Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Nien Cheng

I was stunned when I saw the photo of Nien Cheng (and the obituary beneath it) on the "Milestones" page in Time magazine today.  She died on November 2.

Our paths crossed at the Miami Airport years ago.  

I was sitting at the departure gate for a flight to Washington, DC.   The airline representative announced a gate change.  I picked up my bag and followed the other passengers to the new gate.  Minutes later, a disembodied voice announced another gate change.  Everyone got up and walked over to the new gate.  Then I heard our flight number again, followed by the words:  has been cancelled due to a snowstorm in DC.

It was Sunday, October 4.  How could it be snowing in DC?

As the other passengers headed towards the ticketing area, I stayed behind to consider my options.  That's when I noticed her:  an elderly Asian woman, sitting alone in the now-empty gate area.

I recognized her, but couldn't remember why.  Then it came to me: it was a story on 60-minutes.  

I walked over and asked Nien Cheng - do you have a plan?

No.  She said she was on her way home - to Washington, DC - after doing a one-day book signing in Miami.  

I told her my plan:   I was going to try to catch a flight to NYC and then take the train to DC.  Trains run in the snow, don't they?

Nien asked, "May I travel with you?"

By 5pm, we were in the air on our way to LaGuardia.  This frail-yet-resilient 72 year old woman sat next to me, and shared her personal story of Mao's Cultural Revolution - the Red Guards, her 6.5 years in solitary confinement, the torture, the beatings and the murder of her only child, Mei Ping.

As we approached New York, the pilot gave us the weather update.   Not good news.

We were stacked up over La Guardia, waiting for the green light to land.  The snowstorm hit New York, Boston and points north.  Planes were re-routed and delayed.  Our pilot promised we would land in New York, sometime before midnight. 

He kept his word.

Then there we were, Nien Cheng and I, dressed for the tropics, walking around La Guardia airport.  Forget the train - I said.  I'll rent a car.

By the time we got to the auto rental desks, they were out of vehicles.

Desperate, I approached a well-dressed businessman who was finishing his rental paperwork.

"Where are you headed?"  I asked.


"Want company?"  I asked. 

"Sure," he said.  "But you'll have to navigate and talk to me - to keep me alert and awake."

"We can do that," I said, waving my hand at Nien.

We followed David Kennedy outside to his rental (a limo) and hopped in.  Nien shared her stories.  I navigated.

We stopped once - for hot dogs and sauerkraut in Delaware.  Five hours later, we arrived in Washington.  The snow had disappeared.  The sun was creeping up over the horizon.  

On my way to work that morning, I stopped and bought a copy of her memoir, "Life and Death in Shanghai."  

"I've always been a fighter. When I'm confronted with a difficult situation, my first reaction is not to get frightened, it's 'Oh, wonderful, here's a situation that really calls on me to do something." 

"To see what is right, and not to do it, is want of courage or of principle."

Zhang Jiuling
A lonely swan from the sea flies,
To alight on puddles it does not deign.
Nesting in the poplar of pearls
It spies and questions green birds twain:
"Don't you fear the threat of slings,
Perched on top of branches so high?
Nice clothes invite pointing fingers,
High climbers god's good will defy.
Bird-hunters will crave me in vain,
For I roam the limitless sky."

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