As promised, it is time for the telling of my in-laws’ first great adventure to the United States! It’s a long tale played out over months, so I’ve decided to break it up into a mini-series. My in-laws have now been to the US three times and were supposed to come last summer, but COVID happened. Hopefully, we can see them next year. But their first trip is of note because it marked many landmarks for my wife and me.
Now, this story wouldn’t be worth telling if it was as easy as a little vacation. If you’ve followed this series, you’ve probably ascertained by now that my life tends to be a bit difficult. I see some people that breeze through existence with neither care nor worry. They stress not, win on scratch tickets, and everything seems to fall into place. If you haven’t noticed, unfortunately, we aren’t those people. Is this self-induced? Maybe some, but we have a hard time believing that it’s all our fault. Some people resonate with the universe, and apparently, others are in perpetual opposition.
2011 was a particularly hectic year for us. During that summer alone, some things of note included:
- We purchased our new home in May, and we were trying to sell our current condo. From negotiating the price to buying and then finally selling our old place, this took more than two years. It wasn’t smooth. For our new home, first, after making our initial offer, the seller took the home off the market. Pickings were slim in real estate at the time and this house checked all our boxes. We upped our offer and asked that they put it back on the market, which they did, but having a fish on the line, they negotiated hard for more money. Also, during that process, our relator decided to work for the realty company of the seller and basically screwed us.
- We would graduate in May with our Master’s degrees after a long haul (four years) of going to school part-time while working full time.
- It was the year of my mother’s 60th birthday (June), and we needed to help plan a worthy celebration.
- I would transition into a new position at MIT (August).
- Most importantly, it would be the year that my in-laws would make their first trip to the US and finally meet my family!
All of these significant life events listed above culminated in a single stressful but exciting summer. Looking back, I’m not sure how we managed it all, but we did.
The first thing to note was the move. It was essential for two main reasons. The first was peace of mind. Although we loved our condo, we had some boisterous neighbors. Below us was a very vocal Dominican who did not work and thus was noisy all the time, from about six to midnight. She lived off a settlement she received after her husband died from a fall down an elevator shaft at work and by running an illegal hair salon in our lobby (until the condo association caught wind, not sure how they found out :). Funny enough, before we purchased the condo, every time we toured the space, it was silent. We even made comments about how quiet it was compared to our apartment. We found out later it was because she had gone back to the Dominican Republic to visit her family for a month. We even suspected that the realtor might have paid her off so she wouldn’t be there during the showings. I still remember that first morning she came back from her trip. It was a rude awakening to say it lightly. If this wasn’t bad enough, next to us was a young Russian girl with an inclination for thumping techno music in the middle of the night. The police were always there, sometimes called by us, sometimes others, but it didn’t help. Together, they made that condo a bit of hell, and we went years without a good night’s sleep. Also, we had to take one of the most crowded buses in the Boston area to get to work- not exaggerating it was often ranked the worst.
Secondly, was space. We chose this particular year for “the visit” as we called it because, up until this point, our condo was a bit too small to have my in-laws living with us for such an extended period. Thus, our planning had to correspond with the purchase of a single-family house. We signed in May on a four-bedroom, 2.5 bath home with a lovely yard and good access to public transportation. I loved the place instantly. It’s still growing on my wife. Being in the Boston area, one of the most expensive places to live in the country, a single-family house that we could afford meant it needed a little “updating”- a process that continues to this day. I will discuss that adventure at another time.
With our new home purchased, we decided that my in-laws would stay with us for three months, from May to August. With the hassle of obtaining a US visa, the time it takes to travel (with acclimation to the time difference), and all the things we wanted to do with them, this seemed like a reasonable amount of time. We chose the month of May for their arrival because we would be graduating, and we wanted them to experience that celebration. We would also have the house by then with the added bonus that they could help us move in and be part of the experience that they helped fund (more about that next post). With a tourist visa allowing a 90-day stay, that put their departure in August.
Of course, our first step was getting them here. That was easier said than done. The visa process back then was rough. Obama had just become President, so much of the Bush administration’s reactive policies to 911 were still in place. In 2014, China and the US instituted multiple entry 10-year visas, which my in-laws now have, which was heaven for us. But, back in 2011, it was still a single entry visa that required a lot of documentation. Coordinating this with people in their late 50’s who could barely use a computer was frustrating- especially when they didn’t have a printer or an email address. Also, many documents needed official English translation, notarization, and a lot of Chinese red stamps. As their daughter was now a US citizen, they were also considered a flight risk and had to provide lots of extra proof of ties to China. There were many issues. Communication between the US and China has changed dramatically in the last few years. Back then, we used calling cards and made telephone calls, and my wife’s cousins were intermediaries for email correspondence. If we had to do this now, we could simply have a video call via Wechat to clear up any issues. Also, the time difference didn’t help. If an issue came up, we had a 12-hour lag. I’m surprised I still have the little hair I have, but ultimately, we made it, and they obtained their visa.
Now for the flight. My in-laws don’t speak English, they had never traveled outside China, and they would have to pass through US customs alone. It was another worry. We coached them as best we could and tried to let them know what to expect, but there were so many variables. Before they even got on the plane, there was a major issue. The name on their ticket didn’t match their passport. My in-laws both have three character names. Somewhere in the translation process between Chinese and English, Orbitz split their first names between the first and middle name boxes on their plane tickets. It led to them having to delay their departure by a day until we could rectify things on our end, which meant long frustrating calls with Orbitz and the airline in both languages. It also led to uncertainty about what would happen when they entered the US, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
At the time, Boston had no direct flights to China (they do now). To mitigate their need to make a connection, which would a nightmare (as we found out in their latest visit), we booked a direct flight to JFK and decided we would pick them up in New York. We would then take a bus back to Boston together, giving them the experience of seeing some of the country (they slept the whole way). In hindsight, going through this process in an airport that was largely unfamiliar to us was not ideal, but we didn’t have a choice. We could have flown to China and accompanied them here, but it was cost restrictive (remember, we had just bought a new home and still had our condo), and we were trying to save our vacation time for travel in the US once they got here.
After the longest subway ride ever (of course, there was construction), my wife and I finally got to the international arrival section of JFK with a few minutes to spare and waited. We saw on the screen their flight arrive and then we waited some more. Finally, the crowd of Chinese exited, and we were hopeful. Then, this group slowed to a trickle and stopped altogether. Still no in-laws. So we waited, and waited, and waited until it was an hour after their flight had arrived. It was quickly becoming time to freak out.
I love a good cliff-hanger, and here seems like a good point to pause so I can focus on my other writing. No, my in-laws didn’t end up in Guantanamo, but they did get a little taste of the US Border Patrol. Check back soon as the saga continues!