All For The Price of An Armrest

I awoke on yet another couch, this time in Santa Monica, California, with sunlight streaming in through the sliding glass door.  I rolled over and reached my left arm back over my head to grab my cell phone.  The illuminated backdrop showed 7:55.  Five minutes before my alarm.  Though I had only laid my head to rest about four hours prior, I had no trouble getting up…after laying for another ten minutes.  Snooze buttons are well worn around me.  As I laid there on my bed, a thought dominated my groggy consciousness.

“It’s here.  Today is the day.  I fly to Southeast Asia…I fly to Southeast Asia.”

The thought aroused only a sense of the surreal, as if it couldn’t quite possibly be true, and even if it was, what the hell did that mean?  I had some nervous and excited energy bubbling beneath me, no doubt. But, I felt a familiar state of relaxation, if not a state of serenity.  That had become the theme as the departure date approached, and I was confused about this ordinary reaction to an extraordinary situation.  That confusion was washed away by the simple act of taking the first step.  I swung my legs over onto the wooden floor and leaned forward with my elbows on my thighs while I rubbed my eyes.  Each day begins the same way.  I open my eyes to the world, this life, and go.

I checked my email, posted a notice of my departure on Facebook, plugged in my laptop and iPod to their chargers.  I rounded up a few items that I hadn’t placed on the kitchen table with the remainder of my belongings, and then set out to handle bodily functions, showering, and getting dressed.  As I sat down on the toilet, I snagged a Q-tip out of an open box behind me and cleaned my ears while taking a splendid dump.  Q-tips are rare to find when you’re on the road (because I certainly don’t pack them with me) that I take advantage of them when found; a simple and invaluable discovery. A side note:  I’d like to thank any friends, families, and strangers who have unknowingly provided me the tools to help me keep my ears clean over the years.  I sincerely appreciate it.  As I showered, I lingered in the hot water, knowing this underappreciated luxury would not be afforded me so readily over there.  After drying off, I got dressed.  A limited wardrobe made my style selection easy. Jeans, gray t-shirt, cotton button up, and Chucks.

Pamela walked out of the kitchen.  “You ready?”

“Ready as I ever will be.”

“You know I just thought of something…if Chris stayed at Ashley’s last night, how did he make sure the gate and his door to his house would be unlocked?” Pam asked, appearing concerned.

“Oh shit, yeah that’s right. I didn’t think of that.” I replied.  My larger backpack as well as some camera equipment and books were still at Chris’ place, where I stayed the first night in town.  I was to pick the items up before heading to the airport.

“Well, I guess if it’s locked and I can’t get in, so it goes…There is nothing essential in there and that would mean I would travel ultra-ultra light.  I’ll text him and we’ll see. We can drop by there if he doesn’t respond and worst case is I just trim down what I take to fit it into my daypack and pick up whatever I need when I’m over there.”

I was disappointed I had not taken care of this earlier, or remind him to leave the place unlocked.  But such events go hand in hand with me.  I make basic preparations to ensure I have the necessities, research destinations and relevant details, and keep in mind that I will not and cannot possibly prepare perfectly.  I choose to be prepared to adapt to imperfections. So when this came up 10 minutes before we were supposed to leave the house:  I thought:  “Shit, that sucks.  Wish I had…But I didn’t, so oh well. No sense in worrying about it now. Everything will be okay.”  Things don’t always work out the way you want them to, but if you accept the way that they will eventually work out, you save yourself a lot of stress, in addition to keeping positive energy.

Ten minutes after sending a text message to Chris, I received word back from him that he had contacted his landlord to be sure she left everything open for me.  “Well, that’s awesome”, I thought to myself.  Given this was my first international trip, I was certainly relieved things worked out the way I preferred. After stopping to pick up my things, Pam dropped me off at the international terminal at LAX, and I made my way inside to the ticket counter.

I handed my crisp, unstamped passport to the gate agent, a middle-aged Asian woman with short-cropped hair.  She looked it over with bureaucratic efficiency and indifference. I watched her transfer data from the passport to the computer.  I listened to the chatter of groups around me. No English. Mandarin? I was flying a Chinese airline, so that was my assumption.  Although, I had no idea what Mandarin sounded like.   I was left guessing in my ignorance.  Did it matter?  I watched a group of about a dozen to my left chatting away. The pitch of the foreign sounds alternated from level to high. Many smiles were exchanged. So too were handshakes, hugs, and bows.  I wondered what they were saying, but already knew.

“Sir, you are headed to Bangkok?”

“Yes, ma’am.” I spoke with a smile.

“How long you stay in Bangkok, sir?”

“I don’t imagine I will stay in the city for more than three days, but I intend to remain in Thailand for the duration of the 30 day boarder entrance visa.” I replied confidently.

“Ah-excuse me, one minute, sir.”

She walked through a door behind her, disappearing for a minute. She returned with a document.  I feared for a moment that there was a problem, or would be a problem.  She explained I must complete a form that waives the airline of responsibility for any problems in regards to entering the country or lost baggage due to my lack of prearranged visa.  All fear is for naught.   She finished up her duties, adhering tickets to my checked backpack and looking over my boarding pass one more time.

Her stern face melted into a furrowed brow and a frown.

“Oh, I’m sorry sir. But we have problem.”

Cue the proverbial elbow to kidney and knee to groin.

“Wait, what? What’s the matter?” I asked, trying to maintain calm.

“One moment, sir.”

I took a deep breath and gave some inward-directed reminders.   “So, it goes Jameson. It will all work out. You got to the counter in plenty of time. Relax.  It will get straightened out.  Take a look around. Dig this. Take it all in, even this little potential hiccup.  It’s all good.”

As she worked on her computer and looked over my ticket, I figured out the hang-up, and assumed it was a minor one, indeed. I remembered I had a one night layover in China.  The airline would likely need to note this, especially for my checked baggage.  Sure enough, within a minute, she explained that exact scenario, and that I would need to claim my checked bag in Shanghai, as well as check-in and go through customs and security again in China before leaving for Bangkok.

“Yes, ma’am. No worries.  Thank you very much for your help today.”

I displayed a mouth full of teeth with this and turned to head through security.  The cavernous terminal was scarcely crowded given its volume, but it was not without crowds.  It was not lost on me that I was the minority in looks and primary language spoken.  I walked with a bounce in my step and greeted the security agents, as they barely broke their private conversations in Spanish to acknowledge me.  Strictly business was fine by me. I walked through an empty queue to another security checkpoint, where three more agents were standing around and chatting.  I caught the conversation as I approached.

“Yeah, man, I will tell you one thing about this job though.  It’s pretty easy and pays well. But, the best advice I can give to you…buy yourself a nice pair of shoes.”

“Oh, right. Cuz you gotta do a lot of walking.”

“Nah, a lot of standing around, bro.”

My passport and ticket were handed back to me without a break in the conversation.  I walked up to the conveyor belt and x-ray machine, stood behind the lone man in front of me, and counted a dozen TSA and LAPD officials.  I greeted a woman behind the conveyor belt as I slipped off my shoes, belt, and followed the rest of airport security protocol. She was the first person to return my smile this morning.  That minute detail was not lost on me.  I then cleared the x-ray machine, wondering as always, what I looked like from the other side of the machine.  I stepped through, gathered my belongings, donned my belts and shoes, and went on my way to my gate with two and a half hours until departure.

Smooth. The domestic flight ticketing, security, and boarding process was a creaky, unaligned mess compared to this machine.  Was it always easy? It seemed as if the universe was saying:  “Yes, right this way Jameson. You’re on the right path.”  I held out in my mind that clearing foreign customs would be no such breeze.  But, as I reached my gate, I plopped down in one of the numerous empty chairs and got out my cell to make the final phone calls to my family before I left the country.  No sense in worrying about Chinese and Thai customs.  I would be there soon enough.

When I boarded the flight, I was overjoyed to notice that I was in an aisle seat with two seats empty between myself and the other passenger in my row. Or so I thought…Before takeoff, the gentleman moved to the seat next to me and his wife moved up from behind to sit in our row.  She chose to sit in the seat he previously occupied. The man seated next to me apparently had no conception of personal space as he let his shoulders, arms, and legs spill over into my area.  We weren’t touching, so much as pressing firmly against one another.  This all happened while he and his wife enjoyed an empty seat between the two of them.  I chuckled and slightly shook my head.

“Really?  Really?!  This is a fourteen hour flight and this guy would rather be compressed next to me than his wife. Awesome.” I thought to myself.

Given our close quarters, I was able to get to know my pal to my left with my senses.  His body odor suggested a disappointing amount of soap used while showering; not oppressively bad, but unpleasant, and without a doubt sure to worsen over the marathon flight.  After the drink cart passed through the first time, he ordered tomato juice and a glass of wine. He proceeded to down those within five minutes, along with a glass of wine he had instructed his wife to order. After that impressive showing, he exorcised his demons with a belch that seemed to imitate Barney from The Simpsons.  Throughout this, I was in a state of disbelief, wonder, and frustration.  But, as before, I tried to remain level-headed and present by giving the same mental reminders and taking some deep breaths. I was able to settle in and declined my seat and relaxed while listening to music, a smile appearing, fading, and reappearing as I allowed my thoughts to float.  They ultimately returned to:  I am on a flight traveling around the world.  I am going to China. China! Thailand! A foreign land. For several months.

My inner peace continued to be tested each time my neighbor shifted abruptly, disrupting the human puzzle piece we had formed on the edge of each seat, or when he cleared his throat as if he was asking for attention from anyone within 5 rows.  He was leaning at an angle in his seat so that his legs crossed between him and his wife. At one point, he awoke, and asked to pass me to use the restroom.  I took this opportunity to turn on the dome light above us so that I could read.  And wouldn’t you know it, it was not one that you could adjust, so the light shone down directly in between our seats. When he returned, he laid down to sleep for about five minutes before sitting up and taking out a newspaper.

“Yeah, sure sucks you can’t sleep when the light is shining down on you, too. Oh, you probably could sleep if you moved over one seat and cuddled up with your wife instead of me.  Tough break.”, so went my inner dialogue of vengeance.

I truly did want to read, so I hadn’t turned on the light entirely in spite.  But, I had to be honest with myself about it. It was partly what motivated me and I did revel in passive aggressive glory. As I did though, my neighbor turned slightly towards me, lifted and tilted his newspaper up, and continued reading while effectively blocking the light from reaching my seat.

Touché, sir, touché.

Ten minutes of reading in the dark left me more frustrated than before, not only because I was unable to clearly see the words on the pages, but also because I knew I acted in negative spirit and helped create the problem.  I was left feeling remorseful and childish.  This is how wars are started, I thought. Petty bullshit.  A bit hyperbolic, but the essence is true.  When we operate solely out of our own ego and from the perspective that the world we live in is ours, and solely ours, or even that it is ours more than theirs, we desire to have things our way and fight one another for the limited resources to make that happen.  Sometimes it is two guys battling for elbow room on an airplane, sometimes it is multinational wars for oil or geographic advantage.  But how could I make my situation right, I thought to myself.

First, I knew I had to get my mind right.  I had to see things as they were and to how I desired.  I wished the guy would just move one seat over so that we would have the empty chair between us.  That wasn’t the case. He sat next to me and we shared a small space.  It didn’t matter if he had thought about me or considered my position. That wasn’t in my control.  All that was in my control was how I reacted to what was and try to act out of love, compassion, and positivity. So I gathered these thoughts, inhaled deeply, and exhaled slowly.  My unchosen companion was watching the inflight movie when I tapped him on the shoulder. I motioned to the light and he nodded his head.  I reached up and turned the light off, put my headphones on and leaned back in my seat.  I felt better. I relaxed and zoned back in the moment, listening to my music, losing myself in my thoughts.  Within minutes, he positioned himself almost completely horizontally with his pillow on the arm rest (and my arm), and was fast asleep.  I smiled. I no longer saw this as an infringement of my space, but as the sharing of a common space, a common resource.  I felt connected to this stranger.  I smiled.  Strange journey, indeed.

I slept for the entire discography of Radiohead and woke feeling a bit dazed, but rested, and remained out of it for awhile. I finally snapped out of it when a snack of croissant with ham and cheese was served.  After I demolished the snack, I turned my attention to the inflight movie, which showed American mercenaries shooting up the bad guys, who were Asian, and laughed at the moment when realizing here was a plane of mostly Chinese watching an American movie on the way home to China showing Americans playing the good guys taking out the Asian bad guys.  Hilarious and sad.  As I watched, my companion tapped me on the shoulder.

“Shanghai first?”

I stared back at him.  I smiled to diffuse the awkwardness.

“Ohhh, yes. First time in Shanghai.” I replied once I understood.

“China first?” He nodded vigorously and smiled while posing his second question.

“Yes, first time in China.” I responded, still smiling.

“First time America.” He responded, beaming.  “America, beautiful.” He held the “ew” for effect.  I thought it was quite endearing.  I felt a pang of guilt for the light episode.

“It is very beautiful. Where did you go?”

He looked back confused, and stammered an “uhh…uhh…ahhh” and looked up in thought, processing the translation.

“Los Angeles?” I asked, trying to help.

“Yes! Yes!” He responded, head nodding vigorously with that same smile.

“New York City?”

“Oh, no no no. San Franzizsco…ahhhh, umm, Zas Vegas. Very very beautiful.”  He once again accentuated the “ew” and kept the smile frozen on his face.  I then introduced myself and he shook my hand vigorously.  Irichi, my former nemesis and new friend.  I smiled back and then we settled into a conversation hiatus, that zone you have when a spontaneous conversation drifts to silence, but still going.  A conversational ellipsis, of sorts.  After several minutes of silence, he turned towards me and resumed the conversation.

“Nihao…Hello.”

Confused, I responded with “Nihao”.

He smiled and nodded vigorously.  Then he proceeded to teach me goodbye, and have me repeat after him.  Then, it was onto thank you. Then, onto good, very good, and bad. Then…Irichi was giving me an impromptu lesson in basic Chinese.  We spent the next 15 minutes in the enjoyable struggle of overcoming language barriers. I found myself with a role reversal, whereas I have often been accustomed to be being the authority conveying knowledge to the other; here I was the pupil.  We laughed, we stammered, we looked up towards the airplane’s ceiling for clarity of translation. It was a humbling experience.  It was a wonderful experience.

The experience was the erosion of personal, cultural, and language barriers.  It was the creation of communion of fellow people sharing the same psychic space. It was IT.  That moment of feeling profoundly alive wrapped in an ordinary packaging.  Those ordinary moments that are extraordinary; those moments that we are often too lazy to work to create, and often ignore when presented because we are too caught up in our own shit, our own bubble. Those moments we desire, but often fail to receive because we are not ready to give ourselves to them.  I once again felt deeply that I was on the right track, the right path.  If I continued to remain open to all experiences, even seemingly negative ones, and cultivated the best in myself, I would be presented with some kind of amazing gift.  And all I had to pay for this experience was an armrest…

3 thoughts on “All For The Price of An Armrest

  1. I just read through your whole blog and I still can’t get over this particular post. I’m currently a Peace Corps volunteer and am unable to resonate enough with your observation, the meticulous and awkward sensation of being a minority. Known to the world as not of your own. Constantly surrounded and provoked to some how elicit most of the immediate stereotype we surround ourselves with everyday in the US. I really commend your reactions and your ability to bask in the beauty of being a minority. As I live in Fiji, a country known from the outside for its beauty and luxury hotels, but from the inside a place filled passion and culture… I am constantly fighting an internal battle between my expectations of myself and my work as a Peace Corps volunteer and learning to just succumb to the culture and be one with it’s heart. To not only revel in my ignorance as a kaivalagi (foreigner) but to learn and fall into their arms hoping their abudance of spirit will carry me through my years here. It was fascinating reading your outlook on the place of my ancestors and I do hope they made for an enjoyable time. Also, our friends from FGCU did not lie with your writing, its well-written and gripping in a sort of cynical texture. You actually inspired my next blog post, vinaka vakalevu (thank you very much) -Ciara

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