U.S.-China Institute at Bryant University

China Blog

Day 2 - Travel Unexpectedly Extended!

Well, things do not always go exactly as planned.  My travel itinerary on Saturday was to take me from Providence through Boston to Minneapolis and then on to Shanghai – with a brief layover in Tokyo.  Altogether, this should have consumed about 25 hours – door to door.  In the end, it proved nearly two full days. Things went well until we left Minneapolis on our 747-400 – fully loaded, and with enough fuel to get us to Japan.  We had just gotten the go-ahead for i-pods, game boys, and feverish blogging when the plane lurched, shuddered, and noticeably went into a gentle dive.  More shudders, screeching, and more strange mechanical noises followed.  Curiously, there were absolutely no signs of panic among the passengers, no one jumped up that I could see, no one screamed.  I went on blogging for Day 1.

After several minutes, the captain came on the PA system with that “Right Stuff,” Chesley Sullenberger voice that seems a requirement for sitting at  the controls of any flying machine.  The captain told us that we’d had a bit of an overheating problem in engine number 4.  He (and his unnamed associates) had secured the engine and all was well.  We should not worry.  Unfortunately, we would need to return to Minneapolis.  Moreover, when we touchdown, he told us, there will be some emergency equipment waiting, and we’d need to “hold” at the end of the runway until the maintenance personnel can verify that engine number 4 is truly “secured.”  Meanwhile, we needed to dump that fuel that was to carry us to Japan.  We’ll be back in Minneapolis within an hour.

Later I talked to a passenger who was sitting at a window where he could see the whole episode of engine number 4 unfold.  This informant happened to be an engineer, so we might expect another “hero of the Hudson” kind of account.  Not so, this engineer described a huge ball of flame that engulfed the entire wing.  In his account engine number 4 trailed flames and smoke for about “five minutes.”  A continuing stream of metallic flakes and “something like ash” trailed out of the destroyed engine number 4.  He agreed that there was no panic in the cabin, but he also expressed amazement at that fact.  His parting words:  “You should be glad you didn’t see this.”

Well, we did land safely in Minneapolis (we gave our Sully his due with a round of applause).  There were numerous pieces of emergency equipment racing furiously this way and that.  It bothered me, however, that the fire trucks actually formed a ring around the plane, with none closer to us than about 500 yards) while some daring mechanics examined number 4.

Unexpectedly, a “spare” 747-400 happened to be sitting a few gates away, and after just a 4 hour delay we were happily on our way again in this doppelganger 747 – same seats, same crew, same magazines, same movies!  You could have persuaded me that the entire “engine number 4” episode was a charade.

Funny how important a 4 hour delay can become in your life.  We were flying on Delta 619, which travels from Minneapolis to Shanghai, with that brief layover in Tokyo.  As we progressed across the U.S.A, Canada, and the North Pacific, our Sully kept telling us about how Delta was holding the connecting flights to Singapore, Manila, Seoul, etc.  Everything seemed fine.  We traveled on in peaceful ignorance until some of the Shanghai passengers asked whether passengers going to Shanghai would be permitted to deplane in Tokyo.  We expected to lose the layover, but with a quick turnaround we would have been only a little late arriving in Shanghai.

“Oh no,” came the response:  “Flight 619 will be leaving Tokyo on time – before we get there.”  Strange as it may seem, it proved true.  Something about airport curfews dictated that the Shanghai flight had to leave before it arrived.  Singapore and Manila made it, but flight 619 – with its several airplanes – had to leave passengers in Tokyo overnight.  That was fine, and All Nippon Air proved a reliable substitute for our hardy band of 619 castaways.  We exchanged business cards and had a great time at breakfast.  Still, engine number 4 and the 4-hour delay had a dramatic impact on my trip, nearly doubling the travel time. 

For blog readers familiar with Chinese culture with some of its more interesting byways, this won’t come as much of a surprise.  The number 4 is extremely bad luck because the word for “4” si4 四 sounds like a Mandarin word for “dead” si3 死.  Even quite modern and progressive Chinese are apt to avoid anything involving the number 4.  The number 8 on the other hand is terrific, but that a point for another time.  A 747 on has 4 engines, and I don’t want to contemplate an 8-hour delay.

Curious, but the whole episode of engine number 4 and the 4-hour delay became a kind of microcosm for my thinking about Chinese culture, travel to China, and the whole way the world seems to work.  Being prepared for something like this is what travel is about – carry on enough of everything for 24 hrs. bring plenty of reading, etc. 

Actually, I was prepared and did spend most of my unexpected delay with some reading.  I had enough time to read several things, but the most important was a new book by Deborah Fallows, Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons In Life, Love, And Language. 

For a good portion of the flight last night, Fallows was in completion with the Karate Kid II playing on the in-flight system.  The fact that the film is set in Beijing gave me moments of diversion, but I also have to tout the Fallows book as one of the “best” for anyone interested in Chinese culture.  Fallows is a linguistics Ph.D. married to a journalist.  She lived in China for several years, and in Dreaming in Chinese she recounts her efforts of many years to learn Mandarin through part-time study.  She makes the point that the structure of the language is inextricably enmeshed with Chinese culture.  An excellent read, especially if you’ve ever tried to learn a little Mandarin.

Fallow’s point is very similar to one that Rob Gifford makes in China Road .  Gifford is an NPR journalist who wound up an assignment of many years by traveling throughout China documenting the changes accompanying modernization.  He makes points many of my Chinese friends and colleagues reinforced in our discussions history vs. culture vs. modernization, etc., ultimately Gifford seems to hold that China’s history provides a cycle of repetitious expansion and decline.  He finds limits, but also prospects in modernization. He describes the Chinese language as a kind of “Great Wall” that bounds cultural options and  defines paths of innovation.  And as with any wall, it also protects what’s inside.

Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons In Life, Love, And Language

China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power

To wrap up this meditation on extended travel as it entangles the history and Culture of China I’ll also recommend two other “best” reads:  Stewart Gordon’s When Asia was the World and Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls.  These are very different readings, but they come together in the way they dispel some of the mythological history of China.  Gordon’s work is fairly heavy-duty history demonstrating the fallacy of thinking of China as “isolated,” “insular,” “parochial,” or “unwelcoming” as western explorers, diplomats, and military incursions picked up in with the age of exploration and western colonialism. 

Lisa See is a novelist, and she writes with great penetration about the world of Chinese women in 19 th and 20 th centuries.  Shanghai Girls is the story of two very modern, up-to-date sisters in 1930s Shanghai.  When their successful, entrepreneurial father bankrupts the family with his gambling addiction, he “sells” his two daughters to Chinese-American husbands.  The plot carries these sisters through the next two decades of the Japanese occupation and World War II, but I can’t really tell you any more about that at the moment.  The evocation of pre-war Shanghai in the opening chapters is extraordinary, but this is the reading I didn’t get to finish as flight 619 and All Nippon Air carried me to Shanghai.  So far, it’s wonderful!  That seem to encapsulate Day 1:  Wonderful!

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