there and back again (1)

I think it was Douglas Adams who said that there’s no language on Earth with the expression “as beautiful as an airport.”

Not all airports are bad, I guess. Belfast Airport used to have a nice little breakfast place. Vancouver Airport seemed OK the one time I was there. Heathrow is awful and soul-crushing, but makes up for that by being full of stores selling expensive shit that you’d never want, so I guess it’s kind of like it meets you half-way. But who am I kidding: airports suck, and Beijing Airport has earned itself special distinction in the field of sucking.
The arrivals hall is designed so that it’s impossible to get a taxi without waiting in line for a half-hour in a taxi pen that smells of secondhand smoke, car exhaust, and despair. Coupled with the airport’s convenient location in the ass-end of nowhere, this leads one to suspect that the entire enterprise was designed according to the specifications of the powerful illegal cab lobby. The architects designing the departures area apparently engaged in serious study of crowd flow dynamics and anti-congestion measures, and then did exactly the opposite of what their research said. The stores buy their stock from the Zhengzhou #3 Cheap Shit Factory, and retail it at a 1500% markup. It’s staffed by well-meaning incompetents and lit with the standard airport and interrogation room fluorescents, the kind that make people look like recently exhumed corpses. One time, a year and a half ago, I woke up badly hung-over at Beijing Airport one morning on my way home to the States and was momentarily convinced that I had died and gone to hell.

The best way of dealing with the hassles attendant to air travel is to queue up a playlist on your MP3 player of the loudest, angriest, most violent music you can find. I figured this out recently: the music must be loud, so that it can play to the exclusion of all external stimuli; the violent part is for helping you deal with things in a healthy manner: you don’t have to choke a bitch, because Ice Cube has already done it for you.
This helped a lot on this year’s trip home. I was on a budget itinerary that took me from Beijing at 8:30 AM to Tokyo, left me at Narita Airport for six hours, and then gave me a stopover in Dallas-Fort Worth before taking me back to Philadelphia. Total travel time, including layovers, was approximately 30 hours, and the early-morning flight out of Beijing spooked me into staying up all night the night before, for fear of oversleeping and missing my plane. I wasn’t able to sleep for more than five minutes on any of the flights, and so by the last leg of the trip, from Dallas to Philadelphia, I had been awake for about 50 hours straight, and was feeling more than a little cracked-out, and when the plane took off from DFW airport, a place that I had decided within five minutes of arrival was the anus of the known universe, and I looked down at the city beneath us, all I could think of was how much it looked like jewels.

I chatted a bit with the woman sitting next to me, a largish bottle blonde with intricately painted fingernails who removed a portable DVD player from her bag and sat it on her lap the instant she entered the plane. I asked did those work well, and she replied that hers did, that she’d bought it because she got “tension” on flights. Did that work, I asked. Mostly, she said. She was a boring woman, and it was a boring conversation, but so what; it was in English, and Philadelphia English at that.
I never learned the Philadelphia accent growing up. Part of it was environment, I guess – my dad has a northwestern Irish accent; my mother, though from Philly, has a neutral east-coast accent. I thought the Philadelphia accent, with its nasalized vowels, muted ts, and added syllables (“‘Ja see the Iggles game last night? Aw, it was beeyoodeeful.”) was ugly, grating, not the kind of thing I’d ever want coming out of my mouth. To this day, I can’t even really do a proper imitation of a Philadelphia accent, beyond a few obvious words — “wooder ice.” The thing is that I started missing the sound of it after a while.
After you spend too much time in China, you find yourself talking, as Pete Hessler points out in Oracle Bones, in Special English, which takes its name from a Voice of America program rather than from the Special Bus, but is really the same thing. You e-nun-ci-ate. You use small words to discuss big things. Your sentences shrink to single clauses. You regain all of the consonants that natural speech elides, and you never, ever use words like “hoosegow” or “kiester” or “uxorious.” The speech of the plane’s occupants seemed to be evenly split between slurring Texan drawls and half-swallowed Philadelphian mumbles, and it was beeyoodeeful to listen to.

After a few hours, the plane banked to the left, and the pilot (whose accent may or may not have been Texan, but at any rate was certainly not Philadelphian) told us that we would be arriving in Philadelphia in a half-hour. I looked out the window next to me to try to get a glimpse of the city as it approached, but it was overcast, like the day I left, and I couldn’t see anything below except the odd glimpse through small clearings — until suddenly the plane cleared the clouds and there, glinting up at us in a constellation of yellow light, like fragments of a beer bottle in dirty lamplight, was Philadelphia.

Comments (8)

  1. Rob S wrote::

    This is a great entry. I know you aren’t trying to win an award or anything but I just wanted to make one comment. Take out the last beeyoodeeful, the first time you use it its hilarious (definitely laughed outloud), the second time (last sentence) its too much. This piece has a great feel, like a David Sedaris kind of cynisism and wit. Never commented on a blog before, maybe this is a whole knew beginning for me! Really enjoy your blog! Thanks!

    Tuesday, October 10, 2006 at 2:43 pm #
  2. Hi, Rob —
    You’re dead-on about the second beeyoodeeful; have removed it. Glad you liked the entry, and thanks for commenting!

    Tuesday, October 10, 2006 at 2:52 pm #
  3. pete wrote::

    Great post! Rang very true for me as by mad coincidence I read it on the palm on the shuttle bus back out to Beijing airport having spent four days there (Beijing, not the airport) over the national day holiday period *shudders*. Beijing airport is indeed rubbish. I’ve been through it before a couple of times but it struck me particularly this time – like lots of China annoyances probably because I had my mum in tow. Which of course is the second coincidence with this post as I’ve just enjoyed two weeks with my Mum speaking my own home-town-hua and there is nothing quite like it.

    Been enjoying yr blog for a while now – thx, p.

    Wednesday, October 11, 2006 at 8:42 pm #
  4. Cestmoi wrote::

    Got to you from, himself from, thanks to book reviews of the recent Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret, in particular last words of the excellent review by princeroy giving your name and blog as the future of (new) China watchers (with Jeremy BlĂ© d’Or aka Goldkorn)… ouf ! From my window nowadays I see the Loire river, grass and trees… far from polluted China. I write in fact about your great essay about the Beijing airport. I was myself a specialist of waiting in airports for years, 80% of my time travelling, in particular in Asia, in particular in China (some guys even paid me during one year to visit all Asian airports to study retail in airports; I remember in Japan visiting 3 airports a day during a week, but Japan is greaaat ! After that I had to do the same in Australia, etc. Every country in Asia in fact…). Beijing terminal 2 was more or less built with the help of the Paris Airport guys (they still own 10% of the airport on the HK stock exchange, and have a small office with 2-3 French guys as consultants near the Beijing airport). Once I was complaining to these French guys for their shitty Beijing T2 design, then I realised it was the same shame, no, worse, in Paris T2 A, B, C, D, cramped and incredibly ill-conceived spaces, incredibly messy taxi queues,… so you know were the culprits are. Precisely soon afterwards, in a T2 new wing under construction in Paris a piece of roof collapsed killing a few guys. A few months earlier, I had met by chance the big boss-architect in Beijing (French prime minister’s party during Sars; funny with our masks); he was crying that he had been more or less fired by Paris airport after all these years (true reasons probably close to a financial scandal). Same guy who had designed the new Beijing Opera (ah, ah, so top guys were really frightened in Beijing when they saw that; besides I though for a moment that it was some kind of vengence of this big-boss-architect)… Ouf, so much shame, on these French guys (and I don’t talk about the corruption parts, or the sex parts, in China, by the same or by other French architects, real novels to write…). Same guys again, involved in the Pudong airport. Same big-boss-architect during the same party said so many people complained to him about the poor desing of Pudong that he had asked a letter from the Chinese saying that it was their fault… at the same time he learned from me that another French guy had stolen his Pudong design for some windows for the new Seoul airport (nobody had noticed !)…. I should write a book about all this (mainly French) airport shit all over the world one day… Well, keep on with the good writing… since now you have been baptised the new Pomfret or the new China. I don’t regret all these hours waiting for taxis in T2 in Beijing for years (I had also waited for hours in T1, years earlier, when I was a kid teaching math in Wuda in 1981)… Now I am still young and slowly recovering and cleaning my lungs and my mind. Might take years.

    Wednesday, October 11, 2006 at 10:39 pm #
  5. delvig wrote::

    Oh, never get a chance to see how bad things are in Beijing Airport. Shanghai Pudong Airport (PVG) and Hongkong Airport are both okay. However condition in PVG seems getting worse during my last visit,,oops. I’m just wondering if you’re always writing bilingual versions for every single entry. It’s way tough and gotta be a hard labor, isn’t it? Great blog. Keep writing and have fun in Philadelphia.

    Saturday, October 14, 2006 at 11:09 am #
  6. Kelly wrote::

    So do I, busy cleaning up my lung and my mind after visiting two cities in China: Guangzhou and Beijing. The only place I could see blue sky was during the flight from Guangzhou to Beijing, up above the cloud. The only place I enjoyed visit was Beijing Botanical Garden, for its fresher air.

    Tuesday, October 17, 2006 at 10:58 pm #
  7. Well written and hilarious. Hope you had good time in Philly, and had plenty of Philly Cheese Steak, if that is your cup of tea!

    Thursday, November 2, 2006 at 4:10 am #
  8. Christopher wrote::

    PHL, part brutalist, part post-modern, and walled-in by concrete parking garages, is nearly as ugly as the Philadelphia accent. The best though, are the Septa ticket machines on the hideous R1 platform that are out-of-order. Welcome to Philadelphia! The city that hates you back.

    Thursday, July 3, 2008 at 10:28 pm #