When we last left off (read part 1 here), my wife and I were in the international arrival area of JFK airport, eagerly awaiting the arrival of my in-laws on their first trip outside of China. At this point, it was an hour after their plane arrived, and still no parents. As I mentioned, they had significant difficulties with the name on their ticket not matching their passport, which had already delayed their departure once, and we were not entirely sure if they had made it on the plane this time or not. We also didn’t know how the name mix-up would impact immigration.
A million things ran through our minds, and none of them good. Were they here or not? Did they get lost in the airport? Was immigration holding them? What recourse did we have? We had no way to communicate with them, and it’s not like the airport would let us go back there and help them through the process. We went to the information/ help desk, but the airport employees were virtually useless. That was until my wife spotted an Asian man with a badge come out of the international arrival door.
To say my wife is not a shy person is saying it lightly. As soon as she saw that Asian face, she shot right up there, crossed the dreaded Do Not Enter line, and asked the man if he could help. Luckily for us, the gentleman spoke Chinese and said he’ll see what he could do to assist. My wife did her best to describe her parents to him (luckily, my wife always plans two steps ahead and had asked her parents what they would be wearing), and he ventured back into the sea of people to pull my in-laws out from the rapids. Remarkably, he was able to find them.
What happened is that my in-laws had told the flight attendant on the plane that they didn’t speak English and would need a translator to get through customs (something we told them to do). When they landed, the airline people told them to wait in a specific spot until they could get help and subsequently forgot about them. When the kind stranger went back, my in-laws were still waiting in that spot like good little soldiers (probably terrified). The man then brought them to the correct queue and helped them through customs without incident. Of course, we knew none of this at the time. The stranger had just disappeared back behind the doors, leaving us with the hope that he didn’t just forget about us. The line was long, and we waited for probably another hour more.
When my in-laws finally came through those doors, we were so relieved. They even had their suitcases! We never got to thank that angel, but boy, were we appreciative. If it wasn’t for that stranger, my in-laws might have very well spent the rest of their lives waiting in that spot. I’m kidding, of course, but I’m not sure what we would have done. The international arrival section is very much like a black hole if you don’t know what you’re doing. Immigration officers are all duty with the expectations that everyone should speak fluent English and with patience worn thin by long lines of cranky travelers. It is like a trifecta of conflict- intimidating for US citizens and terrifying for the rest of the world.
Anyway, my in-laws were here. After about a year of planning, their US adventure had begun. They arrived on May 14, but their travels were not yet over. We had the four-hour drive back to Boston, starting with a long subway ride to the bus station. We didn’t spend a lot of time in New York, I think we may have walked around Chinatown a bit, but because we knew we would be back later to show them around, we got on a bus almost immediately. After their travel and our stress, we all just wanted to get home to rest. My in-laws were asleep before the bus even left the station and slept almost the whole way back. My wife and I were utterly stressed out, but I can’t imagine how my in-laws felt after a 15-hour flight and the worry of getting through the airport.
For the next few days, we kept the activities light. My in-laws acclimated to the time difference, and everyone got settled into our little condo and this new life that would be our existence for the next month until our move to the house. As a side note, my wife and I gave our queen bed to my in-laws and we slept on a twin we borrowed from friends. We crammed the little bed into our spare bedroom in between all the boxes we had packed for the move. It was interesting. We aren’t big people, but still, that bed was tight, and we didn’t have a good sleep for almost the entire 3-month visit. Sure, we could have bought another bed, but we were a bit strapped for cash and figured it was temporary. It was the first thing we rectified for their second trip.
The first few days, we took little day trips to show them our newly purchased home, Boston, and our surrounding neighborhoods. It doesn’t seem like much, but trust me, the differences between the US and China are enough to make even these minor interactions enjoyable. Please take a moment and think of how strange and different the US was for my in-laws who had spent their entire life in Communist China, and I mean the Chairman Mao kind of Communist China. For example, just down the street from our condo was the largest grocery store in the Boston area- 135,000 square feet of food with aisles wide enough to drive a car down. In China, and especially in my in-laws’ city, you see lots of smaller grocery stores and a greater prevalence of “farmer’s markets”. You could easily fit a dozen of these little markets in this behemoth of a supermarket, and it was well beyond anything they had ever experienced. For them, just taking a stroll to this store and walking down the aisles was a significant event, and it again forced me to see the US in a new light. My in-laws had gone through famine, especially my mother-in-law—times when she ate grass, bark, and even dirt to survive. Take that person with that experience and put them in a 100-foot-long aisle filled with nothing but cereal, and you can imagine the awe.
The first major activity we planned was on May 19th, and it would mark two significant events. For one, we would be graduating with our master’s degrees after four long years of night and weekend courses, and two, it would be the first meeting between our parents. It was a special time for us, full of excitement, nervousness, and, yes, a bit of awkwardness. We had been married for more than six years at this point. We had gone through many adventures, some captured in this blog, but many not. The road wasn’t always easy, but it certainly wasn’t dull. Luckily, our parents took to each other immediately. They may not speak each other’s language, but they share a bond in their love and support for us, and that’s pretty special.
We actually count ourselves lucky that our parents’ ability to communicate with each other is limited. It means we can filter. It may sound strange that I’m endorsing our parents’ inability to speak to each other, but how many in-laws out there don’t get along because of one off-comment? Now, imagine if you could control that interaction. It’s not as bad as it seems. Anyway, the day went off without a major incident. We had our ceremony and got our degrees. My wife had a Chinese friend help out with translations during the ceremony as we wouldn’t be sitting with each other, which also eased the burden on us (mostly my wife) for translating. We then took pictures and had a lovely lunch in Chinatown. It was one of those beacon days in our memory, and it was a nice gentle introduction. The real test would happen about a month later when we planned to stay at my parents’ house for a long weekend, but we’ll explore that adventure in a later post.
Next time, I’ll talk about our travels to DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, some house renovations, and a special birthday celebration (with a surprise). In the last part of the series, I’ll discuss the move into our new home, the stay with my parents, a terrifying moment, and finally, my in-laws’ departure back to China. Be sure to check back soon!