It was a day I shall always remember, the 28th of August 1988.
Before boarding at Beijing International Airport, I swallowed a few anti-sickness pills. On entering the aeroplane, seated and strapped in safety belt, I took out the little bottle and poured the rest of the pills down my throat. It was a lot more than what I would have taken for a coach journey, but it was a long haul flight after all.
“Are you worried about flying?”
I turned to see the concerned expression on my neighbour’s kind face. He must have noticed me swallowing the unpleasant bitterness, which nearly made me vomit with disgust.
“Oh, no…, not really. I have been on a plane before,” I quickly replied, feeling embarrassed, as if I was caught doing something really stupid. I was actually very excited, almost tipsy, despite the slight apprehension of a 17-hour ordeal of potential sickness high up in the air. The memory of my one and only flight from Nanjing to Chongqing three years before was still vivid and sharp in my mind. It lasted just over two hours but it had put me through hell, dizzy and sick all the way, and days afterwards.
With the help of the overdose, I tried to sleep, but found it impossible. The sense of adventure, the unpredictability of the future and my eager anticipation was too great, and I was virtually and literally on cloud nine.
It was my first trip overseas. Not until two weeks before until I finally got the visa from the British Embassy did it actually hit me that I would at last be heading towards the land of hope and glory, the relatively small, yet once powerful United Kingdom.
The flight took exactly 24 hours, longer than scheduled. Our plane could not land in either London or Paris, due to poor weather conditions. After a few hours in the Zurich Airport Departures zone, we were eventually ushered back in. Our Air China Boeing 737 finally touched down in Gatwick, outside the British capital.
Stepping down from the staircase, I looked up at the low grey sky, misty and cool, feeling the drizzling on my uncovered head. What a sharp contrast to Beijing! Only the day before I was sweating under the blazing sun, with a temperature of 40 Centigrade and a debilitating humidity. Another thought struck me, by which I was bemused: I’ll be like Oliver Twist, wandering around in foggy London, all alone.
The British and European nationals were allowed quickly through their designated channel, with no more than a cursory glance at their passports. The rest of us queued up at the other desk, where we were subjected to vigorous questioning: “Why are you coming to the UK?” “How long is your course?” “Do you intend to work in this country?” “Are you going back to your own country after studying?”…
Only weeks before, I had been ‘interrogated’ with a similar list of aggressive questions, after I made the three-day train journey from Chongqing to the British Embassy in Beijing. The grim-faced immigration officer insisted on questioning me through an interpreter, even though I could understand him perfectly and my spoken English was certainly good enough for that purpose.
Here I was, at the Customs going through the same routine again. Even though the British Council had offered me a scholarship and already supplied all the relevant documents, I was being subject to more scrutinization. Finally, I was told to report to the local police within a week. It was the first time when I realised that my nationality was a problem, and I was certainly on foreign soil. This all came as a bit of a shock.
Yet, nothing would spoil my good mood. As I listened to the flat-toned officer and watched his weary expression in his cold blue eyes, my spirit had already left, taking me away from the depressing Customs and into the unknown world outside.
Twenty three years later, I am now living in my adopted country, reflecting on life and its many lessons. Seasons change, the rain still a fixed feature of British way of life, yet the grass is evergreen and lush. The journey between Beijing and London has been reduced to a mere ten-hour non-stop flight. I am now a frequent flier, but it was my very first international flight that has irrevocably changed the path of my life.
Do you wonder what has happened in those interim years? I know you are dying to know . To satisfy your curiosity, dive in The Same Moon and be part of this amazing journey.