• November 2, 2018 |

    thoughts in the clouds

    retrieving memories from airports

    article by , illustrated by


    Airports make me feel a whirlwind of emotions. After flying around thirty flights within the past four years, mostly between my home city, Beijing, and my boarding high school near Boston, I have come to recognize airports as places for reflection. Since I traveled alone on most of these trips, I hatched my thoughts while sitting at boarding gates, my little free time combining with an underlying sense of loneliness. As I sat by the large windows, many things crossed my mind: the place that I was leaving and might never return to, the people I should call before boarding, the destination.

    After hours of unfinished dreams on the flight, however, I left most of these thoughts in the clouds. They disappeared along with the pain in my eardrums as soon as the jet touched the ground again. A few of these thoughts, nevertheless, remained a little longer. They trickled like drops of nostalgia and inspiration that sometimes still unexpectedly flow through me.

    Guatemala City to Boston

    Someone from the group suggested that we play Mafia, but the idea quickly dissolved as most of us were too sleepy. Waiting for our 5 a.m. flight, I would have been tired, too, had the bathroom in my hotel room not magically had hot water that morning—allowing me to take a revitalizing shower.

    That was my first hot shower in two weeks, during which I was on a service trip in Guatemala with a group of students from my high school. Before spending our final day touring Guatemala City, we worked with a local organization in the city of Antigua to support local social workers. Every day I interviewed locals who lived in houses made out of steel pieces. I listened, with curiosity and mediocre Spanish fluency, to their stories.

    Sitting next to the boarding gate, I found that my mind was still operating in Spanish, but I knew that as soon as I stepped onto the plane, the crew members’ English would immediately transport me back to an American mindset. The comfortable hot shower from that morning was the first step in this process. By the time the blue strip of the customs form arrived in my hands during the flight, the world that confronted and challenged me here in Antigua was thousands of miles away. My heart grew heavier.

    Looking through the window, I saw that the dark night was about to break into dawn. I promised myself that someday I would be able to articulate the reason behind my reluctance to leave this place. Until then, I would keep this world somewhere safe within myself.

    Boston to Beijing

    I had already texted my parents to ensure them that I was boarding the plane, and I had scrolled through every new post on Instagram—my pre-boarding social media check was complete.

    Just the day before, I was at a conference in Boston. After attending this conference for three years, I had begun to see many regular faces that I could match with the names on their name tags. I got to chat with some of them during lunch breaks, but our conversations never went beyond small talk. I knew, though, that each person at this conference had fascinating interests or talents that were unseen during the five days that we spent together.

    On my way to the airport, I decided to friend some of them on social media and write a message to remind them of who I was.

    The boarding line I stood in progressed slowly, so I decided to check my Messenger app one last time.

    One new message: “Hey! Are you flying back home soon?” Her profile picture reminded me of the laughs we shared over turkey sandwiches at the conference.

    I was about to get my boarding pass checked and would inevitably leave some of my memories of this year’s conference behind at the Boston airport, but I now had this chance to start forming connections with the people I’d met. I though this could be the start of conversations where I shared a bit about my life and hopefully caught a glimpse into theirs, too. I breathed heavily, quickly typing something before I had to turn on airplane mode:

    “Yep! I’m actually boarding the plane right now. Talk to you when I get there?”

    Beijing to Boston

    A little girl was taking a nap on the seat next to me, the rise and fall of her chest reflecting the slow pace of time. Our flight had been delayed, and time of departure remained as “until further notice” on the screen near the boarding gate. Because of this delay, I was definitely going to miss my bus from the Boston airport to Providence.

    I stopped staring at the screen and looked around the crowd to distract myself. Many people who flew overseas in late August were students with a new school year ahead of them. The various college names printed on their sweatshirts already transported me to the new life that I was about to embark on. I would be flying the same Beijing-to-Boston flight that I took during my high school years—only this time, I wouldn’t know what awaited. After landing in Boston, I would be heading south on Highway I-95 instead of north.

    One of the things I was looking forward to after landing was meeting her again, the girl I met at the conference in our junior year of high school. When responding to her on Messenger at the Boston airport that year, I didn’t imagine that we would someday end up being classmates at the same university. She texted me the other day that she was leaving home for move-in today, too. I hoped her travels had been smoother than mine.

    I looked at the boarding gate that had become so familiar to me. As much as I wanted to be used to the overwhelming feelings that came with traveling, I wasn’t. I was still learning how to center myself, but I had come to believe that, no matter how nostalgic, unprepared, or anxious I felt every time I stood in front of any airport boarding gate, life had its own way of surprising me. The uncertainties about the future that brewed inside me while traveling would dissipate once I embarked on my new journeys after landing. The knots of feeling would stay with the clouds, leaving only optimistic traces that might revisit me in the future.