Thursday 2/16/12 6:30PM EST
I arrive at JFK's terminal 5 with 3 hours to spare before my flight leaves. Though I had planned to get some last-minute things done before leaving the US, I find myself caught up in the melting-pot atmosphere of the terminal and decide to wander around for a while.
The people at this international terminal are a fascinating mix of 1) American travelers about to depart, 2) foreigners returning home, and 3) airline personnel. In the first category are some young people standing around in a circle. I decide I'm gonna infiltrate them. I walk up to them and stand there as if I belong; nobody says anything. However, their purpose remains obscure until an older woman arrives and starts talking to them in French about their passports. As it turns out, they are New York high school students taking a trip to France for their French class. Despite taking French, they don't seem to understand the woman, but I think most of them are just pretending to be stupid to avoid the embarrassment of seeming intelligent. Par for the course for high-schoolers.
Continuing on in my wanderings, I encounter a group of Asian women in matching blue dresses, all wearing heavy lipstick. I later find out that these are the stewardesses on my flight. I also talk to a hostess for Air France, curious to determine the truth of the stereotype that French natives don't like speaking to people who aren't fluent in French (which I am not). The stewardess, unexpectedly, is not from France: she's an American, and as a foreigner herself, is able to confirm the stereotype from her own experience. However, I have yet to ask a French native to get their perspective on the matter. Perhaps the perceived slights that have led to the stereotype are merely impersonal Gallic arrogance.
I don't get a chance to talk to any of the people in the third category, foreigners returning home. Perhaps I avoid bothering them because they are neither culturally familiar nor paid to talk to me. Nevertheless, walking around among these three groups of world travelers makes me very happy. I feel blessed to enjoy not only new experiences, but also foreign languages, which I see as the key to understanding foreign cultures.
I would like to spend longer in the terminal but need to attend to my procrastinated pre-departure duties. Once through security I make a brief stop at the duty-free store and consider buying some Jamaican rum which they have samples of (it is very flavorful) but decide not to risk the alcoholic associations. I arrive at my gate and make some last-minute phone calls before suspending my phone service*. I then debate for a ridiculously long time about whether or not to spend $13.99 on a neck pillow. I finally decide against it but the decision is agonizingly marginal. I've noticed that I have a hard time deciding how highly to value my own short-term comfort against such goods as money and knowledge (the paradigm of the latter case being, should I watch TV or force myself to do Chinese flashcards?). It's hard to come up with a good weigh to way such disparate goods against each other.
I notice something strange while at the gate, but don't really think about until I'm aboard the plane. Almost everybody on my flight is Asian. Why is this? Do Chinese people travel to the United States much more than vice versa? Or was there something about this particular flight that made it better for those returning than for those starting a trip? I remain puzzled.
My neighbor on the plane is a Chinese man, late 30s, returning from a business trip in NYC. I watch him texting using a handwriting IME and am struck by the beauty of his writing. I wonder whether Chinese penmanship is as much a skill pertaining to the older generations as English penmanship is? The ability to write an elegant cursive hand is something I particularly envy people like the Founding Fathers. By contrast, the cursive I was taught in school is lame and wimpy-looking. I renew my resolve to someday learn a manly cursive script.
On the plane, the stewardesses and the captain speak in both Chinese and English, but the former is the default. One of the stewardesses even greets me with "Ni hao!", despite the fact that I'm not only white but have facial hair. (Beards, from what I've seen, are essentially nonexistent among Chinese men.) Moreover, all the talk from the passengers around me is in Mandarin. Though I understand very little, simply listening to the language is awesome and I look forward to spending time in an environment where the pressure is on me to speak and understand the language.
China awaits, and with it Chinese. I couldn't tell you which one I'm more excited about.