In March 2012 we took Maggie back to China for the first time since she left there in 1997. I assumed landing in Beijing would signal our arrival in another culture. I was wrong. It began at gates C 18 and 19 at the airport in Chicago.
One carry-on only means one to Americans, who carried one bag in hand. The assembled Chinese arrived with one, but inside each one was another and another in a sleight-of-hand that produced bags, boxes, and baskets filled with hard-boiled eggs, oranges, napkins, chopsticks, and noodles. Courses emerged like clowns emerging from a tiny car. Everyone talked at once, passing food this way and that.
We Americans sat stiffly, eating concourse fast food.
We said nothing.
We shared nothing.
Before boarding, we dropped our folded trash in cans. With the Chinese, everything vanished in a flurry of trading and stuffing into a recognizable one again.
As I entered the plane, I noticed a sign above the door said: The Sign of a Safe Cloud. I assumed it was a charming mistranslation meant to reassure me that I was in good hands. Boarding was calm until a Chinese man couldn’t fit his bag into the overhead bin. He jumped and pressed with all his might, causing his seatmate, a tall American man, to move into the aisle for safety. Suddenly six Chinese people, male and female, old and young, were moving their own bags from other bins, trying to make room for his. The American grimly suggested, “It doesn’t matter how you turn it. It won’t fit.” They smiled at him and continued pushing suitcases until two Chinese people rose from several rows back with their opinions. Here came rolled quilts. There went a pair of shoes. A knapsack was tossed. I half-expected chickens to fly overhead as more and more bins were re-sorted.
Through it all, the dismissive Americans sat like Doubting Thomases. Any one of us would have given up, called an attendant, and checked the bag. But several dozen Chinese people cooperated until that bag fit.
No wonder their civilization has lasted for thousands of years. Peter Hessler writes in River Town: Two Years on the Yantgtze that his Chinese students “were never suspicious of impossible tasks.” I had just seen that tireless spirit for myself.
Once in the air, I thought about the safe cloud sign. (OK, now I know it refers to computers and technical things that mystify me.) At that moment, in my storyboard mind, I knew why I was safe. I knew if that plane began to fall from the sky, those Chinese people would save us, despite seemingly impossible odds. They’d pull ropes and boats from all those bags. They’d weave sails and ladders. Quilts would become parachutes.
And they would not stop trying until we’d all landed. By their good hands. With noodles for everyone.