“Your flight will leave in the morning. The desk opens back up at 6 a.m. Come back tomorrow,” said the attendant at the check-in counter. He looked back down at his computer, clearly not wanting to talk to me anymore. Someone missing his or her flight to elsewhere must have been a common occurrence for this employee, because he didn’t seem the least bit apologetic or concerned.
Defeated, I found a place to sit down in Pudong International Airport. I was going to Fuzhou for a few weeks before I started my summer study abroad program in Shanghai, but my flight from New York to Shanghai had been delayed, so I missed my 10:05 p.m. flight to Fuzhou. After an older man came to bring me my luggage, it finally hit me: I was alone in a foreign country with only my bags to keep me company.
I felt miserable about my situation. I could make outgoing calls with my phone, but by the time I’d gone through immigration and customs, cleared things up with my airline, and changed my tickets for the next morning, it was roughly midnight, and no one was picking up my calls. I had no electrical adapter, so I couldn’t charge it, and it was running low on battery power. On top of everything else, I was exhausted from my long flight and couldn’t believe that my first night ever in China would be spent in an airport.
Frustrated and anxious, I pulled out my laptop in hopes of getting on the airport wi-fi, but since I didn’t have a Chinese phone number to receive the passcode, I had no access. At that point, I had no idea what to do with myself. Most of the people in my vicinity, also in transit and waiting their early-morning flights, had already started sleeping on the seats. Unable to do anything, I stared helplessly at my laptop screen.
It was then that a man (I’ll call him Airport Guy) sitting close by turned to me. “Do you have internet access? How did you get it?” he asked, in Chinese.
He was an older, average-looking Chinese man, maybe in his mid-to-late thirties, slightly balding and wearing glasses. In my flawed Mandarin, I told Airport Guy why I couldn’t get internet access. I expected him to go back to whatever he was doing, but his curiosity must’ve been piqued because he proceeded to ask me personal questions. When he found that I wasn’t Chinese but Korean-American, he became excited: he loved speaking English, and he started to tell me about his life in a mixture of Chinese and English. Airport Guy worked for a company that did business in Ghana, so he often traveled back and forth between the two countries. He was on his way back from Africa, but his flight to Xi’an was in the morning.
“Do you want to see my pictures of Ghana?” he eagerly asked. I was unbelievably tired and just wanted to be left alone, but to be polite, I agreed, expecting him to show me a few pictures. Little did I know, he presented his entire photo collection of his travels in Ghana and explain each one in detail to me.
After suffering through the slideshow, I got up and told him that I needed to go find a place to exchange my American cash for Chinese currency. That didn’t deter Airport Guy, though.
“I’ll help you!” he exclaimed as he jumped up from his seat. Despite my insistence that I was fine, he put all of my things with his bags on a cart and guided me to the currency exchange machines. I was exasperated with this eccentric man, but he was friendly to me, so I didn’t have the heart to be rude and tell him to go away.
Then, the night took a strange turn. When I was done, he bought me food and water, even though I told him it was unnecessary. Continuing to carry my bags, he moved us to a location a bit farther away from the others: I eventually thanked him and started eating my first meal in China, a few tea eggs and a bottle of water.
“You look tired. Do you want to go to a hotel? We could get a room,” Airport Guy asked, while I was drinking.
At this question, I almost choked on my water, but I managed to muster out a “No”.
“Well, then you can sleep on my lap or my shoulder if you want to rest,” he replied, gesturing to his body.
In response, I quickly made up an excuse that I was too nervous to sleep: I wanted to be alert and awake when the ticketing counter opened up. In actuality, I would’ve loved to sleep a few hours, but with this creepy stranger who had my bags hostage beside me, I didn’t dare fall asleep.
Airport Guy began to pull out things from his luggage: he started playing some of the traditional Chinese musical instruments he had, right there in the middle of the airport, much to my shock. Undeterred by the glares aimed at him from the nearby people he woke up with his flute, he smiled as he played a song on each instrument, explaining the intricacies of each one.
“Is this guy for real?” I thought to myself, in complete disbelief at how weird he was.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get more uncomfortable, Airport Guy proceeded to gift me the very instruments he’d played. I begged him not to do so – my luggage was too heavy, but he refused to take them back. I convinced him to give me two, instead of his whole collection; however, Airport Guy still wasn’t satisfied, so he gave me a wooden wall decoration from Ghana and key chains from an airport in Dubai. I didn’t want to accept his gifts, but he wouldn’t put them away. Unprepared for his generosity, I had absolutely nothing to present in return except for food: he got a bag of Quadratini, a can of tuna, sour cream & onion Pringles, and peach gummy rings, all he gleefully accepted.
“Oh, tonight has been like the song ‘Wonderful Tonight’ by Eric Clapton. It’s been such a beautiful night,” Airport Guy beamed to me. Unfamiliar with this song at the time, I gave no response, but I still couldn’t help but feel that this man was in some way delusional: the night had not been wonderful or beautiful in any way.
Later, when Airport Guy and I finally parted ways for our respective flights, he insisted on taking a picture with me with such enthusiasm that a couple of people gathered around and stared at me, trying to figure out if I was someone important or famous. With my blood-shot eyes and dark eye circles behind my glasses, my wrinkled clothes, and greasy, unkempt hair under a baseball cap, I couldn’t have looked less like a celebrity, so their fascination quickly turned into bemusement at the man who was so passionately taking pictures with me.
As soon as I got on my flight to Fuzhou and left Pudong International Airport, I passed out on the plane, finally free of Airport Guy. Though I was thankful to him for his kindness, I had been very uncomfortable (and creeped out) the entire night. Fortunately, later on in the summer, I got to experience far better nights in Shanghai, but I will always remember Airport Guy and the bizarre first night in China I spent with him.