During the second sunrise of November 1, 2010, it occurred to me: Last night I was in a haunted house on the other side of the world.
It was the second of three flights that day, this one from Shanghai to Los Angeles. I was on my way to Detroit, my first time back to the States in more than two years. Only a handful of people knew I was coming. I wanted to surprise my brother for his birthday by showing up out of nowhere. He’s one of the hardest people to catch unawares, so through the whole trip, I worried he somehow already knew, ruining the surprise I’d been planning for more than a year.
My stomach and head ached, probably from staying up till 2 a.m. and then getting up at 4 to get to the airport. The haunted house had been part of a culture lesson about Halloween put on by the school I work for. My throat still hurt from screaming all night. Showing the students part of American culture the night before I returned to it felt weird, as though pretending to be scared in the dark were a rehearsal for my homecoming. Guiding children through this phony fear made me uneasy. Is this really what we do? I wondered.
As the plane flew over the Pacific Ocean, the idea of rehearsal followed me. What would international travel be if not a constant preparation, a backstage where you could fret over forgetting? I worried that after two weeks in the U.S., I’d forget the little Mandarin I knew, so I used my time on board to practice speaking for my eventual return home. Home? Wasn’t I on my way home? But who needs to rehearse for home?
If you believed the sun, it was morning of the day I’d already gone through, but I still had my watch set according to Beijing, nearly 11:30 p.m. The flight attendants began serving the next meal, a breakfast to get the passengers used to the time where they would arrive. I left my studies for a minute so I could pay attention to the Mandarin of the meal. The passengers could choose, I heard from several rows ahead, between a Chinese breakfast—porridge—and an American one—eggs. As the meal service made its way down the aisle, I quietly practiced the Mandarin for “I’d like the eggs please,” repeating it over and over, wanting a relaxed answer. So when the flight attendant asked in English, I stumbled at a reply in my mother tongue.
After more or less half a day in the sky, the plane landed in LAX, and the other former passengers and I separated ourselves into the different lines of entry. On several monitors over the customs officers’ cubicles, a movie showed diverse people in diverse environments. I could faintly make out music over the smiles on screen. I got the idea that this was supposed to mean “Welcome home,” but it felt more like “This is us, remember?” Other Americans in line pointed out the images of America and explained them to yet other Americans. What did they think about being back, and how long had they been gone? Who among them were, like me, leaving again in two weeks? I couldn’t decide who they were based on their airport personas. Anyone continuing on had to leave the airport and then enter it again in order to switch from international to domestic.
On the last flight, the first bit of it over the desert and snowy mountains of the West, I diagrammed every tense, aspect, and mood of English in a notebook I’d brought with me. I wasn’t sure where to put the subjunctives, which took forms just behind the time indicated. The earth below looked cracked, and although smoke rose, I couldn’t tell what was on fire.
When the plane arrived in Detroit, I took my time, wanting to delay familiarity as long as possible. My brother’s girlfriend was supposed to pick me up. I wandered arrivals, worried that she wouldn’t be able to find me. If I had been in China, I would have counted on fumbling my way through everything, leaving plenty of room for error. There I spent a majority of mornings rehearsing the language of contingencies. Now, however, I was back in my own country, but I’d never spent much time in Detroit. I knew my brother’s address, of course, but it was too far from the airport to take a cab. Because I was used to having everybody’s information stored in my Chinese cell phone, which didn’t work here anyway, I hadn’t even thought to write down a number to call once I arrived. All I could do was wait and laugh at myself. My brother’s girlfriend eventually found me, though, and drove me to the apartment she shared with my brother.
She went in ahead while I waited at the doorstep. “Can you help me with something heavy out in the hallway?” she asked my brother inside.
He came to the door. There I was, unannounced, from the other side of the world. “No way,” he said. “What are you doing here?” It was night for the second time that day.
Tim Lantz teaches English in Dalian, China.