Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Back-Flipping My Way Overseas - Part1

Tokyo to New Jersey

"Dating Service here I come!"

Being left-handed in the United States doesn't come with a whole lot of perks. You can't play shortstop. The spatulas are backwards. You have to learn the guitar upside down. And damn those half desktops in college! My left arm muscles are still quivering, and I didn't even take many notes.

In Japan, however, being a leftie is like having a famous parent; everyone likes you for it even though you had nothing to do with it. Rare is the dinner party where someone doesn’t comment on my left-handedness as if it were some kind of achievement. "You are left-handed! Ooh, GREAT!" Their admiration is so genuinely contrived you'd think I was doing something truly amazing. Like using chopsticks, or eating raw fish.

"Yes, hidari-kiki," I say, raising their laughter to authenticity level and eliciting cries of "Joh-zu! Great Japanese! Jooooh-zu!"

Then I tell them I text with my right hand and they go completely bananas.

Hidari-kiki is the general term for left-handedness, though some will use the term ‘southpaw’. It was funny to hear it the first few times – ‘sow-sue-po-a’they say – but then the novelty wore off and I figured I should start contributing to the conversation.

“Do you know where the term southpaw comes from?” I’d ask.

Baseball might be Japan’s national pastime, but understanding its terms is not.

Another bonus for us lefties in Japan is that books and magazines are often the opposite of books in the West; our back cover is their front cover and our last page is their first. So we lefties get to start from the front when we're standing in the 7-11 flipping through an adult manga.

United Airlines should consider this for their in-flight magazine Hemispheres – for their service to and from Japan at least. And for any flight with a leftie on it. Until then I am relegated to flipping backwards through the pages and ridiculing the process (which really has nothing to do with direction but anyway here we are).

A Leftie's View of Things
The back cover of the December 2016 issue of Hemispheres features an ad for Tissot watches. It’s time for Christmas magic reads the catch phrase that is supposed to compel me to buy a PowerMatic 80. More subliminally, the two watches featured, his and hers PM-80s photoshopped onto two red Christmas balls, seem meant to hypnotize me into buying one for myself and one for my significant other – as if that would be magical for me and not Tissot’s shareholders.

My apologies to Tissot (slogan: “It’s your time”) but United has already socked me with five plane tickets’ worth of Christmas magic.

So I start flipping backwards thru my Hemispheres, and my thumb stops on the fold-out map of United’s worldwide flights like it was a Playboy centerfold. (I mean, I imagine that’s what it’s like. Based on, you know, secondhand hearsay.) Facing this fold-out is an ad featuring Jeanne Huyhn, a beautiful woman with enchanting dark brown eyes, perfect cinnamon skin and a creamy white smile – none of which reminds me of a Playboy magazine since, again, I’ve never seen one.

Miss (I hope) Huyhn traveled from Hong Kong to a place (or maybe a compound) in Texas called The Woodlands, to have a bit of cosmetic dentistry done courtesy of Guy Smiley, DDS. “There was no distance I wouldn’t have gone to have the perfect smile,” she says.

Wow. Meanwhile I’m over here thinking I’m some kind of Navy Seal of dental hygiene for flossing once a month.

And Ms. (forget it, she’s out of my league) Huyhn likely won’t stop there. Her next presumable port of perfection is going to be the door of top global matchmaker Kelleher International (Hemispheres pg.31). Because there’s probably no distance she won’t go to change her last name, which everyone mispronounces and no one can spell.

So over there on United’s fold-out map of the world, three hundred or so arcing blue lines show all the routes United flies. The USA is placed in the middle of the map to (a) take a subtle geopolitical jab by slicing Russia and China in half, and (b) make sure none of those arcing blue lines goes shooting off the edge of the page, thereby creating a subtle psychological sedative for any passengers with a Bermuda Triangle complex.

The International Date Line (not to be confused with the International Dateline that Miss soon-to-be
Not-Huyhn is heading for) is clearly visible to the left, and clearly shows at least one place where the person out there drawing this line must have gotten seasick. To be fair, there are around four trillion Pacific islands – with most scheduled to disappear by 2090 – so it’s impossible to run a straight line through them all without angering a few large men in grass skirts. But down around Western Samoa the line is so wacked you’d think the Republican Party had been gerrymandering the ocean.

Seriously, is Apia such a bastion of liberalism that it had to be cordoned off like this?

Flipping Aloha
My next thumb flip brings me to a 20-page insert on Hawaii called DOSSIER (from the French J'dossier meaning "I am more important than anything.") Inside are plenty of neato infographics and high-falutin ads; spotlights on influential people and touristic places; and an indigestible smorgasbord of information on Hawaii’s developing industries: environmental research, niche technologies and (strangely) urban air masks.

Things are looking up there in the US’s #1 healthiest state according to the United Health Foundation. (This despite the fact that “more than 7 million cans of SPAM are sold in Hawaii on an annual basis.”) And really, can you beat the weather there? I love snow, but sand feels a lot nicer on your feet so I’d consider making the trade just for that. But the Out of Office bit near the back of this self-important info-insert was what got me.

Waimea Canyon is 14 miles long and 3,000 feet deep and looks like the Grand Canyon’s brother. The Molokai Sea Cliffs, at 3,500 feet high, are the world’s tallest. And the UNESCO World Heritage Hawaii Volcanoes National Park includes tropical rainforest, arid desert and one of the world’s most active volcanoes, spitting out enough lava to resurface a two-lane road twenty miles long every day.

If I'd thought of it in the first place there'd be no need to rethink..
Add to this the world’s tallest mountain (if you include the part that’s underwater) and I have to wonder why I didn’t apply to the University of Hawaii which, as evidenced from their one-page ad, only admits high school graduates who have been to Dr. Smiley.

A flip back to the front of this Hawaii-mercial brings me to a page of Tips for when your flight is delayed or canceled. This reminds me of what I said to our last babysitter.

“Here’s what to do in case we never come back.”

Flipping Doctors and Rich Folks
The next flip of my thumb gets me a special little promotion for (1) the top doctors in America, (2) the best doctors in New York, and (3) the best plastic Surgeons in America. Along the right margin of each of the three pages are names and contact info for doctors in a variety of fields. The three doctors featured, though, are all plastic surgeons.

Seems United is changing its business strategy. Forget on-time performance or customer satisfaction, between Dr. Smiley and these three plastic surgeons United is evidently aiming instead for the most attractive passengers in the sky.

Flip Four gets me an invitation to Reynolds Lake Oconee, a hoity-toity lake and golf community somewhere in Noplace, Georgia where a few ridiculously huge homes sit set back from a vast blue lake. Perfect lawns, impeccable landscaping, boats moored to the docks, thick forest keeping the rest of the world out – and not a hint of a living creature anywhere. The place is literally deserted, it looks like a Twilight Zone episode.

Your perfect lake house is waiting to happen, the people from Reynolds tell us.

Reynolds is waiting for someone to happen upon their lake houses is more like it.

Three Flipping Days
I’m done with the thumb-flipping. But I’m far from done with this magazine. Because United is persisting with its “Three Perfect Days” feature article series. United has been deprecating themselves with these pieces for at least as long as Sarah the Brave made it through her Three Harrowing Days in the rugged wilds of Sonoma, California. I blame my incurable travel-itis for not being able to resist these melodramatic narratives, all written by people trying to make their cab ride sound like a trip on the space shuttle. I don’t even like the idea of the series. Three perfect days according to whom? These articles seem to be written for the kind of people who try not to get their hands wet when they have to wash the dishes. There’s never any sense of unpredictability. And they never let loose, they never talk about doing anything unprintable.

Wait a minute…

Pampered in paradise. Or dead in the water.
This issue’s Three Perfect Days takes place in the Florida Keys. The teaser on the cover shows a photo of a row of lounge chairs on a beach, their front legs in the water. At the far end someone is lying on a lounge chair that has all four of its legs in the water. Bent over this lounging (or passed out) specimen is a massage therapist (or an EMT giving them CPR). The one-line extract from the article, floating in a very un-Florida-like gray sky, reads “I get the sense we’re following the perspective line in a painting of the sea.”

Look, Jules Verne, the only line in a painting of the sea is called the horizon. Get back in your space shuttle and go home.

Yet I remain intrigued. Probably because it’s December and the Florida Keys sound pretty damn good about now. And I know my wife will never agree to Hawaii. She likes hibernating too much.
“Jackie” gets her article off to a good start, talking about a place where “chickens walk the streets, the lobsters are striped, and people eat meat out of conch shells.” For this I can forgive her for using that trite sun-bleached archipelago bit. Further on she creates a great visual of a gentleman by saying he is “wearing an eye-popping Hawaiian shirt that is completely unbuttoned.” This compensates for describing 6:30am as “blearily early” – which isn’t bad but is kind of hard to say.

The space shuttle came into view when Jackie tried to tell us she “dragged her boyfriend here”. But I will be fair and honest and say that I enjoyed her well-written, humorous narrative. As far as I’m concerned, Jacqueline Detwiler has given a much-needed shine to United’s ongoing Three Lackluster Days routine.

Flipping People

The rest of the 122-page December Hemispheres brings a short list of notable content. There are more infographics and numbers about cruise ships, dating and the history of the hamburger. There are short bits on a blind barber in China, a busking bear in Boston and Freddie Mercury fans flocking to Montreux, Switzerland. Matthew McConaughey (the second last name today to fail my computer’s spell-check test) gives an interview about being skinny (for a movie), being chubby (for another movie), being nervous (for every movie) and being a family man (when there was no movie). Mixed in throughout is an inordinate amount of ads for watches – a subliminal tie to that Tips for when your flight is delayed or canceled bit of marketing genius – and two mentions of the one English word I hate more than any other: mixologist.

Look. Dropout. You’re a bartender.
"Eat up, Bentley, the little people are paying."
I was about to close the lid on Jacqueline and Matthew and Freddie and Hawaii when I noticed an Aren’t We Smart there’s a new trend emerging where wealthy people (it doesn’t say so but no normal person eats at a place called Per Se), who simply cannot fathom the idea of taking care of their own kids but want to look like they can, get together and reserve private rooms at lavish restaurants so they can have their high-society dinner while the restaurant, according to the formal agreement written up by the high-powered lawyer of the group, has to let these nanny-bred kids run wild.
article under the ostensibly-recurring title of Hemi-IQ. According to this piece of

The kicker is, these people have managed to make these restaurants feed their kids for free.

The Nibble & Squeak dining club redefines the kids’ meal, reads the sub-heading of the article.

I think that’s a misprint. It should read refinances the kids’ meals.

And with that I put away my Hemispheres, slide out of my middle seat, climb over my daughter and head for the back of economy for a complimentary cup of coffee.

Far below the emergency exit window lies the frozen tundra of Alaska, or maybe Canada. Somewhere up ahead the gray New Jersey winter awaits.
I think I’ll ask Jacqueline if they need someone to spend Three Perfect Days in Hawaii.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Smooth as Japanese Silk

Our Too-Easy Flight Out of Tokyo

Breaking my will and my bank in one shot.
Every year, right around Thanksgiving, my wife buys me beer and offers to do the dishes. She’ll do
one or the other from time to time, for reasons I’m supposed to understand but I don’t so I keep my mouth shut. (After twelve years of marriage I keep my mouth shut a lot.)

When she brings home beer and does the dishes, however, I know exactly what’s happening.

“So…” she says over the sound of splashing water and my belching. “Who is going to your mom’s for Christmas this year?”

This is a fair question when you consider my five sisters and their families can show up at mom’s in any of 519 combinations. But who is actually going to my mom’s is never the point. What my wife is really saying is Let’s go to your mom’s for Christmas this year!

Which, with three kids, costs about $5.0019.

But I’m good with flying home for the holidays. Christmas in Japan is weird. Not so much for the Christmas trees decked out like rainbows up and down Ekimae Street, or all the Hello Kitty Santas in the shop windows, or the fact that all of it will have disappeared by daybreak on December 26th; all of that is fine, and gives the people here something to talk about besides the weather and the flu. But the prevailing sense in the lead-up to Christmas is that no one here really knows what the hell is going on. Kind of like thousands of girls going to a Madonna concert with their underwear on the outside.

This year my sisters and their families, in whichever combination, would be descending on my mom’s place for our annual family ruck-up on the weekend before Christmas. December 17th. Less than three weeks away.

I glance back over at the calendar and burp again.

The Emotional Metronome of Flying

Airline travel is hours of boredom interrupted by moments of stark terror, said someone.

For me those moments start before I’m anywhere near the plane. Or even the airport.

Punching in my (wife’s) credit card info and booking our seats was exhilarating. Finding out the next day that United had no record of my reservation was irritating. Hearing the kid from the Help Center tell me the credit card charge “probably didn’t go through” was less than comforting. Going through the entire online booking process again was annoying. Seeing that this time it went through was a relief.

Realizing the next day that two of my kids’ passports were expired brought on the stark terror.
Oh shit.
The feeling slowly subsided as I remembered that this was Japan, where people do their jobs and shit gets done. This applies to the people at the US embassy, too, if they’ve been around long enough for Japan to rub off on them.

(Guilt-borne disclaimer: I’ll admit my terror didn’t completely subside until our passports arrived in the mail, a week before take-off. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say the people at the embassy were great. Even the Americans.)

Depending on circumstances, taking public transportation to Tokyo-Narita Airport (an hour east of the actual city of Tokyo) can be economical, environmental or just plain maniacal. When it was just the wife and I living in Fukushima it made economic sense to take the bus. When our first kid was no longer young enough to ride for free, taking the bus or the train instead of our car was no less expensive and thus was more an environmental decision. By the time our second child outgrew his free-ride status he had a little sister, and this was when environmental gave way to maniacal.

One of Shinjuku Station's 28 platforms. (photo stolen from
Seriously. Now we were looking at a taxi ride (“No child seat, but no problem!” says our safety-certified cabbie) to the bus terminal in downtown Matsumoto, and then a bus to the train station in Tokyo. And not just any train station, mind you, but Shinjuku Station, the number one busiest transportation hub in the world. Through the Shinjuku hordes (hauling bags and a stroller and two awestruck munchkins with extremely short legs) to a crowded platform and onto a crowded train to another train station (Ueno, which barely ranks in Japan’s top ten with a mere 400,000 passengers a day). Then a labyrinthine walk through and out that Ueno Station and across an intersection that is busier than Ueno Station to another Ueno Station where we catch another train to the airport.

All without losing any luggage or kids? Forget it.

Now we burn some fossil fuel and save some cash as we drive south and east through some of Japan’s most amazing alpine scenery; valleys and forests, tunnels and bridges and a long satisfying view of Mt. Fuji before cutting right across Tokyo and rolling on into Chiba to a parking area near Narita Airport. From there it’s a quick complimentary shuttle to the terminal.

According to the J-Parking website, 15 days of parking costs $32. Of course that doesn’t include the service charge that the woman manning the office swears is also stated on the website. Tack on a slick little seasonal charge and we’re up to $45. Cash, no credit cards please.

Outside the office a white-haired couple are throwing themselves into the shuttle bus, a look of stark terror on their faces. Meanwhile our bags and most of our kids are still in our car.

“Go ahead and take them, we’ll wait,” I say to ServiceCharge-san. “We have over two hours until our flight.”

“No, please. Please get in,” she tells me. “No problem.”

No problem for them. No problem for us. Big problem for these two older folks about to go into cardiac arrest, a condition made no better by the guy’s insistence he help me dump all my bags and kids into the van so they could please go please.

“We’re going to Mongolia,” he tells me once we’re on our way. “Then up to Lake Baikal.”

I ask him and his wife if they realize it’s about two hundred degrees below zero up there. They say no, it’s only about a hundred and fifty below and they’ll be all right. If they make their plane.

I tell them if they miss their flight they can go somewhere warm instead.

They don’t think that’s very funny.
Lake Baikal beckons.

I admire their fortitude. I’d love to see Lake Baikal someday, although not when it’s cold enough for the world’s largest lake to freeze over. Heck, I’m half dreading the weather in New Jersey even though it will barely be cold enough for my snots to freeze over.

I’m hoping my wife doesn’t decide we should all go for a walk around the neighborhood at night to go look at people’s Christmas lights. If my snot is going to freeze over I want it to be on my terms.

The good thing is, my wife will only have two weeks in New Jersey to send me outside to freeze my boogers. This because, unlike last year, we’ll be flying back to Japan before New Year’s. United thought they’d be sticking us good by jacking up their fares for January return flights. It seems they failed to realize that New Year’s in Japan is an important time for family, and my wife and I are both fine with returning to Japan for it.

The bad thing is that my wife’s parents live in Fukushima, where it can be every bit as snot-freezing as New Jersey. There won’t be any Christmas lights in the neighborhood to go look at, so I’ll be able to stay inside.

In a house with no insulation and no heat except for a couple of kerosene burners.

So my nose won’t freeze. It will run.

Why couldn’t I have married a girl from somewhere a bit warmer? Like Japan’s southern island of Kyushu? Or sub-tropical Okinawa? Or any of the two hundred thousand Pacific Islands out there?

The Calm Before the Seat Belt Sign

I’m strolling into Narita’s Terminal 2 like it’s Never Never Land. We are, I realize, a solid three and a half hours early for our flight. The terminal is virtually empty. There is no one on line at the United check-in counter. The two women in matching uniforms and silky neck things couldn’t be happier to see us come over.

Things are going way too well.

The kids must have been as enamored with the drive here as I was because they still had some food and snacks from home in their backpacks, maybe even enough to tide them over until their first in-flight meal five hours from now.

Meanwhile my wife is being drawn into the duty-free shop by a tractor beam of free samples of shrimp crackers and banana cookies and wasabi Kit Kats.

Aside from the wacky snacks Narita Airport is like any given airport in the US. Except of course for the sparklingly clean floors. And the free luggage carts. And the armed policemen patrolling the terminal who, with or without a German shepherd, don’t act like they have something to prove. Then there are the people working the security gate. Japan’s version of the TSA is startling, not in the least for their collective air of congeniality. I almost want to go through twice.

Watching other planes take off while waiting for ours.
Even after a lazy stroll through the food court and out onto the observation deck; after my kids checking out every toy in the toy store and my wife checking out every free sample in the gourmet cookie boutique; after watching most of the second half of the Japan-Iraq soccer match even though it was a replay and my boys already knew the outcome; after counting every fire alarm and emergency exit in the entire flipping building we still end up at the gate thirty minutes before first boarding call.
I swear, the entire morning has been easier – and less time-consuming – than getting my kids to brush their teeth and put on their pajamas ever was.

As my daughter plays with her hair and my boys pass the time quietly one of the gate attendants makes the very clear announcement that they will begin boarding in another fifteen minutes. That’s what I heard anyway, I don’t know what everyone else heard but they all started lining up.

Twenty-five minutes later there are only a few people left on line, and I tell the kids it’s finally time to go. Oddly, none of them seems to be in much of a hurry. For the past two days they could barely stop talking about all the movies and games and sodas they had coming to them on ‘the big plane’. Now suddenly it seems they could hardly care less. It’s like they’ve been sedated.

I want to know what’s going on so I can make it happen again if need be.
Rare image of my boys not antagonizing each other.
On the plane we’re seated all in one row. My boys are in the two seats closest to the window. My wife is next to them, across the aisle from my daughter. I’m in the middle of the plane’s middle section. What fun.

My kids all settle in, enraptured by the dizzying array of in-flight entertainment options at their little fingertips. My wife looks halfway to naptime. I flip through the in-flight magazine and find out beer and wine is free on all of United’s intercontinental flights.

The woman to my right is a pleasant Japanese woman who speaks nice English. She should, she moved to New Jersey about the time I moved away to college. (Which reminds me, my 25-year reunion is coming up. Holy crap.) Yet for all the years living in Jersey she says she’s never gotten used to the food. I take this as something Japanese people just like to say in lieu of stating outright that their country’s food kicks the rest of the world’s collective culinary ass. But soon mealtime would come around and I’d see she wasn’t kidding.

She accepts a can of tomato juice from the drink cart, but tells the woman serving the beef or pasta that she doesn’t want a meal. Then she reaches down into her carry-on and pulls out a homemade bento lunch.

Before the beef or pasta cart gets away I whack the woman on the shoulder. Gently.

“Ask her for the pasta,” I tell her. “I’ll eat it.”

The woman doesn’t even hesitate. Which tells me that, despite the food thing, Jersey has rubbed off nicely on her. (And since Japan has to an extent rubbed off on me I didn’t say anything when she decided to keep the dinner roll for herself.)

I’d tell her to order a beer for me too but the drink cart is long gone.

Still, I have to wonder: What is going on? Seriously, things are just going too well.
As I dig into my two pasta lunches we hit a bit of turbulence.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Chinese Fire Drill Part II: Back to Japan

How to Transit Through Beijing Airport in 48 Simple Steps

Newark (NJ) Airport – China Air check-in counter
January 12th - 10:00am

“Your flight is going to be delayed,” said the man with the cheap jacket and the airline tie. I'm surprised he knew I was there. He'd spent the last ten minutes ignoring both me and the check-in girl trying to process my family’s five tickets, eight passports and ten 50-pound pieces of luggage.

“They’re late getting in from Beijing,” he told me. He looked proud of himself for having the knowledge.

I stared at him, this man whose apparent lot in life made mine seem more tolerable.

If we took off late we'd be landing late. We'd miss our connection to Tokyo. My kids would go bananas waiting around Beijing Airport for however many hours.

The beer on our flight would be free, but they'd only let me have so many.

Okay, Mr. Tie. “How late?”

He glanced past my shoulder, at something or someone behind me. “About ninety minutes,” he said. “But don’t worry, the pilot will make up the time in the air on the way back to Beijing.”

Whoa. On the way back to Beijing? You mean the pilot? The plane? Both??

There were no good answers for this. A plane that keeps going back and forth between Beijing and Newark? Some Chinese airlines still use planes from when there were ashtrays in the armrests - and no auto-pilot for the guy flying us back and forth either.

I was going to need my wife to order a bunch of beers for me.


Newark Airport Security Check

 We’d unloaded our 500 pounds (no exaggeration) of luggage at check-in. But we were still hauling a lot of crap through the terminal. To wit:

- (Me) A carry-on crammed with twenty-five pounds of books and a large backpack with all the clothes I’d brought for our month in the US.

- (The wife) Two shoulder bags packed with passports, cameras, files of mysterious (to me) paperwork and all the souvenirs she’d decided to buy at the last minute. And some kids’ clothes. And some of hers. And some that didn’t seem to belong to anybody I knew.

- (Kid #1) A carry-on cardboard box full of Legos and a backpack filled with clothes, games, books and snacks.

- (Kid #2) The portable DVD player he and his siblings got for Christmas and a backpack crammed with wrinkled clothes, one book and too many toys and snacks.

- (Kid #3) A little plastic zippered carrier bag full of toy dinosaurs and a backpack full of things she won’t use.

Plus the wife had a massive plastic bag with more souvenirs, extra clothes for all three kids, her second jacket and, by now, a little plastic zippered carrier bag full of toy dinosaurs.

My 3-year-old daughter has a disability that prohibits her from walking – and sometimes standing – on her own. She has a walker, which we'd have all the way to our gate. The TSA agent had no idea how to fold the thing so it would fit through the X-ray machine. (I was already through and trying to gather up all our x-rayed crap while keeping my daughter from falling down again, I wasn't about to go help him.)

After a moment of indecision he shook his head and handed it to his TSA cohort on the other side of the metal detector, bypassing any sort of check on this contraption made of hollow metal tubes that could be hiding all kinds of things.

"If they ask you for help too many times do this..."

30,000 Feet over the Siberian Arctic
Time & Date unknown

To date my personal experience with China had consisted of a 24-hour layover in Shanghai in 2006 (which included one damaged piece of luggage) and last month's overnight layover in Beijing on our trip from Japan to the US (outlined in all its rule-ridden anarchy in this post). In short, I didn’t like our chances of catching our connection in Beijing.

Then again, if China could get 1,000 people to do this then surely they’d be able to get five people and a bunch of carry-on luggage from one gate to another pretty quickly.

Our odds of getting to Beijing Airport on time increased with the fact that our pilot was on crack and made up the three and a half hours before we were through the Arctic Circle. Those same odds decreased with…basically everything else.

We’d sat near the front of the plane, so when we came to a complete stop I barricaded the aisle with my body and started getting my three kids and all our carry-on luggage ready to go. The line of people in the aisle right behind me were getting restless but no cigarette-craving curmudgeons were going to squeeze by me and take up minutes or even seconds of our time getting to our next gate which, if there was a god, would be somewhere in the vicinity or at least the same zip code of the gate we were exiting from.

We stepped off the plane onto one of those wheeled staircases.

We commandeered the front of the shuttle bus so we could jump off as soon as we got to the terminal. Then we waited ten minutes for the bus to fill up. Tick tock, tick tock.

"Simply proceed with transfer procedures..."

Beijing Airport Terminal 3
1:15pm explains transferring at Beijing Airport from international flight to another international flight like this:

Arrive at the International Arrival Level at 3F of T3-E proceed with transfer procedures pass through the Transit Inspection in special passage in the east or west take special elevator downstairs to International Departure Level at 2F of T3-E accept Security Inspection in the special passage go through the customs sample check of hand baggage if necessary Waiting & Boarding

Proceed with transfer procedures”. That’s like the IRS saying “Fill out tax forms.”

And that pretty much sums up the insanity that is Beijing.

  How to Transit Through Beijing Capital Airport in 48 Simple Steps  

Please, put your seat back and enjoy.

1.   Exit shuttle bus by stepping into covered, exhaust-choked unloading area and fight with everyone else trying to be the first through the semi-automatic sliding glass doors.

2.  Hurry around to escalator that will take you up toward and then past the floor where your next gate is located, dumping you off one floor above.

3.   Get herded toward the immigration area to stand in line to have your passport checked. Never mind you and everyone else on the plane have been closely guarded since stepping off of that rolling staircase thing, you need to have your passport and boarding pass for your next flight ready. And please remember to look at the camera for a security photo.

4.   Remain confused as to which line to get in as no one present in any official capacity will make a move to assist you unless you ask. Three times.

5.   Follow the non-Chinese people around to the line for international transfers, which is conveniently hidden behind a partition wall.

6.   Try to talk to the airport person walking past you, heading for the front of the line while saying something in what might be an actual language. Get totally ignored.

7.   Try to talk to her on her way back. Have her point you toward the front of the line as she passes without breaking stride, a disgusted look on her face that is undoubtedly your fault.

8.   Apologize to everyone as you cut to the front of the line. Have the immigration woman point you toward the back of the line as if you are so stupid as to not notice the long line of people already waiting.

9.   In between breaths (from carrying a three-year-old in one arm and dragging an entire children’s section of books in a carry-on behind you) explain that you are trying to catch your soon-to-be-leaving connection.

10. Listen as thoughtful immigration woman looks at her watch and tells you that you might not make it.

11.  Tell idiot immigration woman you don’t give a shit what she thinks and to check you through now pretty please.

12.  Listen as inspired immigration woman asks if you’d like her to call the people working at the gate. Say yes. Almost drop your daughter as you watch Ms. Time Management sit on hold waiting for an answer on the flight’s status while NOT checking your passports.

13.  Watch as mute immigration woman hangs up the phone and begins checking your passports without saying a single word about your flight’s status. Hell, she doesn’t even give any indication she was even on the phone.

14.  Get everyone’s picture taken, grab your passports, adjust the daughter in your aching arm and run from super immigration woman and down the stairs – to a line that winds toward a baggage security check. Say something like “WTF” under your heaving breath.

15.  Cut to the front of the line, apologizing to a hundred people, then get pointed to the back of the line in the same disgusted, wordless manner as before. Explain your situation. Three times. Then twice more to another person. Get passports checked again before being ushered into baggage check world.

"...And if anyone tries to cut the line do this..."

16.  Have kids take off their jackets, take daughter’s off for her while holding her up since she can’t stand on her own, get all jackets and bags and crap into separate baskets for the x-ray machine, take off shoes and put them in baskets, explain why you have to go through the metal detector with your daughter. Explain again. Show security people that she can’t walk. Get waved through.

17.  Watch as family walks through. Go to get all your stuff. Get stopped because you have to stand on a box and have a metal detector wand passed all over your body. Tell daughter to wait for you there next to your luggage as it rolls out of the x-ray machine. Tell her not to stick her fingers in between those rolling things again. After getting the magic wand treatment hold your daughter upright on the box so they can do the same for her, dangerous as she looks.

18.  Get your stuff, get your shoes on, get your kids’ jackets on, get everyone loaded up and walk about a quarter mile.

19.  Get on line for another passport check. Get pictures taken again. Grab passports and try to get kids to hurry up which only pisses them off.

20.  Find out your gate is another quarter mile away. Throw all baggage and family members onto the oversized golf cart that has appeared out of nowhere, driven by a guy who seems all too excited to whisk you to your gate.

21.  Listen as Golf Cart Boy starts asking you for money over the sound of his horn. Hang on desperately to both cart and daughter as he weaves in and out of people. Consider trying to reach for your wallet, then instead tell the guy to just do his goddam job. And for fuck’s sake watch out.

22.  Ignore Golf Cart Boy’s cries for money as you pick up four bags, one kid and lead the charge downstairs toward the gate.

23.  Find the gate deserted except for a young man who, without irony, tells you that you took too long to get there and have therefore missed the flight.

24.  Listen as Gate Boy tells you to go somewhere upstairs and get tickets at an unspecified location for the next flight to Tokyo.

25.  Start snarling at Gate Boy about the goddam security and passport checks that made you late before telling him he needs to bring you to where you can get new tickets because his explanation made no sense.

Just another day in Terminal 3.

26.  Start yelling at Gate Boy when he refuses to go with you. Demand that he get the kids something to drink too. Say thank you with as much sarcasm as you can muster when he refuses to get the kids anything to drink but agrees to take you upstairs to that undisclosed location.

27.  Follow Gate Boy – who apparently has not noticed you are carrying a thirty-five pound human and lugging an entire library wing behind you, and apparently does not care if you and your kids can’t keep up.

28.  Apologize to kids for all the walking, tell them they are doing awesome, silently plead with younger son to not start crying like he seems about to do.

29.  Go the wrong way through a passport check to a transfer ticket counter run by two women who are underqualified and outnumbered for handling the crowd of people in the same predicament as you. Notice that they are talking and laughing with each other.

30.  Put your daughter down, happy in that your arm has not fallen off and your kids are excited to not be walking. Adjust your fantastically sweaty boxer shorts.

31.  Befriend another Japan-bound traveler who offers to carry your son’s box of Legos. Talk to a Chinese girl also trying to transfer on to Japan. (“This is China being China,” she whispers.) Watch a tall blond woman walk from the counter, ticket in hand, as she tells you to hurry up, the next flight leaves in fifty minutes. Wonder why you need to hurry if you still have fifty minutes. Remember the last hour, pick at your boxers again and tell the ticket girls to hurry the fuck up.

32.  Notice the row of luggage carts over to the side. Go get one. Immediately get ordered by a woman who was not there a second ago to put the cart back. She looks pissed off at you for even thinking about it. Tell her to go screw herself, but only under your breath because you realize she has never had to drag three young children through an airport since she is Chinese and would have had any children after her first-born taken away by the State.

33.  Struggle to understand the maybe-English explanation of your seating arrangements.

34.  Struggle to keep from asking for one seat far away from the other four.

35.  Get tickets, go through nearby passport check, the correct direction this time. Get passports checked again along with the tickets the passport checker just watched you get.

36.  Find yourself at the same immigration check area that first escalator dumped you off at. Head for the secret line behind the partition wall. Go through another passport/ticket check. Get pictures taken again.

37.  Go downstairs, realize the kid with your son’s Legos is nowhere to be seen. Hope he appears and keep moving – down the stairs to the line for the passport check before the security baggage check. Cut the line again, get passports checked again, go through the entire fucking baggage x-ray metal detector routine again. Hand your daughter off to one of the security people in disgust when you are told to get up on that box again so they can wave their magic wand over you again.

38.  Get up on box and pull off your shirt to save everyone a little time. Start undoing your jeans before they start saying something in Chinese in an increasingly loud and urgent way. Don’t pull your pants down because you remember this is China where people disappear for blogging about the wrong things, even if they keep their pants on.

39.  Get the family loaded up again. Tell the kids how amazing they are doing. Lie to them and say you think you are all just about done with the whole bleeping circus.

40.  Along your quarter mile walk find a luggage cart. Thank the god that is by law not allowed to exist in this airport and dump your daughter on along with as much baggage as possible. Watch your younger son’s eyes well up with tears because (a) he is exhausted and (b) his sister is getting a ride on a cart. Pick him up and carry him because you love him so much and you want him to stop crying so you don’t throttle him to death.

41.  Hustle for your gate. Almost get run over by Golf Cart Boy.

42.  Look back. Watch wife’s knees buckle under the weight of all the passports and souvenirs and paperwork and clothes and dinosaurs. Wonder where the kid with your son’s Legos is. Put your forty-five pound son down while hoping your arm doesn’t drop to the floor right along with him.

43.  Pick son back up as he starts crying again. Tell him it’s okay, you’ll carry him a little more. Tell him that China, by the way, is the devil.

44.  Listen to wife yell at you to keep going, like a wounded soldier telling his comrades to go on without him. Wait a few more seconds, just to show your support, then start walking again because your son is sliding out of your arm as fast as your sanity is slipping.

45.  Pass the stairs to the gate, listen to wife yelling about how you just passed the stairs for the gate, stop in front of elevator manned by the only person in Beijing who knows how to smile. Put down your son so can punch him right in that smile.

46.  Listen to Chang Wong Smiley tell you that the elevator doors are opening. Tell him to wait for the rest of your family. Then tell him don’t. Then tell him yeah okay wait I guess.

47.  See your friend with your son’s Legos walking up behind your wife. Laugh like you have a bi-polar personality disorder. Tell your sons you found the nice man with their Legos – simultaneously telling them that, for a while, their Legos were gone. Try to distract them by telling them to push the elevator button.

48.  Get to the gate and almost piss your sweaty pants as you realize you made your flight. Go through another passport check and walk down the tunnel that leads not to a rolling staircase but right onto a plane with ashtrays in the armrests but who the hell cares just get these goddam bags in the overhead and get these kids in their seats and ma’am can I get a beer?

Haneda Airport, Tokyo

Our 500 pounds of checked baggage has been waiting for us, on the floor next to the baggage carousel. Half our boxes have crushed corners. A couple of them have their sides partially ripped open. They’ve been taped over, and not by anyone with a Chinese surname I’d bet.

Luggage carts are free, but like most everything else in Japan they are too small. I try to snag a big flatbed cart but I get stopped by someone who very politely tells me that those carts are only for airport staff. I point out the fact that no one is using it and I certainly could. But like most everyone else in Japan the guy favors rules over reason and very politely invites me to use one of those small carts.

I use three.

Quick and smooth customs and immigration check and we are released from the journey. Except the part where we have to send our 500 pounds of luggage plus my library section, the dinosaurs and a few other things via overnight delivery to our home, three hours away.

We’ll spend a comfortable night in Tokyo, at my friend Ki Joon’s guest house in Shinjuku. We’ll spend a leisurely morning enjoying a nearby playground, riding the subway, taking in a view of Tokyo from the top of the Metropolitan Government Building and making things out of aluminum and copper at a random workshop going on in the bowels of Shinjuku Station. We’ll have lunch in the basement of a noodle shop where a bunch of beer-drinking businessmen could scarcely care less how much all their cigarette smoke might be bothering my wife and kids.

And we’ll take a highway bus home to Matsumoto, where I will decide that being able to spend some time in the States with family and friends made that trial of sanity and fortitude called Beijing Capital Airport worthwhile.

After a good night’s sleep I’ll come to my senses and say next time I’ll spend more for a flight on a non-Chinese airline.

Then again, I’ve said that before.