When I passed through security and walked into Terminal 3 at the Beijing International Airport, it struck me that my adventure was coming to an end. The terminal was cool, clean and quiet, three adjectives that have little to do with the China I experienced. I sighed deeply, preparing for the journey ahead. I was excited to return home, but not necessarily looking forward to the next 24 hours on the move.
The trip had started out well. After a couple more farewells, I hopped into a taxi to the airport.. There were no traffic jams and not even a line at the check-in desk (for a full flight on a 747!). The only thing that almost went wrong was when I got to the airport, I didn’t know what flight I was supposed to be on, and I couldn’t find any flights to San Francisco on the monitors. For a minute, I thought maybe I was supposed to fly out at 4am instead of 4pm and had arrived 10 hours late. My fears were premature, however. The flights to SFO did show up on the monitor a few minutes later. Whew! Crisis avoided.
I had arrived at the airport two hours early, so I wandered around a little, checking out some of the luxury good for sale in the duty-free shops and eating an overpriced dish of fried rice that wasn’t half as good as what you could get in the shops in the city center. I knew I would miss good Chinese food, but I was also excited to get some good home cooking. Living without a kitchen was hard and with all the walking I did, I probably lost 10lbs on the trip.
Right before boarding the plane, I went to buy a bottle of iced tea from a vending machine. I had some coins that I wanted to get rid of, and I knew I might like to have something extra to drink on the plane. The tea cost 4 RMB and I had five 1 RMB coins in my pocket. I inserted the first three coins without a problem, but for some reason the fourth coin dropped through into the change-return slot. I pulled it out and re-inserted it. It dropped through again. Damn. I tried the other coin. Same result. I tried multiple times. No luck. What the . . .? I was not happy as I pulled out a 1 RMB note from my wallet and stuck it in the machine. Fortunately, the machine liked the paper money better, and the tea crashed to the door at the bottom of the machine. I grabbed the bottle and shoved it into my backpack, hustling back to the gate to board the plane.
Walking down the tunnel, I ran into a security station where they were confiscating all liquids from people boarding the plane. Apparently, the liquids inside the security bubble at the terminal aren’t really ‘secure’. One thought ran through my mind: “I just fought that vending machine, and now you think you’re going to take my tea from me? Like hell you are!” I pulled out my phone and started typing out a text message. As I passed the station I didn’t hardly look up or slow down. The agent looked at me and asked if I had water, expecting me to stop and hand over any liquids I might have. I blew him off and kept going. If he thought he was going to get my tea without searching my backpack, he was wrong. He was going to have to work for it just like I had. He didn’t try to stop me, so I proceeded down the ramp into the plane—Will 1, Air China 0. A few hours later, I really enjoyed that tea.
I tell you this story because at that moment, I realized that China had changed me, if only a little. In China, if you aren’t aggressive, you don’t get what you want. I think I learned that at the university’s cafeteria, where if you don’t push your way up to the counter, you don’t get your food. It’s also like crossing the street, where you sometimes have to create your own path. If this is the only thing I took away from my time in China, the trip will have been worth it.
The flight to SFO was long and uneventful, and we arrived a little early. The customs agent I met with was not very friendly to me, so I wasn’t very friendly to him (I’m going to hold back on giving you my full opinion of the Department of Homeland Security right now, but I would like to ask many of the people who work there, can’t you even pretend to like your job a little bit? I know it’s a thankless, terrible job, but you are the first impression of America for people arriving from around the world, and not a very welcoming one). Despite the unpleasantness, he did let me through.
Running low on energy, I didn’t explore the SFO airport very much this time. Travel tip: If you’re looking for a place to relax at the airport, check out the international terminal, especially in San Francisco. It is much less crowded and quieter than the domestic terminals, and since SFO recently began offering free Wi-Fi, it’s also a great place to watch YouTube videos and work on a blog. By the 6th hour of the layover, though, I was ready to just get home.
Later, when I arrived at my departure gate, I heard United offering three passengers the opportunity move to an exit row. Surprising myself, I was at the desk before the man even finished talking, another reaction that I am convinced was influenced by my month in China (if you want it, go get it!). I thoroughly enjoyed the extra legroom provided by the exit row, even if the flight only lasted one hour and fifteen minutes.
Finally, after 24 hours on the road, I was greeted at baggage claim by a welcome sight. Rather than making me take the MAX back to the city center, my wife and daughter met me, carrying a sign bearing my name. It was quite unlike the welcome when I arrived in Beijing. This time, someone was glad to see me. . . It was good to be home.