Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: III

Eventually, I arrived in America. My brother picked me up from the airport in Philly, and off we went, back to his home in New Jersey. He had been toying with the idea of taking me out to dinner with his family, but it was rather late, I was exhausted from travel, and I didn’t want the fuss of going out to a restaurant. So, instead, we stopped off at a liquor store (picking up a nice bottle of Slivovitz!) and sent out for pizza that evening after we got home.

The next day, the work would begin.

Because I still need a U.S. address and phone number for many things, my brother and his wife kindly allow me to use their address for business and deliveries, and suchlike. But this meant that, because of the Co-VID travel restrictions, I had been unable to visit home in four years, and so, four years of mail, correspondence, and packages had to be dealt with. Many things were bought when I had thought I’d be able to visit home once or twice a year, as I used to do. Many items were from my bank, or my credit union, or sometimes the IRS; there were boxes of author’s copies of books; there were even collection notices from past due, unpaid bills I never knew I had.

I went through each and every one. It took the better part of two weeks. There was much which had to be taken out to my storage locker in Pennsylvania. And there was much I had to pack to bring home to China, including winter clothing, a computer, a tablet, and other winter gear I fetched out of storage when I went to store my things. In fact, I had to buy three new, large suitcases to repack for my return!

–At some point, I do need to return to the States when I have more time, so that I can start emptying out that storage locker; there is much I want to save, but also much that I will never have opportunity to use again, and must therefore get rid of (Fortunately, there is a Good Will dump not far from the facility, so at least nothing nice will have to be wasted). And this time, I will travel as lightly as possible.

My next set of duties involved visiting as many close friends and family as I could in two and a half weeks. While I was trapped in China for the pandemic, there had been at least two deaths in my family, including one—my step-father—who passed away just weeks before my return. So there were graves to visit as well. And this set of obligations was even more painful than clearing the postal detritus of my life out of my kid brother’s home.

I was able to visit my oldest friend and his wife (also a good friend, obviously); but to my sorrow, his wife has been slowly sliding into dementia. It was painful to see and saddening to no longer have the capability of meaningful conversation with her anymore. I would normally, on my vacations to America, stay with them; but of course, this was now out of the question, which was why I stayed at my brother’s house.

I also went to see my old teacher, friend, and mentor from my martial arts studies at his home. He was slowly dying. I’d had very little news of him whilst I was in China and was unprepared until I came home for what I would see. He had apparently been urged by his doctor to have another round of back surgery to keep his vertebrae from crumbling in his old age (he is in his eighties now). He awoke with his left side mostly paralyzed, and while in hospital, he had a heart attack, which required a couple of stents to be put in. And then, after all that, he got sepsis, and it kept returning, no matter how many times they seemed to have scrubbed it out of his body.

I spent the afternoon with him. He was in a hospital bed, set up in what had been the formal dining room. He said that he can stand for about twenty minutes at a time, and can sit up on some days, and that I had just caught him on a bad day. He still tries to train but is no longer able to negotiate the steps down into the dojo. It was heartbreaking for me to see him in this condition. He was (and still is) the strongest man I have ever known, both physically, and as Terry Pratchett once wrote of Granny Weatherwax, he had a will that you could bend horseshoes around.

He asked how I was doing and made the offer that I should take time off from work, come and stay at his house, and finish a course of study in Education for my future plans. He said that I would always be welcome in his house. I think it was a way for him to say, “I love you” without having to say, “I love you.” Maybe. In any case, that feeling is mutual.

At another friend’s insistence, and with his assistance, I was able to make it up to New York for a day to visit my aunt on the Upper West Side. It was good to see her again, and we had a simple lunch—pastrami on pumpernickel, with good kosher pickles on the side. Amongst our reminiscences, she had a very old cassette tape she played of Grammom Pauline, my father, and a three-year old me sending an “audio letter” to her and my uncle when they lived in Israel. We ran a few minor errands, and she gave me a few items that had belonged to my uncle that she wanted me to have. It was strange to be visiting without him with us.

There were more pleasant times, of course. I got to see a couple of other friends whom I hadn’t seen in far too long, one of whom, my old Baguazhang training partner, offered me a place to stay and a car to use if I should come in again over the summer (He has a private “apartment” attached to his house in Maryland which once housed his mother-in-law). And my sister came for a visit as well. She was able to work remotely from my brother’s house, and she came to help with the paperwork connected with our father’s (my stepfather) death.

A couple of days before my scheduled departure, some of the extended family got together at The Kibbitz Room in Cherry Hill for brunch. It was wonderful to see so many old familiar faces again—though shocking to see how much we’ve all been aging.

I was able to replace my Google phone, thus restoring my American phone number. My old phone died in early 2020, when it suddenly stopped charging, and could no longer hold a charge—and because it was a Google phone, I could find no place in China that could repair it. Additionally, I went to AT&T to set up a new phone line using an old, tough Sonim flip-phone, just in case something should happen to my new smart phone (rather than buying another Google phone, I went with a Motorola Android phone).

Alas, on the day before I was to return to China, my phone—which I had bought back in 2020 and had delivered to my brother’s house, when I thought I would be visiting that summer—started malfunctioning. Screen damage of some kind. I had to run out to Best Buys to purchase a new phone (same model, only from 2022). I did not want to spend that money, but I had no choice at that point since I was scheduled to leave the next day.

Of course, I took advantage of my visit to eat all of those things I do not get in China. This included many things that, as an obese diabetic, I absolutely should not have had; but what the hell. It had been four years. Bagels with cream cheese and lox…bialys with whitefish…eggs, bacon, and mamaliga…Entenmann’s rich frosted doughnuts…. It was worth it.

I even had the opportunity to get a Pfizer Co-VID vaccination for free at a local Walgreen’s! Although I have had my vaccinations and booster in China, I figured the extra protection couldn’t hurt. For my return “home” to China, I had to get a negative result on a nucleic acid PCR test; while such a test was easy to come by in China, it took me several days to find a local pharmacy that could do this for me so that I could travel.

My visit home was a mix of pleasant, and deeply unpleasant, experiences. It was wonderful to revisit old familiar places, see old friends, relax in cafes, and so on. I was delighted to find that I still remembered how to drive! But in truth, I have to say that as much as I enjoyed most of my visit to America, I was anxious to return “home” to China, and the life to which I have by now become accustomed.

About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a high school ESOL teacher, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in Beijing's Dongcheng district
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2 Responses to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: III

  1. Joseph Michel says:


    It was great seeing you again my friend! I’m glad that you made it back home safe and sincerely hope that you can make it back this summer. Hope that the process of getting back into the groove is a smooth one!

    Your Brother In the Arts,


    Liked by 1 person

    • It was great to see you, too, my brother! I regret we had only that brief couple of hours. So far, I am really enjoying being back in Beijing and back in the classroom. I am trying hard now to replenish my financial stores from my trip home. If I can afford it, I will do my best to get home over the summer. I should be able to stay for a month or so this time (again, if I can scrape together the funds). By July, I should be able to grab a flight directly out of Beijing! For now, I am glad to be back into my old routine. Teaching classes, and back to writing in my spare time. I hope you’re well– looking forward to seeing you again, and meeting the new puppers!


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