iPad in the last two weeks—my first! I’m what Apple considers an early adopter. Cliff and I bought our first Macintosh in 1984, the year they were released. I’ve had nothing but Macs ever since. But Dick bought me the iPad, and my mom is paying my expenses for this trip, and I am feeling so very well supported at the moment, 32,000 feet in the air, zooming toward China about 500 mph, according to the screen in front of us.
So now I’m listening to “An American in Paris,” which now is keeping company on the iPad with James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg and Mary Chapin Carpenter and (because he’s a good friend and his music makes me smile) Antsy McClain and the Trailer Park Troubadours. I figure if I’m going so far away I should have some comfort music to keep me company.
The sentimental stuff can also make me cry. I choked up this morning when Dick came to get me—after having had very little sleep, the anxiety rising in me to high-tide level. I spent several hours lying down, trying to sleep, chewing on the news that Amy the agent has “released” both my friend Katie McCleary and me on the eve of my departure, which means we no longer have an agent trying to sell our novels. I kinda knew was coming so I shouldn’t be surprised, and I’m not, really, but dang, that stings a bit. Thirty-plus rejections means I guess she can’t sell “Ocean Falls” to a variety of publishers. We got close once, and then the publisher’s European home office closed down the American branch. “Self-publish,” Amy suggested, which is what I’ve been coming to for a while.
But I can’t think about that now. I’m on my way to freepin’ China, fergawdsake, taking the journey of a lifetime with a friend whose life is about to change in the most major way. In a few days, Monday, June 20, Nikki becomes a mom for real. She spent 10 years volunteering in China and Hong Kong; she speaks what she calls passable Mandarin, and she knows these places well. Hong Kong is just the jumping-off place. On Sunday we take a fast train (about three hours) north to Changsha in Hunan province to pick up Annie (where they speak Mandarin and where Nikki volunteered for a year with the home office of the orphanage where Annie is now), then train back south to Guangzhou in what used to be called Canton (where they speak Cantonese, which is very different than Mandarin, Nikki says) to do the paperwork with the U.S. consulate. Then train it again southward to Hong Kong for a couple of days and then home.
Easy-peasy. I hope.
After her year in Changsha, Nikki moved to another city, Hengyang, where she oversaw short-term orphanage volunteers. She did that for another two years before she came home. I recall taking her to lunch after she returned and saying that she needed to do three things—finish her degree at Sac State, get a job and buy a house—and then she was going back to China to adopt a child. In my memory I recall that she mentioned Annie. She says that she didn’t know then who she was going to adopt, but she had her eye on Annie, who at that time was not on the list for adoption.
“I need to finish my degrees,” she said, which she did [a bachelor’s in government from Sac State], “and get a job” [for a lobbyist who deals with education issues], “and I need to buy a house [a condo in the Pocket area].”
That was four years ago, and Nikki has completed all three of those major life tasks, plus raised thousands of dollars to adopt Annie, who finally did come up for adoption and who is now 7 years old. I am in awe of Nikki, who is currently trying to find a way to sleep with her head propped up on my travel pillow on the airline pillow on her tray table, this woman who couldn’t get a haircut before she left, so she’s going curly, longish and shaggy, this fearless woman who astonishes me and who will continue to, I know, over the next two weeks. I need to stay in that place of awe and astonishment. I want to be a good kokua (“helper” or “one who accompanies” in Hawaiian), one who is in service to this project, who is here to document it, yes, but also to help make it easier, if possible.
I have kokuas going with me in spirit, too, of course, many people eager to see Facebook posts. And I am deeply grateful for the support of my mother, Darlene Haag, who, when she heard that I was going to launch into this adventure, offered to pay for it all. Thanks, Mom!
And now Dan Fogelberg is singing to me through the magic of teeny earplugs and an iPad:
Once in a vision I came on some woods and stood at a fork in the road.
My choices were clear, but I froze with the fear of not knowing which way to go.
One road was simple acceptance of life; the other road offered sweet peace.
When I made my decision, my vision became my release.
My Grandma Keeley was the one who introduced the concept of EGBOK to my sister and me when we were young. It means “everything’s gonna be OK,” and it, more than anything else, is my life mantra. Dick embraces this, too. In fact, I am carrying Dickie’s little credit card-sized EGBOK card with its photo of a cracked egg with a Band-Aid on it, in my traveling tummy pack inside my clothes. It holds my money and passport and this EGBOK, which he gave it to me this morning—I’m missing him already. This feels like a big stepping off point into the unknown, and if I’m feeling that, what must Nikki be feeling?
Everything’s gonna be OK, indeed. Oh, what a time we will have, what we are already having. As Antsy McClain says in one of his songs, “Just hang on tight and enjoy the ride.”