It’s 2:42 a.m. here in this Massachusetts town. I arrived at 5:30 in the evening, and this is currently the view from the Holiday Inn, one of three hotels in this little pocket of 30,000 people. There’s the flicker of Popeye’s tangerine-orange logo, and the looming hulk of the Showcase Cinemas I grew up going to as a kid – its neon sign now dark, and the entirety of its glass façade eerily lifeless.
A few days ago, I flew from sunny Hong Kong, where the weather was still in the 70s F (21-24C C), and just two weeks ago, I was on a boat on the way to Lamma, drifting lazily down sandy shores on unlimited glasses of sangria.
All of that seemed eons ago as I found myself homeward bound (temporarily!) during a pandemic.
Going to the Airport
The journey to the airport in Hong Kong has always been a pleasant one. Hong Kong’s transportation infrastructure is so shiny, so timely, so ruthlessly efficient, that it can take about 30 minutes for me to leave my apartment’s front door and go all the way to the airport. Of course, all of this happens underneath a backdrop of squalling spitting kids and the gentle hum of suitcase wheels on waxed and shined floors, and the forever lines at the check-in counters.
Not so this time. The Airport Express shuttle, the most dependable piece of transportation in all of Hong Kong, now ran dependably fewer times in an hour – every thirty minutes as opposed to its regular twenty. When I lugged my suitcase on at Hong Kong station, I was my car’s lone passenger. I had donned not one, but two face masks – a surgical mask pinched perfectly at the nose, and a cloth one over it. The double-mask action is the only way to go.
But not the STRONGEST way to go – the kindness of a friend had delivered into my possession a face shield – a wide square of plastic that I stretched over my forehead and over my entire face, safe from any stray drops of liquid. I can say that it wasn’t my finest aesthetic moment, but I was beyond caring. I slathered hand sanitizer over my hands – all the way up to my forearms, and waited for the approach to the airport.
The airport was an altogether difference place when the train pulled in. Gone were the shrieking toddlers and the huddles of families. Gone were the lines of ten and twenty people slinking around strategically placed check-in kiosks. The restaurants lining the airport’s terminal entrance were closed. Voices were subdued and hushed. I had never been so aware that I was one of the very, very, few people in Hong Kong choosing to travel during a pandemic.
I watched, in awe (and more than a bit of envy), a line of young men roll up, their entire bodies swathed in white. I wondered how much their hazmat suits had cost, and mentally kicked myself for not having tried harder to acquire one. Half in genuine fear, and half in amusement. My face shield felt half-assed in comparison, but it was what I had to work with.
I know the next five minutes actually did take five minutes to pass, but it felt like I’d blinked and I was through the security check. A tired security employee waved me through, and then there I was – rolling through an empty terminal. There were no luxury shops open. The lights were dim. A few restaurants were open, and in front of them were empty tables – every other table was plastered with a sign asking patrons not to sit down in the interest of social distancing.
As I sat in front of the gate, I wanted to laugh-cry at the world that I was living in. My fellow passengers were all masked – some of them wore goggles and face shields. A good handful of them were wearing hazmat suits – mostly white, one in bright turquoise. One lady, bless her, looked like she had completely encased herself in three layers of plastic. Fascinated at this unbothered specimen of confidence, I watched her pull her passport, unperturbed, out of her Prada bag and hand it to the attendant – as cool as anything.
I have to say this: this flight, despite being half full, was one of the most comfortable flights I have ever flown on. This was almost certainly due to the fact that I had gotten a window seat, which I’d read were better to sit in in the era of COVID (link), and there was no one sitting next to me. As soon as the seat belt signs were off, I lay the entirety of my body lengthwise across the seats and snoozed for the rest of the 4 hours.
Narita Airport was similarly deserted. As we walked through hushed hallways, I watched airport workers, all wearing tightly fitted face shields, lean over paperwork. I wondered (without much hope) if the workers in the US would be as diligent about masking and social distancing.
An Altogether Comfortable Flight, Where I Watch a Completely Fascinating and Bizarre Japanese Movie
The second flight was even emptier than the first. To my chagrin, I was seated in the middle of the middle of the plane – and once I realized that my entire section had all but FIVE people sitting in it, I asked if I could be moved to the very last row.
If I said that first flight I had taken was the most comfortable, this one was even more comfortable.
Sitting by the window was awesome. Sitting by the window and having the seat next to me be empty was awesome. I ate my enormous supply of gummy bears with relish. There was no one next to me to hear the crinkle of plastic for the one hundredth and sixteenth time and be like “what is with this girl and gummy bears?” and then I would have hated myself the entire flight (but not enough to stop chewing gummy bears). I hope they make color-specific bags of gummy bears, like they do with Skittles and Starbursts. I like the white pineappley ones best (are they pineapple? Can someone confirm?)
I was completely fascinated by a movie I scrolled past on the selection called “Don’t Kiss Me, Kiss Him!” which was complemented by what looked like teenagers in school uniforms.
I am no stranger to the irresistible charms of the Asian high school drama. I have been watching them since I was in high school myself (hello, Boys Over Flowers? I’m still reeling over Jan Di’s decision to choose Gu Jun Pyo over Yoon Ji-hoo, though I can’t say that I would be able to resist Lee Min Ho either).
The only difference, now, however, is that I am in my late-twenties, and no longer in high school. In the privacy of my own home and my own room, I assure you, this would not be an issue. I am not even ashamed to say that I would binge-watch five to ten episodes in a single sitting of a particularly juicy drama. Ordinarily, a drama can even masquerade as quality television. I could have even been watching Parasite, an Oscar-award-sweeper.
But as soon as an entire horde of Japanese high schoolers began carrying out what I can only explain as a very synchronized form of flailing of the limbs and tossing of the hair that, I realized that there was no way I could have been watching any version of an award-winning movie, ever. Again, I was grateful that there was no one around me to witness what was happening on the screen in front of me.
And then there was the flight attendant. Do you ever see someone who is so pretty it hurts to look at them? I was served dinner on the JAL flight by a masked hostess who was so pretty that I did not want to meet her eyes, lest she find out that I was enamoured of her perfectly tweezed eyebrows and her neatly coiled bun. I, on the other hand, was wearing scratched glasses, and I was acutely aware of the frazzled unwashed mass of baby hairs gathering on either side of my head. She spoke softly to me and smiled, and I instantly became very self-conscious. I wondered if I was attracted to her or if I was feeling the effects of extreme physical inferiority.
By the time I touched down in Boston’s Logan airport, I, for the first time in my life after a 20-hour journey through the skies, felt positively refreshed. I had gotten at least 8 hours of sleep on a 12-hour flight. It could have been worse.
Upon disembarkment, the airport was eerily empty. Not all of the lights were on. We, the small handful of passengers on the flight, walked in single file to customs and immigration, where handed the agent my passport. My other hand held the tightly sealed envelope with my doctor’s note and COVID test. Prior to boarding, I had had to fill out a Massachusetts Travel Form, where I affirmed that I had been tested for COVID-19 prior 72 hours prior to arrival (and thus did not have to quarantine).
I waited to be asked.
Instead, she asked me if I had any fruits or vegetables. Bemused, I said “no,” and she waved me through.
I advanced through the halls uncertainly, wondering if there was another room – another hall – anywhere – where someone would ask about my health, or make me sign a health declaration. A temperature check. Anything.
Instead, I suddenly found myself in baggage claim.
Welcome home, I guess.
A Welcome Home Without Much Fanfare
By the time I had lugged myself to one of the only hotels in my parents’ sleepy Massachusetts suburb, I had shaken some of the bemusement off. But not all. The curt receptionist in front of me was wearing her mask underneath her nose. She asked me where I was traveling from. I said, “Hong Kong.” She looked uncertain. Then she asked me to produce my negative COVID test.
Relieved that I hadn’t paid over 200 USD for a test (and a letter!) for nothing, I placed it on the desk and slowly backed away again.
“We try to keep as safe as possible here,” she informed me, motioning to the signs asking for social distancing around her.
I stared at the mask hanging around just below her nostrils. “I can see that,” I said.
When I got back to my room, I peeled off my gloves and took a deep breath. For the twentieth time since I’d woken from my bed in Hong Kong 24 hours earlier, I washed my hands in hot soap and water.