Every time I travel, I transform into this furious magnet for bad karma, and today is no different. It’s not a long flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai, and if you’re on a good airline, like Dragonair of Cathay Pacific, the two hours fly by fairly sweetly. They serve Haagen-Daaz for love of Jesus. I’m a snuggly little camper under two felt blankets, finishing Junot Diaz’s Drown and picking up Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes. It’s a short story kinda day.
Then the flight rumbles to a landing, jolting me from the slumber that knocks me out as soon as the captain announces descent. Gets me every time. The plane taxis to the gate and the sardines are restless. As soon as the lights pops on and the bell goes ‘ding!’ the madness begins. First there’s a clatter of unbuckling seatbelts and the sardines rise in messy synchronization. I expect to hear the grumblers, complaining about someone in their armpit or knocking the dust off their hats as overhead baggage is yanked from above. But this particular can seems to be stuffed with fairly polite travelers. I maneuver around to grab my tiny little roller bag and manage to return to my seat unscathed.
A bumbling old man, the bellowing upright kind, rather than the muttering stooped, begins stepping all over everyone, still stationary and awaiting release, to find his luggage in the overhead compartments. He’s so polite, however, that everyone lets him by, ignoring his elbows in their ribs and his buttocks in their hips, as he chants in a singsong voice, “Wang ji le fang na li, wang ji le,” (“Don’t remember where I put it, don’t remember.”) I love the politely rude. I find them fascinatingly slick. At this point a slow fart escapes me and I make a face, pretending I don’t know who just smelt up the aisle.
We all trundle off the plane after the doors open and I beeline for the bathroom because the life of my bladder depends on it. Then a race to the immigration line, walking fast with my heels kicked up and Nocturnes sticking out of my roller bag like a tongue. I ignore the ambulators and enjoy the scuff of the carpet. Walking feels good after sitting still for a couple hours. So far, so good. No one’s getting in my face, the sun’s shining through a hazy sky in Shanghai and I’m almost home after too much time away.
I head for the China Immigration lane. As soon as I file in behind some older dude ahead of me, his buddy cuts in front of me as if I wasn’t there. Ah, here it comes. The switch under my sternum that tells the Happy Buddha hanging from a chain around my neck to back the fuck off.
“What are you doing?” I say to him, immediately embarrassed by my stupid-sounding Mandarin.
“I’m with him,” he replies, brushing me off and stepping ahead. I’m not gonna point out that he’s Chinese here, because I’ve seen plenty a white guy do the same in crowded airports.
We’re at a bend in the snake line, a perfect place for negotiating rank and file, and I sidestep him and say, “It doesn’t work like that.”
He ignores me, steps forward.
“Did you hear me?” I say.
“I’m behind you now, okay?” he responds gruffly, flickering his disdain towards me with his beady eyes. I can say that because my eyes are beady, too.
I reclaim my position and feel ambivalent. I won my little battle, haven’t I? Somehow I feel like a douche. The grumps have been introduced, however, and when the officer at the booth asks me to take my hat off I scowl. The lights blink on the electronic comment box as she hands me back my identity, and out of the five options, I press the Greatly Dissatisfied button with the unhappiest frowny face. Oh, dear, I think to myself. I’m in that mode.
I stride on to the baggage claim but now my head is full of the kind of remorse I feel after I’ve yelled at a taxi driver who’s deriding my pinyin pronunciation. I’m a big believer of karma. If you dish it out, prepare to have the shit served right back at you. Did I just spitefully press the frowny face button because the officer made me reveal my oily hat head, or because I have a fat face on my I.D. card, or because I scuffled with my mom before she saw me disappear into the Departures area?
My mom gets grumbly whenever we’re at the airport. It makes sense. She lives alone now and my visits break up otherwise long stretches of alone time. Watching her wave as I round the partition, a big, fat lemon squeezes all over my heart and I chastise myself for being less than patient. I hate these moments. They allow the latent anger at my father to rise up, and it’s takes awhile to tamp that sucker back down again.
I’ve grabbed my luggage, clearly marked with cute little ornaments by my mother, and made it to the taxi stand, which is empty. The snake line is welded in place with metal bars, however, as unrelenting as the crowds that usually bloat against them, and it takes a minute for me to wind up and down and back up to the waiting taxi. The driver gets out and helps me with the luggage and I slide into the seat, grateful to be on the last leg home. I brace myself for attitude as the driver asks me where I’m going, but there is none. I open up my laptop, and by the time I finish chronicling my own nastiness, I am finally home.