Sunday, February 23, 2014


I knew traveling home from Southeast Asia would be a killer.  Five hours in the air from Yangon, Myanmar to Bangkok with a very short overnight at the airport hotel.  Then a 2:30 AM wake-up call so we could make our 6:30 AM flight to Beijing and another five hours of flying.   I psychologically planned for the three-hour layover in Beijing before catching a 12-hour flight to San Francisco, but the three hour layover  became a six hour delay because of a mechanical problems with the aircraft.  As my Jewish friends would say, "Oy Vey!"

The Boeing 747 was fully loaded, but Bruce and I were able to book seats in the back of the plane where there are two rows of two seats (window and aisle) instead of the usual three.   We sat one behind the other in two different rows, so we could each have a window seat for sleeping and plenty of room to spread out.  

It was on this flight that I met Donping Qiu from China.   Although he and I spent 12 uncomfortable hours as seat mates in coach, we didn't strike up a conversation until we were thirty minutes from touching down in California.   My friends will say that keeping my mouth shut for 12 hours doesn't sound like me, but I was really tired, and knew that if I engaged in conversation, I'd never get any sleep.  Besides, my seat mate seemed very pre-occupied, and I didn't want to disturb him.

I'm not exactly sure how we started talking,  but when he told me  he was traveling alone to America for the first time so he could study engineering at San Francisco State, I got caught up in all the details of his adventure.

"My name is Donping," he said, "but my American name will be Erick, spelled E-R-I-C-K, since names with five letters are luckier than four."   Here's another Chinese superstition to add to my growing list, I thought.    My recent trip to his country interested him, so I mentioned my Biker Chick posts, but wondered if some of my comments might upset him.   Because he has never been to Southwest China,  I opened my iPad and showed him a few portraits of some of the ethnic minority people I'd photographed while we were there.  

The Long Hair Yao People

The difference in our ages didn't seem to matter.  Connecting with Donping by finding things we had in common was easy.  We both love new experiences, and share an enthusiasm for adventure, although my idea of adventure may be different than his.   Our conversation lifted my spirits and reminded me of a time when I moved to California from New Hampshire in my early twenties, and although I had no idea what lay ahead, I knew my life, like his, would be changed forever.   

I remembered my first glimpse of the Sierra Nevada Mountains when I traveled to California, so I gave Donping my window seat so he could see the beautiful scenery and the city of San Francisco.  When the wheels of our jumbo jet finally touched the ground, I put my arm around his shoulder.   "May I be the first to officially welcome you to the United States of America,"  I said.  My heart went pitter-patter when he gave me a little hug.  That's when I knew I wanted to be his American Mother.

Donping's English was really pretty good,  but I figured he'd find some of our crazy idiomatic expressions confusing.   "If someone says you are barking up the wrong tree or beating a dead horse", I told him, "don't take that person literally or maybe I should say it another way, don't believe what that person is saying."     

As we gathered our belongings before exiting the plane, I scribbled my contact information on a scrap of paper and gave it to him.   "We don't live very far away, " I said.   "Maybe you can visit us sometime, and we can show you around Silicon Valley."     We waved good-bye to each other, as he stood in the foreign visitors' immigration line looking tired but happy.    I thought how difficult it must have been for his mother to send her only child to a strange, far away land.   I also wondered how Donping was going to find his way to San Francisco State, since our public transportation is so iffy and no one was meeting him at the airport. 

The next day I received this amusing email from him: 

"The travel to my hotel is really a big deal for me, I should call the waitress of the hotel, they
will send the free shuttle to pick me up, but I can't understand all the things she talked, and I
don't know where should I take the shuttle, fortunately, some friendly Americans told the
me the location where all the hotel shuttle park, then I meet the Laquinta hotel shuttle, I was
so exited to see the sign of the hotel and got in it, but I didn't realized that I take the wrong
shuttle for a different subbranch, until I arrival the chashier.  Finally, I spend 25$ to move
from the south subbranch to the west subbranch, but I am fine.  I just regard it as a funny
story!  haha."

Email exchanges between us continued over the next several weeks.   He was enjoying his engineering classes, but they were difficult, so he was giving his Chinese-American dictionary a good workout.   Somehow he found time to read my blog, and here's an excerpt of what he wrote me:

"I really appreciate the clean air in San Francisco, When I arriving the US.  You know people
have to wear masks in China, especially in Beijing.  I think the deep seated reason of the 
pollution is the strong will of China to develop the economy power, they have to sacrifice for
that, the victim will be the environmental quantity.  China has exuberant economic growth, 
Due to the cheap labor and exuberant manufacturing industry.  But the low level
manufacturing industry must give rise to the pollution,  Other mistake the Chinese 
government have made is the assessment system of official.  The economic growth
accounts for a large weight, but the environment condition doesn't occupy that weight, so
the official doesn't take care of the pollution when they feed the investment. "

A few Saturdays ago, after exchanging emails back and forth, Bruce and I met Donping at a bus stop on Nineteenth Avenue, not far from his campus apartment.  He was carrying a green plastic bag.  After he got settled in our car,  he opened the bag and presented us with an apple pie that he had made the night before.    Since he started cooking at the age of ten, he didn't need a recipe.  "I just bought a few apples and some powder and measured the ingredients by feel."    The apples were juicy, the crust was tender, and the pie was delicious.

A Delicious Apple Pie

Saturday was not a great day to show off our beautiful city because it was raining.  Regardless, we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge and although the visibility was poor, we drove up to the Marin Headlands, which in the sunshine would have given us a spectacular view.   But even with the rain and fog,  Donping enjoyed the experience.  "Awesome, Awesome," he kept  saying.  Obviously he had quickly picked up one of our most overused expressions.  I loved hearing about his American adventures:  how he couldn't understand the Chinese people in Chinatown, so he spoke to them in English;  how surprised he was that American students like to party so much;  how he got lost when trying to find the Pacific Ocean. 

Bruce & Donping at the Ferry Building

After driving around the San Francisco Presidio and some upscale neighborhoods like Sea Cliff,  we parked our car near the Ferry Building where we found a dry place for lunch and checked out various vendors and stalls.   I wanted Donping to try a hamburger, like I tasted Peking duck in Beijing, so we stood in a long line at a fast-food restaurant called Gotts.   We even bumped into some friends who were doing the same American hamburger thing with their relatives from Israel.  

Donping eating his first hamburger in America

After lunch we checked out Cowgirl Creamery to sample some interesting cheeses, since cheese is rare in China, but I couldn't tell whether or not he liked it.  Maybe it's an acquired taste.  I could certainly say the same about some of the foods we tried in China.   

At the end of our wonderful day spending time together and touring San Francisco, Donping  gave me a hug and said he'd like to call me his American Mother. 

Donping and his American Mother