In Line at the Airport

Written by Laura L. Mays Hoopes

I flew in from Wuhan a good five hours before my flight was leaving the Beijing airport to check in and turn in my baggage for my overseas flight home.  I thought my luggage was checked through but it wasn’t.  The customs woman sent me back to the arrival lounge to get it, but still I got to the right part of the terminal for the Beijing to Los Angeles flight fairly easily.  The flights were posted on neon signs about the size and shape of beer ads in restaurant windows, above the bays for check in. I found the sites for different classes of passengers on my flight were along one long aisle, on the right side.

There were long lines snaking back from all the bays.  There were no chairs and my arthritic knees ached, but some of the people in line looked like they were far older and less fit than I was so I carried on, walking past all the long lines.  Kids wriggled, sexy girls applied makeup and flipped their pony tails, men looked at the girls’ legs with phlegmatic half-smiles.  Ancient men with neatly folded newspapers never looked up, but somehow detected every time the line moved forward a millimeter and shuffled with the flow.  Old ladies burdened with many bags of presents and two or three elephantine suitcases kicked and carried their luggage forward an inch or two each time.

I was tired and hungry, and I thought about trying to eat something.  But I decided I’d better check in, get rid of my suitcase, get through customs, and then relax a while.  It was stuffy, so I went to the last bay along the aisle where there was a little breeze and got in back of the line.  Almost immediately, a very well-dressed sophisticated looking couple got in line behind me.  Others followed.  The line shuffled forward slowly, meandering through its space like a slow-flowing river.  There were two teenaged girls in front of me, both wearing red down jackets.  It didn’t take long for them to unzip the jackets and flap them around.  I almost melted imagining their warmth.  They had some kind of music devices in their ears, and they kept swapping the ear buds so they could hear each others’ tunes.

Right in front of them were two Chinese businessmen in suits and ties.  They looked at their watches every minute or two.  I usually enjoy people watching, but it helps if you understand the conversation, and I speak little Chinese.  I thought the two girls in front of me were speaking in Cantonese, but the couple behind me said a few things I understood in Mandarin.  Evidently they were worried about her mother who was in Los Angeles.  Perhaps they were going to United States because she was having a health emergency. An older man and woman behind me played chess on a tiny board she brought out of her purse.  Whenever she moved her chess piece, the woman emitted a series of loud clicks on different pitches.  I was fascinated and wondered how she made that sound, but I didn’t want to try it myself while they were right there behind me.

Eventually, I could see the counter.  However, a young man and a girl who looked like she was about 11 years old put up a sign saying the line was closed, and tried to direct us to the backs of the nearby lines.  No one would move.  The two businessmen began to yell and pound on the counter.  The people in back pushed forward harder, as if that would help the line to start flowing again.  After about ten minutes of aggressive behavior on the part of the two businessmen, an older man wearing a hat appeared behind the counter.  He organized things so that the workers in the next bay checked us in, and shifted all the lines all down one computer.  I don’t know what happened when the last line had no window to go to, because that was beyond where I could see.  The man who had arrived announced in perfect English that the computer behind our check in counter had broken down.  Then he added, “Please forgive these workers, they are only trainees.”  It was during the period leading up to the Olympics, and there were many young people working everywhere with buttons saying “Trainee.”  But I never did understand what that had to do with a computer breakdown.

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3 thoughts on “In Line at the Airport

  1. You are right, I was too calm but it was probably because I was exhausted from a week at a conference in Wuhan with famous academics from China who spoke little English and with whom I and the others from USA were trying our utmost to communicate. Or, maybe I’m just a watcher of people who end up in my stories!
    cheers,
    Laura H

  2. Laura, I was there with you in the airport! What great observations. People watching is always great at any airport and you brought us all in.

  3. So vivid. I loved the writing and found myself waiting in line with you while we both people watched. The sensibility that struck me was your calmness. Even when things got a little nasty you were just the observer… (the outsider?) The tone of the writing, the words, the observations really brought all of that across!

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