July 3rd: Woke up early, enjoyed our last breakfast buffet in China, and headed to the airport. A lengthy customs process ensued. An official waved us through the first gate. We passed through a second gate under the sign that read, “No Goods To Declare,” then arrived at a long line to have our passports checked and stamped. Several women clad head to toe in flowing black silk garments, their expressive eyes the only thing left uncovered by their dark veils, stood close in front of us, chatting nonchalantly with designer bags hanging casually over their shoulders. Every now and then I caught a glimpse of their sneakers and jeans peeping out from beneath long, black silk skirts that swept the ground. Though verging on indecency with my not-so-covert looks, I couldn’t make out the country on their passports. Many Chinese people holding maroon passports, and Koreans touting green ones, waited beside us. As we neared the checking desk, we saw a sign that read, “Please remove all glasses and caps.” We wondered whether they would require the women in front of us to remove their face coverings, but they predictably, and kindly, did not. When my turn arrived, I walked up to the desk and watched the screen display the photograph from my passport. The camera then snapped a photo of me, and the young Chinese official stamped my passport, waving me through.
Once past customs, we caught sight of even more women in burqa-like garb, men and children accompanying them. Screens above the gates displayed as exotic destinations as Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. While walking, we found ourselves in the company of a group of flight attendants and pilots from a Middle Eastern airline. The pilots’ uniform looked standard, but the female flight attendants wore black gauze head scarves over their tightly pulled back hair, topped off with little round caps on their heads. The scarves revealed the women’s faces, whose eyes were darkened with kohl. Again, I had to restrain myself from invasive, awed staring.
After an uneventful three hours, in which we noted that flying coach on Korean Air far surpasses flying the same class on any American airline, we arrived at Seoul. Before landing, as the plane slowly approached the Korean peninsula, we looked north of the airport and calculated that we were probably right then looking at North Korea. The sight felt both surreal and anticlimactic.
After sitting in the pleasant Incheon airport for a short while, we boarded our flight to Honolulu. Though it had taken thirteen hours to fly from Chicago to Beijing, this eight-hour flight seemed the longest of my life– for some strange reason I could not fall asleep.
Never had I been so ready to disembark from an aircraft. We proceeded directly to customs. As the customs official asked me questions in a pleasant manner, I thought in elated disbelief, ‘He’s speaking English! People here speak English!’ When he stamped my passport, I thought, I love America. English-speaking, first-world-country America, with potable tap water and paved roads and Western toilets, where people don’t stare at me fascinated with my foreignness, where the food won’t give me a constant stomachache, where hawkers won’t approach me with their wares, yelling “2 yuan? 2 yuan!” regardless of how many times I reply, “Bu Shi!! NO!!” At that moment, after a restless, uncomfortable, sleepless night, I could have waxed poetic about the US and its many familiar comforts.
Navigating things in the American way required some adjustment. Crossing the street, we skittishly looked both directions. An approaching car, driving in a turning lane, made us come to a sudden halt– would he entirely disregard the lines of the road, like Chinese drivers, and come right for us? But he continued sedately in his lane. While choosing a cab, we were leery of a nearby man who stood, holding a sign that read “Taxi.” He was advertising to us, rather than waiting to be approached; we couldn’t see a legitimate cab nearby; all signs pointed to a scam. “We’d better wait for a real taxi,” I said. But it turned out he was just a taxi dispatcher, of course. Fake taxis did not abound, waiting to ensnare us. It took some time to operate like Americans, rather than American tourists in China.
When we reached our hotel, I took a long nap. In the evening, we watched the breathtaking sunset over the open ocean. All in all, I really had nothing to complain about: I’d had an awe-inspiring, arduous adventure in an exotic country full of epic sights, from 15,000-foot mountains to the Great Wall. Now, I was in Hawaii, watching sea turtles swim in the shallows. Jet lag and potential stomach parasites aside, I could not help but feel overwhelmingly grateful for it all.