After arriving at Frankfurt Airport I walked through the busy corridors to gate E24, where I would transfer to the Air China plane to Beijing. The waiting area for boarding was almost empty except for a dozen Chinese and one Caucasian man. I sat down and picked up the letter with information on how to get from the airport in Beijing to the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

‘Can I ask you something?’ The Caucasian man had come up next to me. “Are you also a practitioner of TCM?” I nodded. ‘Then you will also take your exam in Beijing ?!’ ‘Yes, but first I’ll do an internship for a few months.’ I replied. ‘Me too.’ He said. ‘My name is Cees. I’m from Rotterdam. We were already on the same plane from Amsterdam. Seeing you here again, I thought you’d be one of the other four.’

I was told that Frankfurt was the meeting point for five acupuncture students who were going to graduate in Beijing. Cees apparently also knew. We talked a bit about the trip and kept an eye on the people who arrived to find out who else was in our group. ‘What do you think of her?’ Cees said and pointed to a woman who just arrived at the waiting area. ‘I’ll just ask.’ Cees got up, walked over to the woman, and came back. ‘Yes her too. She will join us in a minute, but then we have to continue in English (up to then we were talking Dutch) because she is French. Yes… I don’t know French.’ Cees said before I could comment. The woman took a chair across from us and introduced herself as Nicolette. She was in her fifties but still pretty. Patrick, an imposing Belgian in a tight suit, was also added to our club by Cees in the same way. We already had a fun time together before the boarding started. According to our seat numbers we were spread over the plane but the Boeing 747 turned out to be almost empty. Cees and I both had a chair in the smoking area and hardly anyone sat here. After take-off, Cees went to find Nicolette and Patrick to ask them to sit with us. A short, stocky man with a round head and straight black hair followed the trio as they returned. ‘Excuse me,’ he apologized. It turned out to be the fifth student. We forgot his name as soon as he said it. What we remembered was that he was Mexican and had completed his TCM training in London. He was of course ‘Welcome to join us.’ Drinks were ordered and we toasted on us meeting together and on a smooth journey.

You expect people who are professionally involved with health, especially when it comes to natural healing methods, that they also live a healthy life. However, if you had watched us, you would think we were all bar owners by trade. Cees smoked like a heretic and drank one Heineken after another. The Mexican had passed a box of imposing cigars and along with Patrick, who happily accepted one, they soon puffed the thick smoke ahead of them. Of course while enjoying at the same time the necessary whiskey. Nicolette drank red wine and smoked like me, only occasionally. I alternated the beers and the whiskeys because I liked them both. ‘What’s your name again?’ Cees turned to the Mexican. ‘Venceslas Camacho Márquez’ the Mexican rattled it off with a formal bow. ‘Comment?’ Nicolette replied. ‘Venceslas Camacho Márquez,’ he repeated as fast as the first time. Cees looked at the fat cigar that was sticking out of the Mexican’s head. ‘Ehe, we’ll just call you Fidel.’ The Mexican laughed and so it became Fidel. The flight was long, but we didn’t notice. Stories were exchanged and everyone told candidly. I talked about my recent divorce, my new love and the sadness that I could no longer see my daughter every day. It had been a tough time for me. I noticed however that the stories of the others had an even greater soap content.

Patrick was a physiotherapist. He had never practiced the profession because he married a rich woman. He thus almost automatically became the boss of a large horse farm. However, his heart and much of his spare time was with Chinese medicine. A year ago he fell for the love of an employed rider. Not wanting to play second fiddle, the young woman quit her job and forced him to choose. A choice that was even more difficult for Patrick because his two daughters could not stand the young woman. Still, Patrick chose for his new love. Well it only seemed like he did, because he forgot to tell his wife. So since then he had led a double life, which he filled to both sides with lies.

Nicolette was originally a photographer by trade. Just married, she and her husband moved to Mozambique, where their son was born. The son turned out to be mildly spastic. Culturally not accepted it was the cause for many problems. When her husband was murdered for a few cents, she decided to go back to Paris with her son. She married a man ten years younger then her and started to study acupuncture. Her son went off the rails in his puberty and ended up in a criminal environment. He now came to visit her so now and then. Either to repent or otherwise to threaten her and demand for money. Just before this trip, her younger husband had left her for a likewise younger wife because the guy still wanted children.

Cees was an ex-junkie. For twelve years he had been addicted to heroin and cocaine. Nine years ago his current wife had saved him from this life and he cleaned up his life. With her he had two sons and a daughter. Cees was not happy in his work as a planner at an electricity company and climbed the walls in that place. He was very passionate about Chinese medicine, he said. If he didn’t had something like that, he knew, he would definitely relapse.

Last we had our Fidel; Fidel was an orphan. His parents were murdered by the cartels when he was three years old. His aunt took him in, then another aunt, then his grandmother, then his sister … or something. His English remained difficult to understand. He decided to make something of his life and became a courier for the same cartels. Due to a deal that went south he had to flee and after many wanderings he ended up in London where he stayed illegally. Because of his straight black hair, he passed for an ugly Chinese and worked in the kitchens of the Chinese restaurants. Grandpa Han took an interest in him and took him in. He also taught him some basics of Chinese medicine. That’s how Fidel fell under its spell. He did not yet know what he would do after he would come back from China.

It seemed as if everyone in our group was on the run from something, but in everyone’s story there was also a passion for Chinese medicine. In a way, we all got stuck in our lives, but there, not in that moment, high in the sky. By telling each other, we had rid ourselves of the ballast that you normally keep to yourself. There were no people we knew here who could claim us, blame us, or make us feel guilty. We did not share a past together, we had no expectations or judgments about each other. Speaking for myself, at least I felt liberated by this journey and this meeting.

No, it was not a flight. I was allowed to be myself and stay myself here. It was therefore a new beginning with a goal that came completely from within me. For years I had conformed myself to others and had shown weak in the fulfillment of my goals. Now all possibilities were open and they it was all up to me. It couldn’t get any stronger.

When the signal ‘fasten seat belt’ was given for landing, I thought: ‘All anchors loose.’ I could not wait to begin my new path. With this colorful group as a start and the mysterious China in front of me, it could only become a wonderful journey.