On Being Chinese and the United Planes of America

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“Chinese Flying to United,” illustrated by Cassandra Hsiao

On the verge of 18, my father boarded his first airplane to America. Wide-eyed. Spectacled. Messy black hair sticking up in all directions—an Asian Harry Potter, if you will. He checked in his giant suitcase, boarded the plane, and looked out the window as the engine started. Felt the telling moment of weightlessness as the wheels left the ground, watched all the buildings and roads shrink, watched until Taiwan became what the world had always known and what he saw for the first time: a tiny island.

So comfortable he was on his first flight that he felt soundly asleep and did not wake until he felt the plane land. Excited, he grabbed his carry-on from the overhead compartments and exited the plane.

At the baggage claim, he waited for his suitcase to tumble down the rubber road. Outside, the skies were grey and everything was blanketed with white. It was my father’s first snowing. Delighted, he went outside and played, catching snowflakes in his palms, feeling the snow crunch beneath his shoes. When he came back inside, the baggage claim had stopped rolling. All the bags had emerged—still no sight of his. No sight of his brother or sister to pick him up, either.

When he showed the baggage claim employees his suitcase receipt, he could tell something was wrong.

He had gotten off one stop early. He was in Minnesota, nearly 400 miles away from his destination.

He panicked. But it’s not too late, they said. They made a couple of calls, hurried him onto an airport baggage cart, and drove him onto the runway, where the plane he had just disembarked was waiting. Everyone was waiting. My father boarded the plane, shuffling his feet, avoiding everyone’s eyes.

Until he heard applause.

The passengers were cheering for him. People from across the globe had watched through their windows as this young man rode shotgun in a cart going full speed across the runway. They had stalled their international flight for him, and yet they clapped and whistled. He had made it.

“Welcome to America,” said the captain as they touched down in Iowa. Welcome, indeed.

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Dad and I.

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