Better in Time

July 26, 2011
Cold and hungry, I looked out of the window into a flurry of dark blue skies, seeing nothing but the tip of the airplane’s wing. I was on my way to Shanghai and had been sitting in my seat for almost 14 hours now.

“We will arrive at Pudong Airport in 15 minutes. All patrons please stay in your seats, fasten your seatbelts, and prepare for landing,” read the monitor above me.

I groaned in my seat and put on my seatbelt as I slowly looked out the airplane window once again, seeing now a plethora of lights underneath, as the buildings and cars which once looked like small little ants appeared bigger and bigger. It was official. I was finally in China.

I haven’t been to China since I was ten years old; the faintest memory I have of my relatives was six years ago. Now, at the age of 16, I was setting foot into a place that I once called home, yet it all seemed so strange, so foreign, and so new. Although the tall buildings and lights shining before me looked just like Manhattan, New York City seemed a million miles away. Sitting in my seat, I was nervous about my visit; I was nervous that my relatives wouldn’t remember me and that the once close bond we all shared from my younger years would be gone. I thought about the awkwardness that would ensue in the car, the language barriers of my familiar English and their proverbial Shanghai-nese, I worried that I wasn’t going to have a good time. When we finally landed at the airport, I grabbed my one luggage off the shelves, thanked the stewardess for her generosity, and quickly walked into the gigantic airport.

Pudong Airport is the largest airport in Shanghai, and finding the exit was a task within itself. Looking around at men dressed in suits pacing to their terminals, starry-eyed tourists wandering around the space in amazement, I didn’t know where to begin.

“Excuse me, where is the exit for all visitors arriving from America,” I asked as I approached a woman at the information desk.

“Walk straight ahead, make a left turn at the bathrooms and you will see a customs line. After you have passed the customs officials, there will be a general path leading to the exit where friends and family members will be waiting for the arrivals.”

“Thank you.”

I began to head towards the directions given to me and soon approached the customs line. Looking up at the inspector, I realized that it was only a short time before I would see my relatives again. A knot began to appear in my stomach as the inspector stamped my passport and directed me to the exit. Looking at my feet, I rode down the elevator and followed people who looked to be headed towards the exit. Arriving out of the terminal, I saw a frenzy of people with signs in the air of their guests' names, old friends embracing in each other’s presence, and began to search frantically for my aunt and uncle when suddenly, I heard a shout.

“William, over here! To your left! Over here!”

I turned around and to my amazement saw my aunt and uncle gesturing me over.

“ Thank god you’re finally here, we’ve been waiting well over an hour for you. Let me hold your bag for you,” my aunt said in her native tongue as she greeted me with a huge hug.

“How was the flight?” asked my uncle.

“Very long, I’m not much tired though, I slept most of the way here.”

“Good, because we are all going out to dinner tonight to celebrate,” said my uncle as we slowly walked out into the parking lot.

As I got into the car, my aunt called my parents back in the States to tell them that I was picked up and okay. Looking around me, I felt a small sense of unfamiliarity, not knowing what to say after such a long absence.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve last seen you, we’re so glad that you’re finally here,” said my aunt.

“Me too, I’m glad that I’m here too. So how is everybody?”

“They’re doing pretty good. Your second aunts just went into retirement and guess what; your first cousin just got engaged!”

“That’s great, I’m glad,” I said with a frozen smile.

“So how’s life back in America?”

“It’s good.”

Staring at my lap, I began to realize that because of my departure for such a long period of time, everything was so different now. Not seeing my family back in China for so long, I almost forgot how to communicate with them; it was as if we lived two separate lives and were randomly thrown together into a mix. Breathing in the uncomfortable tension, I sat in silence as both parties tried to find the right words to say.

“We’ve missed you.” My aunt blurted out in sudden surprise.
Turning around, I looked into her gleaming eyes and began to see tears forming. She quickly grabbed my hand and whispered, “ Don’t worry, I understand that there’s a bit of tension now, but always remember that family is family, and that we will always be there and love you no matter what. It breaks my heart how long it’s been since we’ve communicated, but no matter how far we are apart, worlds apart even, you have a family in China and you will always have that family in China.” She kissed me on my cheek and sat back down as my uncle handed her a tissue and turned once again to driving the car.
Blushing where I was, I looked up at her as a smile slowly crossed my face. A sudden euphoria came over me as I first patted my uncle on his back, then reached out my arms and gave my aunt a long deserved hug. At that moment, in that car, that one sentence she said seemed to be enough.

Looking down at my watch, I began to adjust it to China’s time and date when we suddenly arrived in front of the restaurant. Hands shaking, I followed my aunt out of the car into a huge banquet hall. Once we arrived into the reserved space, everyone looked up from their private conversations and screamed out my name in unison. The whole scene became a frenzy as I was pulled towards old relatives and family friends, all kissing me on the cheeks and shaking my hands. Finally reaching my seat, I was bombarded with questions about how my life was and how I felt to be in China.

“ I’m so excited to be here, I’m happy. I haven’t been here for a long time and I intend on making the best of it. I’ve missed you all, so very much. I love you guys, my family, you know that?” was all I could answer.

Although it wasn’t much, it was genuine. I didn’t feel forced to act a certain way or inclined to say a certain thing; I was happy to be surrounded by all the familiar faces of my childhood. After hours and hours of cherishing memories and embarrassing anecdotes, the dinner came to an end as I said goodbye to everyone and promised them that I would make an effort to see them all again in the coming days.

Walking out the door, my uncle put his hand around me like a proud father around his son as my aunt giggled silently behind us. It didn’t feel awkward but normal, and I began to think that maybe it was possible to go back to the way things once were.

Sliding into the car seat and looking at the tall lit buildings ahead, I grasped that this city was going to be my home for the next two weeks, and that no matter how gauche my time here may be, that I wouldn’t leave without making an effort to bond with my extended family. Smiling in silence, I thought,

“Maybe that old proverb of friends may come and go, but family is forever could have had a point after all?”

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