A BRIEF SOJOURN IN BEIJING: Episode 1

We’re sitting in the darkness of another cross Pacific flight, bound for China.

Back to the place where she is from.

I’m in the aisle seat, 40C; she’s snuggled next to me, pillow propped against my shoulder, sleeping fitfully. The weight makes me a bit uncomfortable but I try hard not to move. I suppose it’s much like holding your infant child in your arms at night, remaining still as a statue so they will continue to sleep.

I’ve never been a father, so I can only guess at what that must be like. This seems as close as I will get to that sensation; enduring discomfort for the well-being of someone you want to protect.

The flight is nearly 12 hours, our progress relatively slow against the prevailing headwinds. Even as we hurdle along at 550 miles an hour, there’s that invisible force outside holding us back, making us wait just a little bit longer for touchdown, for our annual return to Beijing.

We watch movies during the flight, one after the other, out of both boredom and catching up on all the films we’ve been too busy to see.

For me, it’s the essence of these interminable cross-ocean jaunts: Booze and films. And, yes, bad food. And not enough of it.

And here’s one of the many differences between my wife and I: She likes big-budget films with A-list actors and lots of violence. Car chases, flash-bang sound effects, Tom Cruise hanging off a plane. The Rock barely avoiding a falling building. Macho stuff.

I prefer low-budget, B-side-of-the-album flicks. I look for character development. Slow boils. In the theaters, we compromise: we’ll see one of hers and one of mine and debate on the way home over which one of them was better. (Sometimes, she wins.)

G�Pt}n�But here at 35,000 feet, we can sit side by side enveloped in our individual cocoons, the screens right in our faces. In the first part of the flight, I watched three films — about a 1960s British sailor who faked his part of an around-the-globe race, a Native Alaskan teenager who reluctantly returns to her mother’s village in a trip where she discovers who she is, and two German millennials who fall in love on a cross-Europe trip in a mobile home.

The kids would be having their first near-kiss and I’d glance over at my wife’s screen for a nanosecond of blood and guts and then turn to watch her face in the darkness, lit by the screen’s light — she with her eyes wide, yelling out a bit too loudly at tense moments with her earplugs cranked.

Earlier, she punched me hard on the arm for finishing her water without asking, pushing me away when I leaned in to say something, fanning her mouth over my odorous plane breath.

We are so different in so many ways. She’s from the East; I’m from the West. She’s a numbers woman; I’m a words man. Her Virgo hygiene puts my Gemini sense of cleanliness to shame. I cry easily at movies; she rarely does. My love is expressed through words, hers through actions.

But it works; we work. Sometimes, I wonder: How on earth did two souls from opposite sides of the planet, from different cultures, languages and ways of looking at the world, dare to find one another?

Before we got married, my wife’s father warned us of the rough road ahead for a bi-cultural couple, that we would see things inherently differently — from handling money to grocery shopping.

And he was right. Yet we’ve been together for years and we still have that same heart-to-heart connection as when we first met.

But here’s the thing: she’s an immigrant who has adapted to a foreign culture, my culture. She’s learned my language, made her way in a strange land where things come so easy for me and sometimes so hard for her.

But now we are changing sides of the Pacific. In China, I will be the one who misses the nuance of words, (more than just nuance; I will struggle mightily to merely understand what has been said.) Taste sensations will be new to me. Place names will be new, the currency strange.

Even after coming to China for years, each time I land I still sense the wonderful foreignness of walking into Beijing’s Capital Airport and into the waiting traffic outside.

But most appealing of all, each time we return, I learn something new about her. About how she sees her place in the world, about something she did or said as a girl, some new story the way she stood out among her peers as the daughter of a military officer.

This trip will be no different — the welcome familiarity lightly spiced by the finding out of new things about her and her homeland.

Maybe it’s because my wife’s parents live so far away, but what I revel in most is being a witness to her in their presence, the way they dote on her, cook her favorite meals. The way they look at her.

She is my wife, but she was their daughter first and foremost.

It’s time to start another movie. Breakfast and the eastern light are still hours away. But I cannot wait to land; my anticipation is an emotional tailwind, urging me forward for what’s to come.

Back in the place where she is from.

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