Laos to JFK

The office on Friday was busy because I was trying to get a bunch of things done, so I wouldn’t have to think about work at all while I’m back home. Most of the staff are outside building a structure to park our company trucks. I so wanted to be out there with them, but instead I knew it was going to pay off much more if I just stayed in the office and worked all day. I think it bothers them when some of the people in the office, especially the falang (foreigners) don’t at least go out and support, but I think I have enough currency in the bank with them to use this time and still be thought of as really close with them.

By the end of the day everyone was very loving with the way they sent me off. They all wished me luck and told me to hurry up and come back, with some goodies of course. I’m standing out by the car structure and some of the people are way up, about 30 feet in the air, up on top of the rickety looking wooden structure they literally just got done putting up. They all jokingly tell me to come up to the top with them. I laugh and tell them I’m too afraid. Mai Sa tells me to go up too, so I say I’ll go after her. She tells me that there’s no way she’ll go up there. I ask her why, but expect the usual answers of being too scared or not coordinated enough. Instead, she says she can’t because she’s a woman. I respond before her answer can really sink in and I say “that’s no problem” and then she responds just as quickly and says, “yes, it is”. What she says and how she says it with such dismissing certainty, is really disheartening for me to hear. I’m washed over with feelings of sadness, frustration, and a bit of hopelessness. There was nothing I could have said or done to reverse the life long reinforcement of this female inferiority complex that her and so many other Lao women have received. When I hear things like this or when I see the men oppress the women here I want to let my anger explode and put an end to it right then. I would step in if it were something physical, but I haven’t seen any of that at all. It’s more of a constant bombardment of this tearing down of ideas that don’t fit into the well defined “woman box”. I want to tell the women to stop being complacent, the men to stop being barbaric, and both sides to stop writing this issue off as part of the culture. I know that wouldn’t do any good, but I can’t help to have that reaction. In order to release my frustrations and still be able to be decent with most of the pig men here, is to think of ways to use my time here to help empower the women in my life and get them to use their voice to make some changes on their own. For instance I met with one of the PoP Guatemala employees who started a women’s group there, in order for me to help organize and possibly start the same thing at the office here in Laos. Most likely, nothing will change with the culture in Laos or even the city or section I’m living around, but I will feel very accomplished if I can at least affect the lives of those women I work with and care about. They have the skills already, so I think they just need a small amount of guidance, especially in the beginning, and then a whole lot of work and passion on their part, in order to overcome this cultural barrier. I think this event really set an interesting impression on my trip back home. Taking a break from this culture and spending time with my family is so important for me right now. I’m going to forget about everything for a week and just enjoy my time back home. I’ll be able to do this so well knowing I have a wonderful team of people waiting for my return and some real challenges and opportunities for growth during the second half of my internship with PoP.

I get back to my guesthouse, shower and finish packing the last few things before our company driver comes and gets me. The check in at the airport goes as smoothly as it always does in Laos. Then because I’m trying to get onto the time schedule of being back East I’m pretending it’s morning time, instead of 5 PM. So, I go over to order some coffee in hopes that I can stay up at least most of the day, New York time, and then sleep most of the time from Korea to JFK, which will be nighttime for New York. I go up to the counter to order and the woman says “ow nyang baw?” Which in Lao basically means, what do you want?… No way! This me speaking Lao thing is supposed to make people surprised and impressed. They’re not supposed to assume I know Lao and then when I respond, act like, ‘yeah, so?’ Feeling let down, proud, and like maybe I’m embracing more of this Lao life, I take my coffee to the table and go to check in. I’m proud of my self with all of the progress I’ve made with the language so far, but I’m still greedy for those experiences when I get to show off.

I can’t check in on my Korea flight without checking in here, but I can only check in here in person. I tried to check in online before leaving my guesthouse, but because Luang Prabang isn’t a big hub for the airline they told me to go screw myself. And apparently what ever I did to get my boarding pass wasn’t proof enough that I checked in here in person. I do faintly remember when traveling on my own in the States my parents telling me to go up to the counter before boarding to check in. However, I don’t think the same thing applies here. I also already have my computer out, so I’m feeling too lazy to pack everything up, walk over to the desk, try to convince them that I can check in and then probably work with them to figure it out, walk back to my seat, have the coffee women force me to buy something else, and then get my computer out to check in. My excuse is that if my seat is bad, it will be a good story. I will at least check in when I get to Hanoi, which is only a few hours away anyway. Alright, time to go and wait by the gate for them to board everyone. Next stop, Hanoi.

The flight is only an hour, so the plane is a small propeller prop one. The inside isn’t tall enough for me to stand up without worrying about the health of my head. Everything looks worn and old around the edges. The only fresh looking things are the flight attendant’s outfits, but their faces take away from that, with their expressions of getting the short end of the stick on this plane. I put my back pack under the stead in front and a Korean woman next to me tells me “under, under” as she points to my bag and under our seats. I tell here you can’t put them there and that they have to go under the seats in front of us. She starts to complain to her friends and even though I don’t speak a word of Korean, I can tell by the way they’re all looking at me and pointing to my bag. I tell her that I will put it under my legs after the plain takes off, but she either didn’t understand or didn’t want to wait because she moves seats. Now I have the whole row to myself. Wow, that was easy, I should do that for every flight.

Before I can even really settle in we’re getting into Hanoi. I have a 3 hour lay over, so I’m relaxed with time. I go to the transfer desk and tell the guy that I’m going onto the Seoul plane and show him all my information. He tells me that he is going to call someone from that airline and that I should sit down and wait until they come. I see some guy with a necklace nametag badge thing walk by and I can tell he looks Korean, so I’m hoping he’s my guy. I don’t actually know the facial differences between Koreans and other Asian people, but his hair cut makes him look like the gangnam style guy, so I’m actually more confident then any kind of facial feature recognition skill I could get. After going to the desk he walks up to me and asks for my itinerary and passport. See, I have a flawless strategy for identifying Korean people. Then, he turns around and walks away, in the opposite direction from the check in desk, in the direction of the exit. I laugh to myself and look around to see if anyone just saw what happened. I feel like I’m on one of those game shows that plays tricks to get people to have funny reactions. Then, I say to myself, okay there’s no way I’m going to be that guy who lost his passport by giving it to a Korean music artist look-a-like with a badge around his neck. I get up and follow him and then he turns around to tell me to sit down and wait for him to get back. Okay, that proved it enough for me. If he told me to sit and wait over in the waiting area, then he clearly must be working here, so I turn around and sit back down. I can’t help but be nervous as I sit as I race through the situations of people asking me how the hell I just let my passport go like that and why I let it get stolen.

In the middle of these thoughts I get distracted by some people running and then I’m nervous and on edge for a whole new reason. It’s okay if there are a few people running in an airport, they’re probably late, but when crowds of people run, it scares me and makes me think of crazy people. I have the memory of Ghana when I went to that concert and people started all running toward me. Like the wildebeest stampede in Lion King, I found my stump to hand from and watch everything go by and then, very unlike Lion King, the tear gas hit and we got out of there. This is nothing compared to Ghana, but at first I have a similar reaction. Then, I start to notice how people are dressed and start to scan through the crowd. The people stopped running and I figured out it was just because some extra lines through the immigration opened up. Now, I’m calmed down and moved on to looking at the ridiculous hats and visors some people have on. My attention span is like a squirrel, as I’ve now completely forgotten about my passport and the rest of my trip all together. I think believing in stereotypes can be dangerous, especially if when something different is presented and ignored for the prejudice. However, I can’t help but laugh at how stereotypically Asian some of these people are. They’re all doing the things we poke fun at so much in America. First of all, we’re inside and some people have visors on that would block out the sun for a small family. I also can’t help but laugh at the way they run and how ridiculous it is that they’re running and cutting each other off to get one more person ahead in line. There certainly is a very different respect for other people. Then, in the middle of my amusement some guy comes up and taps on my shoulder. I don’t really look and think, “hey buddy, can’t you see that I’m in the middle of some good people watching”. Then he walks around in front of me and tries to hand me something. Who does this asshole think he is standing right in front of me when I’m clearly in the middle of a show? Oh right, my passport and the rest of my trip.

I take everything and follow him up to the boarding area. I get up to the top and it leads me exactly to my gate, but I still have a few hours to spare. I take a right and go all the way down to the end of the terminal. Then I turn around and walk all the way to the other side, which turns out to be much less populated. I sit down to try and check in, but it won’t let me now because I’m within 4 hours of my flight. Well, there’s no point now, so I pack everything back up and get ready to walk back down. It’s really interesting where I am because there are no people around and I can see all the way down to the other side of the airport. The building is massive and could probably fit a small ocean. I just sit there for a few minutes taking in the amazing feat of humanity I’m sitting in right now and how little time I spend really taking a look at things from this perspective.

I get up and walk back down to my gate and sit down for the last 30 minutes before boarding. I sit and position myself so I can watch the people coming through security. I love to people watch and this might be the perfect place. Okay, the perfect place not counting the backside of an immigration checkpoint in Asia, that takes the cake. I sit there and just watch as people come through the end of security and have the realization they’ve made it through the hard part and now they just need to find their gate and get ready for their planes. I mostly just spend the time looking at people’s faces and the way they dress and how everyone’s so different. The one thing about stereo types I certainly don’t get is how people say that a race of people all look the same. Yeah, if you compare Asian people with African people, they seem like they fit into two different boxes. However, after living in Ghana and now Loas, especially with my love for people watching, it’s really dispelled that idea for me. After really taking a look at mostly Ghanaian people, with a sprinkle of other Africans and mostly Lao people, with a sprinkle of other Asians, I’ve had the opportunity to see how diverse the two populations really look. It isn’t even true to say that most Asian people have squinty eyes or that most African’s have big lips and a broad nose. I have seen so many exceptions to those rules that I couldn’t possibly fall back into those grooves of thinking, which were so common during my upbringing. I think the only thing that I’ve noticed as being pretty similar across the board are people’s hair. That’s something that has been true probably up to 95% of the examples I’ve seen. I think that if I were to stereotype groups of people into looking the same, it would be those who look closest to me. There are some stark differences between different kinds of white people that are impossible to deny, but I can’t help and see so much of the similarities, especially with the way people act. It makes me think that stereotypes were probably first thought of by people of that group and then spread and seen as true by other groups. I’m not even sure where I’m going with all of this, but I think it’s very interesting to watch people and try to learn as much as you can about them just from watching them pass by, even if only for a moment. I don’t mean just gaze at a group of people, I’m talking about picking some people in a crowd and really looking at them well and trying to analyze everything about them. This is what I call people watching and I definitely love spending my idle time doing this and learning as much as I can. It helps to live in this area and to be able to ask questions about my observations to my friends in the related culture.

Now that I’ve analyzed the makeup of humanity, it’s time to board my flight from Hanoi to Seoul, Korea. I’m still trying to force myself to stay on New York time, so I have to make it all the way through this 3 hour flight, then through the 5 hour lay over I have in Seoul, before being able to sleep on my last plane. It’s definitely going to be a challenge, but will be well worth it when I get on the East Coast time much faster, plus I will be able to sleep through most the longest one of my flights. This plane is the opposite of the last flight. I could jump off of a seat and not hit the ceiling. Everything looks new and comfortable and there’s plenty of room for my legs and my backpack in front of my seat. The guy next to me even moves to another seat, but there’s no need because the seats have more than enough room. When they’re getting ready to take off, I’m spacing out and not paying one bit of attention to the safety information, just like everyone else in the plane. I look up at the ceiling and it looks like some kind of smoke is pouring into the cabin. It’s not filling up in the passenger space, but it’s pretty thick up by the ceiling. They’re either making it more humid or trying to poison James Bond. To distract myself during the flight and make sure I don’t sleep, I watch some TV shows, a movie, and eat the food they give me as slowly as possible. I don’t feel as tired as I think I should, but I don’t take the chance of leaving myself idle. The plane is getting ready to land in Seoul, Korea and I get back into game mode, knowing I have to go through security and then find where I’m going. I also don’t have a sense of urgency because I have almost 6 hours until my next flight takes off.

The first thing I notice when I get into the terminal is that there are more people here than any of the other airports I’ve ever been through. This terminal is also bigger than the others, so if it doesn’t seem like it swallows people up, then there really must be a lot. First thing I want to do is get to my gate and make sure everything is going well, on time, and where I think it is. Sure enough, it’s right by where on side of the airport. I check out the rest of that side of the terminal and then pass my gate to go through the rest. At the very center of the airport the amount of people is getting crazy and makes me feel like I’m in a mall during the Christmas shopping season. I go through every part of the airport, but feel like I have to rush the last part because my eyes are so dry now that they look more like their fluttering than blinking. The last plane ride was really dry and I haven’t been used to that in Laos. I get back to my seat with a few hours left. Now the exhaustion from not sleeping is hitting me like a truck. I drift off a few times in my seat and then get up to walk around just the little area around my terminal for a while. Then, I get back and stand in front of the terminal to make sure my legs are tired enough for this long flight and that I don’t fall asleep again.

I board and settle in on the flight and now I’m on good time for New York, so I don’t even wait for it to take off before settling into a deep sleep. I sleep, on and off, for a good eight hours and then mess around on the TV for the last few hours before the plane gets to JFK.

It was weird to fly over a long skinny island of homes, surrounded by water, and see the entire thing covered in snow. That I certainly haven’t been used to in Laos, my time back home, or in Ghana. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen snow for quite a few years now. I only have a few hours to get off the plane and go through everything at the airport and then travel to Penn station to catch my train. I gave a little bit of a cushion, but I can’t help but be a little nervous. I’m not sure what the pilot is doing because he’s driving down every row of the airport at a very slow pace. It looks like he’s taking his plane driver’s test. Or maybe he’s just trying to make it feel to everyone like we’re all constantly moving and not just sitting idly at our gate. The only issue with that is there are cameras on the front of the plane that are projected on the big TV screens at the end of each row that everyone can easily see and figure out that we’re just riding along with no aim. Those cameras were cool because during the landing it felt like I was playing a video game and actually controlling the plane. Then we get in front of the terminal and the pilot stops the plane a good distance away. Everyone gets up to get their bags and they tell us to sit down because they need to get someone to pull us into the docking bay. This little rover car comes and clamps on to the plane and pulls us along at a casual walking speed. We finally connect and then everyone is able to get up and get their bags. From the point when we touched down and now have connected it’s been nearly an hour. Now, I’m more nervous, but not crazy, yet, about getting to the train. I get off and make my way to immigration. I wore a nice long dress shirt and my slacks to make sure I would go through this part and the rest of customs smoothly. I’m trying to answer their questions ahead of time, just by how I look. I think I’m also playing my tall-white-man card a bit here. I realize that it’s not fair at all that I get treated differently than other people just based on how I look, but I think it would be silly to squander this privilege, especially when in this case there’s nothing I can do to change the status quo. The guy in front of me at the immigration desk looks like he’s Chinese, but has an US Passport. The officer asks him all kinds of questions about being out of the States for 6 months and how he is able to support himself and his family back here. I get slightly nervous because I’ve been out of the States for about 7 months now. The guy looks at my information and lazily rolls his eyes over to where I need to walk next and says next. Well that certainly worked out as planned. Now I come up to the last step of customs where they look at your information and then decide whether to scan your bag or not. I put down that I don’t have any food, even though I have a few bags of some naturally made snack food in my bag with seeds on them. If they find these things and I didn’t declare them, it could possibly lead to some questioning and more delay from my train. The guy at the desk is literally yelling at the person in front of me that he needs to go and get everything scanned. I think it’s more of a New Yorker’s yell and isn’t malicious, but it’s still a bit scary, especially coming from Laos where no one raises their voice because their worried about losing face in public. Then he looks at everything I have for a few seconds and then tells me to go through the middle and not get scanned. I want to make sure that’s what he said so I point and ask if I go there. His voice is now three times as loud as he tells me just to follow the sign and go down the middle. I thank him and scurry along to get out of there before some dog or sniffer animal smells the seeds in my bag.

I made it. I’m not on my way to Penn station. I follow the signs to get to the airport train. Other than it telling me what the next station sign is, there are no obvious signs or information on how to get to further out destinations. I go right up to a worker and she gives me detailed information on how to get to Penn Station. I’m taking the Air train to Jamaca station, the last stop, and then from there taking the E train to Penn Station. Easy enough to remember.

I get up to the exit of the JFK air transit and immediately walk up to a woman and ask for her help. I tell her where I’m going and ask her to get me there fast. She walks me over to a computer and helps me go through the steps. I put in my credit card, but it asks for my zip code, which is at my mom’s house in Irvine. I have no idea what the zip code is there, but try a few combinations anyway. When they’re all wrong, the woman teases me about stealing the card and that it’s okay as long as I buy something for her. I’m joking back with her a little bit, but have panic in the back of my mind because I have no way of getting through these gates. I have some Thai Bhat, but that would require me to go back into the airport to find an exchange place. I see an ATM and try that. With a miracle it spits out money and I take care of everything in cash. I thank her for her help and then get on the train going to Penn station.

Penn station is very confusing because it uses a bunch of train vocabulary that doesn’t make sense to a normal human being. I figure it out all the way to a big open room where everyone is looking up at a big lit up screen telling where their train is waiting. I made it, actually an hour early. I go up to the desk and pay a little extra to get on a train leaving right now and figure the extra money is well worth seeing my family sooner. I go right from the ticket counter over to boarding the train. After about an hour and a half, I get to the Wilmington station and somehow literally time meeting my dad, sister, and Darren almost perfectly. It’s really strange how we traveled from opposite parts of the world and still met each other at this small train station within 10 minutes of each other. That sets the week off on a good note.


One thought on “Laos to JFK

  1. Hey Matt it’s Adam from Ghana. That was a great read! Glad to hear your back in the States enjoying yourself. Keep up the good writing!

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