It is still nearly two hours until my flight, but I feel as though my spirits have been lifted.
I'm writing this from the VIP lounge for Air China at Capitol Airport in Beijing. I've been here since either Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on whether you mark from the day I left Portland or the day I arrived here. I entered the lounge profoundly exhausted. It's been a good trip, and I'm thankful for this incredible opportunity to see China for the first time. I am here on a press junket for the opening of the Ullens Center, a new contemporary art museum here in a renovated circa-1930s former munitions factory building. I've been to the Forbidden City, Tianmen Square, and even the Great Wall. I've been treated to countless dinners and exhibitions, whisked throughout the city as a VIP, put up in a 4-star hotel, and had the opportunity to take some five hundred pictures.
But trips like this can also be quite a long slog, even in the best of circumstances. Jet lag kept me from getting restful sleep until last night. The people running the junket have had us on the go from about 8AM to midnight most days. I'm also really fed up fending off people trying to sell me stuff. China may be a so-called 'Communist' country, but these seem to be the most naturally and most aggressively entrepreneurial people I've ever met. I even was accosted by people trying to sell me trinkets, t-shirts and copies of Mao's Little Red Book on the wall itself. And I miss my cat and girlfriend!
I'd never been in an airport VIP lounge before. And when I first entered this one, it did not impress. All the furniture seems left over from the 1970s, and the VIP meal consists of hot noodles in a paper cup. But then I sat down and was surprised to find something else on the television here than the usual ubiquitous airport CNN. On the plasma-screen TV a few feet away as I write this, Air China has a continuous loop of Tom & Jerry cartoons. And as it happens, this is precisely the tonic I needed.
As a child, I watched hours of cartoons each day. I'd begin with the local favorite Ramblin' Rod in the morning with his procession of Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes favorites (punctuated by smile contests and birthday songs), graduate to Star Blazers before scurrying off to school, and return in the afternoon for episodes of The Flintstones and Superfriends. In those days, I was never a huge Tom & Jerry fan. They always seemed like second-rate Looney Tunes, and for some reason I always rooted for Tom to catch Jerry even though I wasn't suppposed to. They even spelled their medium incorrectly: a cartune?
But as I sank into the worn, brown-orange seat of the lounge, clutching a Pepsi Light can with an old pull-tab I hadn't seen since the Carter administration, I found myself enraptured by Tom and Jerry's pursuits. I've heard various parents complain over the years that such cartoons as these are improperly violent and aggressive, but the absurd physicality of their exploits made me chuckle. In one, Jerry helped a seal that had escaped from the circus. Another pitted a black alley cat against Tom for the rights to a ham in the fridge. During a romp through a haunted house, Tom had nine numbered ghosts nearly sucked from his body as he clung frightfully to a stairway banister. Just now I turned from the computer to glance at the screen, and Jerry was dressed in a film noir trenchcoat and fedora while Tom negotiated barbed wire and mines in the living room (I have no idea what this means). I can't tell you exactly what was so brilliant about any specific moments, except that they all involve a series of sight gags that are as universal as McDonald's or converting oxygen into carbon dioxide. Most importantly, they made me smile on the eve of some 18 grueling hours of transit. Even now, hearing Chinese spoken all around me, with its odd musicality of odd consonants and inflection, I feel at home thanks to Hanna and Barbera's half-century-old cat and mouse. For that, they can call it a cartoon, a cartune, or a kartoone. And I will embark on my marathon of boardings, security checks, turbulence, baggage claim and a new round of jet lag as a decidedly happier customer.