Once in Chicago, I changed planes and flew home to Tampa/ St. Pete. On that second flight I met a man whose name I don't know. However what I do know was that he'd started his day in Beijing.
If you spend any time in airports, it's obvious that a lot of people fly between the US and China. This guy was different in that Beijing was his home and always had been.
He was a businessman in his 50s and he was on the flight to Tampa so that he could go on vacation for five days in Sand Key, a beach area just south of Clearwater. Clearwater's a dump but I didn't come out and say that to him. However, Sand Key is one of the loveliest spots along this coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The beaches of Sand Key are broad and wide and the water is the emerald-clear I equate with the Florida I know and call home.
Anyhow, I asked how someone from Beijing could decide that Sand Key was the perfect spot for some R&R and he told me that when he was young he saw a movie in China and he was completely taken with the surroundings where the movie was filmed. I have no idea which movie he was talking about but through years of research he'd figured out that it had been filmed on Sand Key.
As he navigated the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution and the upheavals attendant to China's rise to its current status, one vision guided him through it -- the beach at Sand Key. As his peers, professors and parents were "re-educated" and persecuted through the years, the idea of a white sand beach on the Gulf of Mexico was something that never left him.
Now that he'd made it in a newly ascendant China he was headed to the place that guided him like a beacon through the trials of his life.
My seatmate has no intention of leaving his homeland, he just needed to touch the place that had brought him so much solace.
I hope he finds there what he was looking for.
I'm used to seeing Chinese tourists in places like Rome, London and New York but I've never met someone who was heading to a place so close to home.
When I was a kid, we used to pray for the starving people in Red China. Over the course of the last 30 years things have changed a bit.
It's easy to rail against Chinese usurping the world stage, but it's the US's consumerist culture, one that demands forever cheaper goods, that brought modern China into being. China's willingness to buy US debt has allowed the US to engage in its constant state of low-level warfare without feeling the financial strain that normally accompanies military ventures.
The Chinese government is a human rights nightmare but how has the US fared with all of the "free" money China bankrolls? When US drones wipe out civilian populations abroad how are we any better off? The US's "War on Terror[ism]" has had us abandon the moral upper hand in the interest of national security and we've done it with Chinese money.
However, none of that matters when it comes down to having a conversation (let alone a two-and-a-half hour one) with someone who's actually Chinese.
Governments and how they behave are different from the people they purport to represent. All it takes sometimes is a flight from ORD to TPA to make that clear. My seatmate's not so different from me, as wildly different as our life stories are. But at the end of the day, the two of us want to make a buck, want to enjoy some R&R sometimes and we want to leave a legacy so our descendants will remember us once we're gone.
I used to fantasize about Pompeii and I saw it in person four years ago. My seatmate used to fantasize about Sand Key and he's seeing it in person right now.
Despite political differences, he and I are the same person and I'm a better man for having met him.