Paper Airplanes

April 1, 2009 § Leave a comment


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I’m beginning to think International airports are my natural habitat.

It is the convergence of my collective realities. 

Arriving from Bangkok to Tokyo on my Minnesota hometown airline, Northwest(now Delta I’m told), I’m sitting next to a quiet French Canadian, who is besieged by the window seat warrior from Atlanta.  The Canadian saves his sad looking ham sandwich, tucking it neatly into his backpack.  He won’t be home for a while.  The Southerner downs two of the same, and looks around hungrily like a lunchroom bully, searching for a third. 

After a year of flying on the uber modern Emirates airlines, where space, entertainment, and service are a whole different standard, the US airline feels like a relic, black and white, analog, a stark reminder that maybe we aren’t the best anymore.  We’re kind of like the NY Yankees, everybody pretends to revere us and tell us we’re the best, but we’re all talk these days.  The plane reeks of second place, with narrow seats, faded carpet, cramped aisles, and a skeleton staff.  It’s like flying in a Motel 6. 

Heading off the Bangkok flight I am greeted by a familiar logo, that of the International Organization of Migration, a UN partner that has been a constant companion in the past year and a half of my life.  IOM is kind of like the Wallmart of humanitarian assistance, it’s does a little bit of everything, development, protection, and migration.  There is a group of extremely rural looking Asians on the flight, all of them with IOM bags.  My guess is they are a group recently exiled from Burma, and then sent along by the unforgiving and rather ethnocentric Thai government.  Now they are heading to Los Angeles.  They are modern nomads, homeless beyond any simple comprehension of that term.   

As I walk up to another security check, Mr. Atlanta is behind me, looking for somebody to talk to.  He connects with a traveling businessman also heading to L.A..  “You heading back from Thailand?” “You better believe it…!” “Were you there just for fun?” “Yeah, six days of pure fun man, I didn’t leave a square mile of Prom Pong, such a good time, best time man.  Now I gotta get home and rest, gotta travel again next week.” “Do you travel for work?” “I’m a computer programmer, I gotta go to Europe a lot.  Next week I gotta go to London, I fucking hate Europeans.” “Yeah…”

 I am overwhelmed by a sense of inferiority as my just concluded time in Bangkok took a very different path.  I just spent six weeks in Thailand mostly suffering from a severe case of circumstantial angst and depression.  This dude probably drank, ate, and slept with Thai women, and turned his brain off for an entire week.  I spent my time pining to go back to a country that had made it clear it wanted no part of me.  I am overwhelmed with a feeling that “I am so stupid.”

“Fucking Europeans,” he laughs as he grabs his watch out of the x-ray machine.  He’s carrying no bags, just the clothes on his back, some jeans, tennis shoes, and a European designer t-shirt.

I catch up to my connecting gate.  On my right are the IOM refugees, on my left are a group of African migrants, who seem to define airports these days.  Where Mexicans and Central Americans risk life and limb crossing boarders by bus, train, and foot, some Africans freelance a little differently, turning wings of airports into small encampments while they piece together trans-continental employment.

Sitting here, waiting to board my hometown airline, back to my hometown, surrounded by refugees, migrants, day laborers, all of us being treated impeccably by Japanese airport staff, I feel at home, which is equally comforting and a little distressing. 

The writer Pico Iyer often talks about “global citizens…” people, using himself as a model, who transcend borders and citizenships.  With a grin and an adjective he makes floating around the world seem easy.  It’s not.  It’s tiring, and tough, and rewarding, and crazy, and dislocating.  The problem I have with Pico is that he is smiling because his transmigration is done in first class.  He assumes we care about his travels and his global perceptions because he is a famous writer.   As I doze off I dream of the big, ragged dude from Cameroon sitting next to me punching Pico Iyer in the face. 

The world is an increasingly interwoven system of languages, cultures, and travelers, but it’s not easy.  Global citizens like the ones I see today are not reflecting on their good fortune of being on an airplane, of the freedom and luxury to travel, most likely they are simply trying to survive and find some space to have a normal life, to take care of their family, to send some money home.  Certainly I do not fit into that category, but still, I’m looking for a home too.  Maybe it’s here, at the airport.

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