My mom (aka “Gracie”) turned 90 on April 22. To help her celebrate the big occasion, my sister and I launched a campaign for her to receive 90 birthday cards. By the end of the day on the 22nd, she had received 136!!!
We had a lovely brunch with family and a few friends on Saturday morning. In the afternoon, we made arrangements for her to go for a ride in a “big rig.” (Thanks, Al!)
This week, we are on a “birthday road trip” back to the place where she grew up — Bend, Oregon. As you can see, this 90-year old isn’t about to slow down!
Yesterday (April 21) may have been the birthday of Queen Elizabeth, but the Queen of our clan is just one year and one day behind her!
In celebration of her nearing the end of her ninth decade, here are 9 things you may or may not know about her:
She loves road trips. She’s been on road trips across Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Europe, and of course North America. Since I moved back to the States 4 years ago my sister and I have driven her to Alaska, Washington, and Newfoundland, plus many places in between.
She plays the piano at her church.
She volunteers at local senior care centers, playing the piano. They love it when she breaks out the old WW2 tunes!
She leads a senior’s Bible study at a local community center, which means she spends a lot of her time studying.
She is the subject of a short biographical film that is being produced by a local university student.
She loves loves loves Minnesota. When lots of her friends head to Florida or Arizona for the winter, she stays in town to tough out winter!
She drives a bright blue Camry (that she went out and bought for herself last year). When I tell my Chinese friends that she still drives, they nearly collapse in disbelief!
She has a thing about driving large vehicles. One year she got to drive a zamboni; another year a giant John Deere tractor. Her ultimate dream is to drive a snow plow at the Minneapolis airport!
She celebrated her 80th and 85th birthdays in China. She has also made it known that she wants to be there next April to celebrate her 90th. Who’s in?
The rest of you can celebrate Earth Day; around here we are going to celebrate Gracie’s birthday.
Happy Birthday, Mom!
P.S. She claims that the secret to her longevity is that she does not like vegetables!
One of the teenagers on the “Birthday Tour” last week, a 15 year old young man from California, told me that he loved China and wanted to stay here forever.
“What do you love about China?” I asked.
“Everything,” he replied.
“Come on,” I said, “give me some specifics….what specific things do you love about China?”
“I love the traffic,” he said.
I stared at him blankly as he went on to list the other things he loves about China: the food, the people, the culture.
I can assure you that in all my years of hosting visitors to China, no one has ever declared their love for Beijing traffic. Usually it triggers screams of terror and/or derision.
This conversation reminded me of a very funny blog post I ran across years ago describing the 12 steps required to make a left turn in Beijing. The blog site is called So I’m Going to China, and the post in question (from 2007) is titled Beijing Traffic Lesson: Left Turn. The blogger (a fellow Minnesotan) doesn’t post anymore, but I think this particular post is such a classic that we need to keep it alive. So, with all credit and kudos to Henry B, here is his post in its entirety. (And Henry, you should know that Beijing has added a thousand cars per day to the roads since you were here, so bedlam has not dissipated!)
As I may have mentioned before, traffic in Beijing is its own art form. The city is adding thousands of cars per – I don’t even know, week? Which means you have a healthy mix of people who have never driven before interspersed with people who should never be driving in the first place. To introduce you to the intricacies of Beijing driving, I will start with a relatively simple concept: the left turn.
We see here a typical intersection. The light has just turned green for the east-west streets, and car [A], an enormous black Lexus with pitch black windows, wants to make a left turn into the southbound lanes. Pedestrians wait on each corner. (For purposes of this demonstration, we’ll assume no one is running the north-south red light, and no one is jaywalking – a rather large assumption.)
To make a left turn, it is VITAL that [A] cut off all eastbound traffic as soon as possible. The first few brave or foolish legitimate pedestrians step off the curb; this is of no concern. [A] makes his move.
NO! Too slow! [A] has managed to partially block [B], a brand new purple and yellow Hyundai taxi, but [A] has only achieved what Beijing drivers would consider a ‘weak’ blocking position.
In this detail, we can see why: [A] has only inserted his left bumper and cannot move forward without contact. [B], on the other hand, is in the dominant position – by putting his wheel hard to the right and flooring it, he can fully block [A].
[B] proceeds to swerve right, cutting off [C], a tiny red Peugeot with a gold plastic dragon hood ornament, spoiler and assorted knobs glued on. Since [B] is just accelerating, and [C] is now decelerating, this has created a low-density ‘dead space’ in the intersection. [D], a strange blue tricycle dumptruck carrying what appear to be 40 of the world’s oldest propane tanks, sees this and makes a move.
DENIED! [E], an old red taxi with its name sloppily stenciled in white on its doors, has boldly cut across two lanes of traffic, behind [D], and then swerved right, driving [D] into an extremely weak position behind [A]. Meanwhile, [B] and [C] are still fighting for position, with [C] muscling his way into the crosswalk. The only thing between [E] and a successful left turn is a few lawful pedestrians. [E] steps on the gas…
…and is cut off by [F], an elderly man pedaling his tricycle verrrryyy slooooowwwly with a 15-foot-diameter sphere of empty plastic cooking oil bottles bungee-corded haphazardly to the cargo area. He was part of the lawful pedestrians, but seeing the stalled traffic, decided to cut diagonally across the intersection. Not only has [F] blocked [E], he is headed straight at [B], giving [C] the edge he needs.
[B] concedes to [C], who drives in the crosswalk behind [F] and blocks [E]. Meanwhile, [G], a herd of about 20 bicycles, mopeds, pedestrians and wheelbarrows, sensing weakness in the eastbound lane and seeing that much of the westbound traffic is blocked behind [D], breaks north against the light. [F] pedals doggedly onward at about 2 miles per hour, his face like chiseled marble.
Now things get interesting. [C] has broken free and, as the first vehicle to get where he was going, wins. [E] makes a move to block [B] but, like [A] at the start of the left turn, only gains a ‘weak’ block. [A] has cleverly let [F] pass and guns into a crowd of [G], which both moves [A] forward and drives some [G] stragglers into the path of [D], clearing [A]’s flanks. Little now stands between [A] and a strong second-place finish.
Except for public bus [H], one of those double buses with the accordion-thing connector. [H] has been screaming unnoticed along the eastbound sidewalk and now careens dangerously into a U-turn. This doesn’t appear to concern the 112 people packed inside and pressed against the windows (although that could be due to a lack of oxygen.) [H] completely blocks both [A] and [D]. On the other side of the intersection, [B] has swerved into the lawful pedestrians (who aren’t important enough to warrant a letter) and has gained position on [E].
[E] has forgotten the face of his father: He was so focused on his battle with [B] that he lost sight of the ultimate goal and is now hopelessly out of position.
This clears the path for dark horse [I], a blue Buick Lacrosse, to cut all the way across behind [H] and become the second vehicle to get where he was going (and the first to complete a left turn), since [F] has changed his mind again and is now gradually drifting north into the southbound lanes. But everyone better hurry, because the light is about to change…
My phone rang at 7:00 in the morning on Saturday. “Hello. This is Capital International Airport. Please come to collect your mother at Terminal 2, Door 6.” With that, I knew that my mom had definitely NOT made it onto the Delta flight to Detroit. I jumped into a cab and headed to the airport, wondering ‘now what?’
Getting my mom (aka ‘Gracie’) in and out of Beijing this year for her 85th birthday was definitely not uneventful.
Through the generosity of a friend who works for American Airlines, she flew over 2 weeks ago on a ‘buddy pass.’ Said friend had originally planned to travel with her, but she wasn’t able to get time off from her other (and real) job to make the trip. Never mind, we thought, Gracie has done the trip before, and she’ll be in first class, so they crew will take extra good care of her.And I would be at the airport here to meet her.
Unfortunately, about an hour before her plane was scheduled to land on the night of the 18th, a thunderstorm parked itself over the Beijing airport, forcing the pilots to divert the flight to Shanghai. Of course the airline put her and all the passengers up at a hotel there, but she didn’t have a way to get ahold of me. Fortunately, even though there was NO information about the flight being dispensed at the airport, I was able to find out through my friend in the US that the plane had gone to Shanghai, so I finally left the airport and went home around 330AM. My mom prevailed upon the kindness of a hotel worker to use his phone and was able to finally call me around 5AM.
She finally arrived in Beijing at 7:30pm on the 19th, 21 hours late!
Once here, the question was how and when to get her home. ‘Buddy passes’ are standby tickets, so we had to try to figure out when there might be seats out. AA looked full all weekend and into this week, so a couple on the trip who are Delta employees said they’d give her a pass and escort her home on the 28th. We all loved the idea of her not making the trip by herself. What we didn’t count on was the seats that were empty the night before the flight being bought up at the last minute, leaving my mom (and numerous others) still at the airport when the flight took off. The friends who were to travel with her got the last 2 seats, and had to take them since he has to turn around a fly a plane back to Japan this afternoon.
My mom went to a customer service counter and asked them to call me. The gal at the counter said she’d have to ask her supervisor, but never was able to tell my mom if the call came through. It did — this was the call I had received at 7AM. My mom then prevailed upon a sweet security guard to use her cell phone to call me and got through to me while I was still in the taxi. I told her to go to Starbucks and have a cup of coffee and sit tight. At about 9, one of our favorite drivers who was doing an airport run for someone else, swung over to Terminal 2 and picked us up and took us back to the hotel.
Since my AA friend had sent a text saying that the AA flights didn’t look good for quite a few days (it’s a holiday weekend here), and since neither of us could face the uncertainty of standing by again, I got on the phone with Delta to see what options they had for getting her home. I was particularlly interested in getting her on the flight to Detroit on April 30 since a family that has been on this trip would be on that flight.
The Delta agent told me that they could get her home for 160,000 miles +$34.00. That’s an insane amount of miles for a one way ticket, but I could do it since for some strange reason I had allowed 184,000 miles to accumulate in my account. Then the agent said, “oh, and because you have to use so many miles, we will automatically upgrade her to BusinessElite class.”
“BOOK IT!” I said. Then we could relax and enjoy the extra 48 hours we had.
She left this morning, confirmed BusinessElite class boarding pass in hand, with dear friends who will see her to her connecting flight in Detroit.
As for the 160,000 miles, here’s my thinking…..if I’m not willing to use them to get my mom home, then I don’t deserve to have them!
Last night (the 22nd) we had a birthday banquet for my mom at the Bai Family Courtyard Restaurant. It was originally a palace for a Qing Dynasty prince, but is a delightful place to get a taste of Qing food and culture.
Because of a scheduling conflict by the restaurant, they put us into a private room for no charge, which was a big deal since the cost of the private room is normally $1500 and there is a requirement to spend a minimum of $900 per table (yes, those figures are USD). Being in a private room also meant that we had a private performance — Beijing Opera, traditional music, dancing, and mask-changing.
The food was fantastic, and, of course, Gracie got the royal treatment!
UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: Just want to make something clear here…..WE DID NOT PAY THOSE PRICES (OR ANYTHING CLOSE TO THEM) FOR THE DINNER. That’s what made it so fun!
Five years ago this week, my mom arrived in Beijing, along with a dozen or so friends to celebrate her 80th birthday. We spent a week seeing the sights, visiting friends, and of course eating wonderful Beijing food.
At the end of that week, my mom announced that it would be her last trip to China. My sister and I looked at each other and said “yeah, right!”
Tonight my mom is flying into Beijing to celebrate her 85th birthday. 15 others are flying over the next few days to join the celebration.
This will be her 3rd trip here since announcing her last trip in 2009.
Let the Birthday tour begin!
(No, this is NOT her car. It belongs to a friend of a friend…..)