The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is quiet on departure day. Paul and Laurel are quiet, too, distracted in equal measures by the enormity of what lies ahead and the intensity of what they’ve left behind. All of the packing and panicking and checking their lists again and again—what about the Pedialyte? And the gifts? Documentation?—has left them wired and dazed. Especially Laurel, who considers herself disorganized in the first place. But things were as ready as they were going to be by the time Laurel’s sister dropped the couple off at the airport and drove away.
Outside the security checkpoint, anxiety and anticipation cooperate to fend off exhaustion for the sleep-deprived parents-to-be. Their nerves, however, are left woefully exposed in the process. On the waiting bench beside the escalator, Laurel is weeping again. A hurried businesswoman dressed in a navy suit veers widely past, averting her gaze from one more airport drama. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to keep doing this,” Laurel says through tears. The backpack on her shoulder suggests utter practicality and preparation, but the tissue is inaccessible. Paul struggles to find a Kleenex, a napkin, anything.
Laurel pulls herself together and smoothes back her hair, which was recently cut. Once nearly grazing her waist, it now hangs in a smooth, practical bob just below her shoulders. “Mom” length. She looks youthful and determined and, in a way, a lot like a woman in the early stages of labor after a major nesting frenzy.
“It’s hard to wait, but up until now we’ve been so busy that there’s been no time to stop and think,” Laurel says, composed once more. “But we’re lucky to have as much support as we do. My family, Paul’s family, they’re all so excited. Especially now—.”
“It’s amazing,” Paul blurts into the silence. “Even the pharmacist, when we stopped to get the medicines on the list, was incredibly positive about what we’re doing.”
Finally, flight time is less than an hour away, and it no longer seems too early to go through the security checkpoint. They gather their boarding passes and drivers’ licenses. They step into the queue to the metal detector. For a long moment, they stare at each other. Paul drapes his arm around his wife, and together, they wait their turn.
Shanghai Airlines flight 9391 from Shanghai to Changsha leaves the gate at 9 a.m. Shirley Hu slouches into aisle seat 4C, crosses her legs, and pages through a fashion magazine, blithely aware that China Air flight 1343 from Beijing to Changsha is already in the air, carrying the Stuebers and other families she has been assigned by Children’s Home Society and Family Services.
Like most Chinese who work with foreigners, Shirley adopted an English name to help foreigners who find Chinese names difficult to pronounce and remember. Her given name is Hu Siwei, and at age thirty-one her delicate complexion is still defined by apple-red cheeks. When she talks, her fine brow rises gently, but when she is hard at work, that soft complexion creases, and she sets her round mouth flat and hard. “I was awake at five a.m. today,” she says with a giggle that drops to a scratchy growl, “calling the hotel to see what kind of cooperation they could offer on a meeting room.”
Below, Shanghai’s smog gives way to mountains and rivers rendered brown by the sprawling towns and factories of China’s interior. As the flight heads south, the mountains seethe into green valleys that, though still rendered hazy by smokestacks, suggest genuine countryside. After an hour, Hunan Province’s northern mountains emerge. The hillsides are terraced by farms that drive the region’s meager agricultural economy. Soon, Changsha, a city of seven million, begins as a series of monumental factories gouged from geometric farms.
The plane lands and Shirley navigates the airport’s new steel and glass with impatient familiarity. She strides past baggage, where she claims a small suitcase that wheels behind her, and into a parking lot under a relentless sun. “Where is the bus that should be waiting for us?” she asks as she sends a cell phone text message to the driver and continues walking. “There it is,” she says, and turns hard to the right, cancels the call, and tosses her bag into the baggage holder while giving the driver precise instructions. Then she turns back to the terminal and sets herself at the center of the rail that separates baggage claim from the outside world. “The flight is late,” she says, glancing at the arrivals screen. “But not too late.”