Love Actually isn’t really on my list of favorite or memorable movies. I can’t recall the storyline at all. But it holds the record of bringing me to tears the fastest of all movies I’ve ever watched. The starting shot is the arrival gate at Heathrow airport, where greetings and farewells are being said. A scene of great happiness, a scene of great sadness. And the narrator calmly relates, “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.” There is nothing particularly touching about people hugging, people excited, people sad. It’s just that in some way, we can all relate to a moment, an airport, in our own lives, where we rushed into the arms of loved ones waiting, or clung on, unready for goodbyes.
Being a frequent flyer means that for one, I’ve become dumber, and for two, I’ve seen my fair share of airports. Beijing International airport is by far the one I love the best, and dread the most. The Departure room of Terminal 3 is forever carved in my mind. Billboards, people, luggage, a busy-ness that seems all too fake, goodbyes all too thinly masked. My parents and brother saw me off as far as they could, right to the ticket booth where passports are checked. Then there’s the awkward moment where we look at each other, when words fail and eyes devour. Hugs, smiles, pretending to be brave. It’s wrong to send someone on their way with tears. But of course it’s always there, threatening to spill with a wrong word, or a wrong gesture. An escalator past the ticket booth leads downward to shuttles. Perhaps this is a humane design, for on top of the escalators one can turn around for a last wave, and once on it, the past is past and cannot be seen, and onward, forward, becomes the only option. No option at all, really.
Beijing airport remains the only airport I know where one has to take a train inside the terminal. Gate E. That’s the one. The one last touch of homeland soil. Standing in the speeding shuttle with a backpack and a heart full of sorrow, watching the adjacent track, where trains speed in a different direction, homeward, love-ward. It’s envy as I have never known. Envy of the people in there, just coming home, for a fresh stay, for however long they plan. Envy because they’re racing towards something I love, and leaving behind something I fear. Envy because I don’t know when I will be on their train, and I long for it.
But eventually I do find myself on the train back, the subject of someone else’s envy, no doubt. Then it’s a reverse of emotions. Joy, contentedness, not giddiness, not really, just a solid, firm knowledge that at last, at long last, I am where I belong. I jump down when the train pulls to a stop, shaking off the foreign soil off my shoes, feeling like kissing the ground beneath my feet, listening for its heartbeat. I am back, do you know? And out baggage claim are my friends, come to meet me. Family will come later, at Zhengzhou. But Beijing has always belonged to old friends, the long hugs, the quick clasp of hands, the sharp assessment of whether one had gained or lost weight, and an even deeper intuition of whether one is happy. It’s all there, all rushing back. Not much was lost during the times in between. All good.
If Beijing airport symbolizes family and friendship, then Indianapolis is the airport of love and dreams. Having rushed through it time and time again, headed towards Cornell, UPenn, Washington St. Louis, San Diego… It holds promises of what is to be. And on that afternoon, upon return from Cornell, while I sat and waited for Mocha to come, after 10 months apart, I felt restless and uneasy. The anticipation building and building, about to explode, turning the blood flow faster, yet turning the hands colder. I was excited, so excited, but also nervous. What should I say? What should I do? Do I hug him? Or wait for him to hug me? Will he be taller than I remember? Tired? Dashing? Do I look too travel-worn? Too flushed? Question upon question, rushing through my mind, and disappearing the second he came walking out of the terminal. Then the hug, like two halves made whole. It seemed stupid pondering about it before, dwelling on something so natural. And then down to baggage claim, up the escalators to ground transportation, and to times of sweetness and magic.
But of course, all good things come to an end, and it is this airport that witnesses our goodbyes. We’ve said goodbye with coffee and cookies, with roses, and with tears. Whispered promises, futile efforts willing the time to slow, drawing strength from the good times passed and the good times to come. The hands hold and hold ‘til there is nothing more to hold onto, and then the mind plunges into emptiness. An abyss. A dark hole, that is both in the heart and in the stomach. One that can’t be shared, or filled, or healed. And then a mindless blunder back, hardly taking in anything, keeping a tight hold on the phone until that too, becomes silent. And now back to normal living. A normalcy that seems both mundane and tasteless.
And so reunions and goodbyes are played out, time and time again. The airports remain unchanged, the same restaurants, the same coffee shop. Uncaring of the emotional highs and lows that happen within it. Or perhaps above that, above the adrenaline highs, a constant state of being that observes quietly while God’s plans take place. A triumphant homecoming, a tearful goodbye, all meant to be, all towards an end. The wheel turns and returns, and we’ve grown, and matured, and learned the price of love, of loss, and gained the gift of courage.