My dad is persona non grata in the People’s Republic of China. To tell you the truth, he’s not exactly grata with my mom and me, either.
I guess my brother Jim gets some of the blame, because he’s the reason we were in China in the first place. He decided to marry a girl from China, probably because he wanted to force his entire family to take a trans-Pacific flight. So instead of going to Disney World over the summer like I wanted, we ended up traveling halfway around the world to meet her parents.
There were six of us on the plane: me, my mom, my dad, my grandmother, my sister Margo, and my brother’s cello. Jim was spending the summer in China with his fiancée’s family, but he asked my parents to fly his cello over because he’d forgotten it. I don’t know how you forget an instrument the size of the Hindenburg. Jim is talented.
You can’t check a cello, so sitting at the end of the row next to my dad was this huge, bright red cello case covered in decals.
“Where are we going again?” my grandmother asked.
“We’re going to China,” my mother said for the tenth time.
“Oh, China,” my grandmother said dismissively. “Your father and I went there once. We took one look at the place and turned right back around.”
When the flight attendants came around to take our drink orders, my dad ordered a Jack and Coke for himself and a strawberry lemonade for the cello. The flight attendant raised her eyebrows, but she gave him the two drinks. She wasn’t willing to give him two chicken dinners, though.
“It’s one per person, sir,” she said.
“The second one isn’t for me,” my dad said. “It’s for the cello.”
The flight attendant looked at the cello. “That’s not a person, sir.”
“Then why does it have its own seat?” my father asked. The flight attendant didn’t look convinced. “We paid for the goddamn seat,” my father said. “We get an extra chicken dinner.”
The flight attendant sighed and gave him a second chicken dinner. My dad looked over at the rest of my family. “Does anyone want an extra chicken dinner?”
“Yes, please have some,” my grandmother said, beaming benevolently at all of us. “I made it myself. I hope I didn’t put in too much oregano.”
Jim and his girlfriend, who we call Ruby, met us at the airport in Beijing. His girlfriend’s parents lived in Shanghai, but Ruby had a summer job in the capital. The plan was to meet the parents in Shanghai when we had finished sightseeing.
“Wow,” Ruby said once everyone had said hi. “You have a lot of bags.”
We had a lot of bags. My mother had come with a full month’s supply of food, in case my sister and I were too wussy to eat the local cuisine, and a first-aid kit that could have stocked an entire pharmacy. All together we had eleven bags and a cello. We were dripping with sweat from lugging them through the airport for twenty minutes.
“I don’t think that can all fit in the car,” Ruby said apologetically.
“Don’t worry,” my dad said. “I’ve been a professional bag-stacker since 1964. I can make it all fit.”
The bags didn’t fit. Ruby’s car was the size of a luxury toaster.
“We can leave the girls with some of the bags and come back for them later,” my dad suggested.
“That is a horrible idea,” Margo said, not looking up from her phone. “That might actually be the worst idea ever.” Her hair was sticking up funny from falling asleep on the plane.
“We’re not leaving our children to fend for themselves in a Chinese airport,” my mother said. “They can’t even fend for themselves in the backyard.”
Ruby flushed with either embarrassment or annoyance. “Your children will be very safe.”
“See? They’re responsible adults,” my father said. “We’ll be right back.”
“You don’t even know how far away the hotel is,” my mother objected.
Suddenly, Ruby shouted something very loudly that none of us could understand. She pointed and shouted some more things. I looked. Someone was running away with my father’s blue bag. The thief dodged left and right, narrowly avoiding a group of four teenaged girls taking selfies and forcing a mother to yank her five-year-old son out of his path.
My father and brother launched themselves across the room in pursuit. Ruby kept shouting. A businessman looked up from his paper and made a spirited grab for the man carrying our bag, but the thief leaped sideways and barreled directly into a luggage cart being pushed by an airport porter. Bags flew everywhere. One large bag skidded across the floor, knocking over a potted plant. My father and brother continued to pursue the thief, my father tripping on bags as he stumbled forward, but the thief ran through the automatic doors and across the street, in front of a moving car.
My father and my brother returned dispiritedly.
“What was in the bag?” Ruby asked.
“That was my bag,” my father said. “It had all of my clothes in it. I have to buy clothes now.”
“Hey, wait,” I said. “Isn’t that your bag over there?” I pointed to one of the bags the porter was loading back onto the cart.
“Wait!” my father shouted, running forwards towards the startled porter. “That bag is mine!” The porter looked confused as my father snatched the bag out of his hands. Ruby spoke to him in rapid Mandarin, gesturing in the direction the thief had run off.
“But if that’s dad’s bag,” I asked, “what was the thief carrying?”
“Dunno,” Margo said. She took a picture of the upended potted plant.
“Where did you say we were again?” my grandmother asked.
“China,” my mother said.
“Let’s go home,” my grandmother said. “This country has too many suitcases.”
“Maybe we should make a report,” Ruby said to us as the porter continued to stack bags on the cart.
“Why? We have the suitcase,” my father said. “Let’s just get to the hotel.”
“We can hire a little car for your bags,” Ruby said. I pictured Ruby’s mobile toaster and wondered what her idea of a “little car” was.
What pulled up next to us wasn’t a car. I feel charitable calling it a vehicle. It could be described as a box on wheels, except boxes have sides and this vehicle did not. Jim and the driver loaded our luggage onto the roof of the vehicle, except for one that didn’t fit. It was somehow decided that Ruby, Margo, and I would all ride in the box on wheels, and Jim would drive Ruby’s car. The driver shoved the cello across our laps.
The box on wheels drove in the bicycle lane, but in the opposite direction from all the bicycles. “This is like Grand Theft Auto,” Margo said after we narrowly avoided colliding with a bicycle on a turn.
“This is terrifying,” I said over the noise of the engine. “Are there no traffic laws here?”
“Beijing has traffic laws,” Ruby said. “Everyone ignores them. Please remember to look both ways before you cross the street.”
“Eep,” Margo shrieked, clutching the cello as the box made a sharp turn.
I closed my eyes and pretended very hard that I was on a theme park ride. I tried not to throw up.
It seemed like it took us forever to get to the hotel. My parents took us all to the hotel restaurant for dinner. I don’t remember much of it, except for the part where Margo fell asleep face-forwards into the pork. I still have the picture.