As we began our descent into Tokyo, I was sweating bullets. It was already 5:10. The flight boarded at 5:30 and the gate closed at 5:40 for a 5:50 takeoff. Looking at the TV screen on the back of the headrest ahead of me, we were only 10 miles away from the airport, but we weren’t expected to land for fifteen minutes.By the time we touched down it was 5:25. We taxied for what felt like forever while I just kept praying over and over again…”Please let this work! Please let this work! Please let this work!”
The plane stopped and a flight attendant made an announcement in Chinese, then Japanese, and then English. “I am sorry ladies and gentlemen there is not an available gate for us to deplane. We will have to wait here for a few moments. Thank you for your patience.”I think I suffered a mini-stroke right there.
At the same time, I noticed two young people sitting in front of me. The girl was chinese and the boy was white wearing American flag everything. They were talking English and they looked as nervous as I felt.“What flight are you on?” I asked, leaning forward.
“The ANA flight to Seattle,” the girl said.“The one that leaves in 17 minutes,” I said.
“Yea,” the boy said with a laugh.“Actually with three of us there is a greater likelihood that they will hold the plane,” I said. “I mean three isn’t a huge number, but the more connecting passengers the more our odds increase.” I learned that from an article in Time Magazine about how airlines determine which flights to delay and cancel. It’s actually a pretty methodical process they go through.
We might nervous chit-chat about China. The two of them were high school students and had been dating for a year. The girl had needed to renew her student visa so the boy had gone with her back to China for a month.When we finally had a gate and were able to deplane, the three of us pushed our way through the crowd to get off.
“We have 4 minutes until the gate closes,” I told them.At the end of the jet way, there was a flight attendant holding a sign with NH1078 on it. That was our flight number. I waved to her.
Handing us yellow tickets she said, “No customs but you have to clear security again. Please hurry. The flight is boarded.We quickly walked following the signs for connections. With the yellow tickets they moved us to the front of the line for security. I went through the detector without taking anything out of my pockets and even though the alarm blared, they rushed us on through.
“There!” I said pointing out the window. “Gate B51 is over there.” It was at the exact opposite side of the U shaped building we were in.As we made our way into the lobby of the terminal, there were more flight attendants. They were holding signs with our names. The first one I found with my name asked for my passport when I showed her my yellow ticket. Looking at, she said, “We need to run.”
We started running. Soon, we were joined by other flight attendants who had also been looking for us. People were parting out of our way and smiling and waving as we ran passed. It’s the first time I’ve run to catch a plane. I never thought I’d do it with my pack and goody bag of gifts, but the whole scene felt like something out of a movie. I found myself smiling and laughing just a bit.When we got to the gate, I handed the gate agent my boarding pass. She scanned it.
“Mr. Zachary,” the flight attendant who had told me to run originally. “You have been flagged for a random security screening. Please come with us.”Random security screening? Don’t you have a plane full of people you’re trying to get off the ground?
For the screening, they basically took me behind a frosted glass wall and patted me down. It was the least thorough inspection I’ve ever had. They also swabbed my hands, but they didn’t open my bags or anything. The whole thing took about 20 seconds and they said I was good to go.On the plane, I saw the teenage couple sitting a few rows behind me.
“It was a pleasure running through the airport with you,” I said.They laughed and I took my seat.
I was sitting next to another young couple that were both Chinese. They had just graduated from University and were going to Seattle for a three week vacation. The guy had studied abroad in Seattle for a year and wanted to show his girlfriend around.In order to beat the jetlag going home, I decided to stay awake for most of the flight. I watched a few movies including The Hunger Games (which is an awesome post-adventure film) and some chick-flick, rom-com that was a few years old. I did eventually doze off during an episode of The Big Bang Theory but the credits woke me up so I figure I only got about 20 minutes of sleep.
The first inflight meal was very Eastern. There was some chicken and rice with some spicy sauce on it, as well as some cold noodles in some spicy sauce, and a thing of tofu. The second meal however was a western style breakfast, complete with scrambled egg, bread, and butter. While I'll admit that eating with a fork was a little clumsy, the food tasted so good!
Both of my flights actually were 787. I think I mentioned before how cool the tinted windows are, but I discovered the toilets are also supercool! Not only do they have sensors to flush, but the sensor also controls the toilet seat and automatically closes it when the toilet is flushed. The planes also have mood lighting to simulate different times of day. They kept it pretty dark for most of the flight, but turned up all the lights about 2 hours before we landed.When we did, my iPhone happened to shuffle to “The Star Spangled Banner” as we cruised over Mt. Rainier. I have to admit, I got goosebumps. It felt good to be home.
Because I had delayed the departure of our flight out of Tokyo, we were also late getting into Seattle. My originally two and half hour layover was condensed to just an hour. After the scrutinizing questions from the customs agent (“What was the purpose of your visit to China?” “What are you studying?” “Where do you live back home?” “Where do your parents live?” “What do your parents do?” “Do you have any alcohol, cigarettes, or tobacco?” “Did you purchase any souvenirs?”) I claimed my bags and went out into the main terminal to re-check them.It took forever to find Frontier’s desk in the SeaTac Airport. I am not missing this flight because my bags were too late to check-in I thought. But since my flight left in 40 minutes, I realized it was a very real possibility.
I suddenly realized something. I could ask for help…from anyone…and I’d be able to understand the answer…from anyone. So I did. Two very helpful TSA officers pointed me in the right direction. Pushing my two rolling bags and schlepping my pack, I got to the gate, paid the fees, and went to get in line for security.In the security line, I was talking to everyone…because I could. I heard from one little boy all about his Thomas the Train suitcase. I talked to the security officer about the air in China. I talked to one lady who was traveling with her kids to meet her husband in Florida after he’s been on an assignment in Portugal for a month. It was so much fun.
And I have to say, Americans are so quiet (which is not something I believed coming back from Europe.) In fact that was the first of many cultural observations I made in the airport. I realized I’ve picked up a few Chinese habits.For one, I’m not really used to lines anymore. I find the whole, everybody push and go thing to be way more efficient (less fair, but faster.) I also find that I get a lot of odd looks when I stand around fanning myself with either my hands or the papers in my hands. And my cultural faux pas became more noticeable on the airplane.
When I ordered a snack box, I pointed at the menu and said “this one” (the ways I’ve been ordering food for the past 10 weeks.)“You want the Mediterranean box?” the flight attendant asked.
I nodded. Then it hit me. I can read that! And I can pronounce that! And she can understand it if I say it.“Yes please,” I said and chuckled, handing her my credit card and receiving my receipt with both hands (as is polite to do in most Asian countries.)
And as I ate, became rapidly aware of the fact that I was eating entirely too fast. I realize that whenever I ate in China, we were eating faster than Americans. The goal with chopsticks is to kind of shovel the food into your mouth. It works, but in the US, I’m sure it looks disgusting. I also realized that loud bodily functions (which often accompany eating in China) are no longer acceptable in public.When we landed, I checked my watch. I’d been up for nearly 24 hours. Now that I was on the ground and re-set my watch, it was 1 hour and 28 minutes before I took off from Asia. This time travel stuff is great!
It was a domestic flight so there was no customs screening. I walked out of security and saw my Dad waiting for me. He got up and we hugged, tears in both of our eyes.And just like that…I was home.