One Night in Russia with a Bunch of Damn Crazy People

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blog executive loungeI was only supposed to be in Moscow for three hours. This was my connecting flight – from Seoul to Moscow, from Moscow to London. I wasted time eating candy bars and trying to fix my hair in the bathroom mirror, unaware that I would end up getting stuck in the Moscow airport forever, seemingly living there like Edward Snowden.

A mere twenty minutes before my flight, I got into the queue, looking at my watch and wondering why we’d missed the scheduled boarding time so badly. There was a short American girl in front of me with long brown hair. “I heard somebody say that the flight’s been canceled,” she said, shaking her head. “God I hope not.”

I agreed, as I’m sure everyone else would have too if they heard her. I highly doubted there would be anyone who’d say, “Oh, I wouldn’t mind it. Today, tomorrow, next Wednesday, whenever. I’m in no rush. Not like London’s going anywhere!”

Some more time passed and then we were all led away from the flight deck and into a large empty waiting area. We were told that there was a problem at Heathrow and all flights had been canceled. So that was that. We would be spending one night in Russia, in a hotel next to the airport. There was a process though that would take some time, because they had to give us special visas or something to that effect, make sure we weren’t secret agents sent in from the West to find and rescue Pussy Riot.

“This is ridiculous!” the girl with brown hair shouted. “How long are we going to be stuck in this waiting room?”

Hours, it turned out. The Russians collected our passports and disappeared with them. We were told that we had to stay in the waiting area and, as the name of the area implied, wait. Time ticked away and little by little everyone started losing their minds, yelling at the poor blonde lady working at the desk or voicing their displeasure into the empty air.

“This is incompetence!” some dude hollered. “Either get me to the hotel or let me out of this waiting room!”

“Where is my passport?” a lady complained. “Where did he go with it? I am so unhappy right now! I want my passport back!”

Tension filled the room like the smell of rotting vegetables constantly fills my apartment. People’s moods got worse and worse, their faces drenched with sweat and hatred. It was like being stuck in the control room of the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis, only not with Kennedy, but with a bunch of lunatics who didn’t know what the heck to do except complain about the Russians.

“This is the worst airport I’ve ever experienced!” someone announced. “I’m never coming here again!”

Well, why would you? Suddenly a voice came over the loud speaker, originating from a new airport worker, a tall man standing behind the counter. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “we apologize for the inconvenience. As a token of our apology, we will be offering free passes for the Executive Business Lounge to our passengers bound for Heathrow. Please come up to the desk and claim your passes.”

In the blink of an eye, the rage evaporated. People rushed to the counter to get their passes to the Executive Business Lounge located inside the airport terminal with the sort of enthusiasm I would have had if they were offering free shots of vodka. Furious frowns disappeared. Shouts of hatred ceased. The Executive Lounge had turned this angry mob into a bunch of bizarrely happy and content individuals. The waiting area, in an instant, had become Whoville on Christmas.

"Fabu Foray! Dabu Doray! Business Lounge blah blah blah blah!"

“Fabu Foray! Dabu Doray! Business Lounge blah blah blah blah!”

“This is great!”

“I’ve never been in the Business Lounge!”

I stood there and stared. What the hell was wrong with these people? Is that all it took, some passes to the airport business lounge, to appease them? Five minutes ago they were ready to loot the place and hang the blonde desk woman from the rafters, and now they had huge smiles on their faces, as if they were going to break into song and dance. For some reason I pictured them singing “It’s Raining Men” of all songs. Hallelujah. The passports came back and we were given a choice of going to the hotel or spending the night in the business lounge. I went for the hotel while others filed out, dancing their way to the lounge.

The next morning I returned to the airport and saw the girl with the brown hair.

“Did you go to the hotel?” I asked.

“No, business lounge.”

“How was it?”

Her hair was all messy and there were bags under her eyes. “It wasn’t anything special.”

We boarded the plane and headed off to London. I hoped that the stewardesses had some upgrade passes to First Class, just in case somebody tried to hijack the plane and had to be persuaded not to.

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Turkey Lo Mein – A Thanksgiving in China

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chinese thanksgiving oneThree days after Thanksgiving, I sat down on my computer and typed “why are there no turkeys in Asia?” into Google. This had been bothering me a lot. For the last two years, my Thanksgivings have been filled with odd turkey substitutes, strange stand-ins, as a Butterball turkey has become about as rare a delicacy as foie gras or steamed caterpillars. Last year, my girlfriend cooked me a fatty duck steak; this year, my Thanksgiving dinner was headlined by leg of lamb.

But that wasn’t all. Earlier in the week, pizza delivery had helped me understand the true nature of Thanksgiving. Nestle (pronounced like the chocolate) – my boss at the school in China where I work – had called a full staff meeting on Monday. “We know that Thursday is Thanksgiving,” she said, “and that this is an important holiday for our foreign teachers. To celebrate, the school will be getting pizza delivered for lunch.”

It was an awesome gesture on Nestle’s part. True to her word, there were six large pizzas waiting for us in the break room on Thanksgiving, all nicely laid out the same way I imagine the pilgrims set up their spread of corn, apple pie, and canned cranberry sauce. The Chinese teachers seemed excited, smiling graciously as we all greedily snatched up chicken wings and slices of pepperoni pizza. Miss Wang, who supervises the foreign teachers, snapped picture after picture, as though she was documenting something that would one day appear in a Chinese history book.

chinese thanksgiving twoChowing down on my third piece of pizza, I stopped to notice what was going on. All the Chinese teachers were there, drinking Coca-cola and munching pizza alongside the teachers from America. It dawned on me that this, as odd as it may sound, was what Thanksgiving was supposed to be about. It was just like the corny stories we’d been taught forever, the Native Americans and the pilgrims all sharing food and celebrating. The same thing was happening before my very eyes, and it wasn’t even going to end with one side massacring the other and taking their land. Two races of people had become bonded, side-by-side, a big happy family, enjoying life together and gaining weight.

A Chinese woman with a huge smile on her face appeared, holding a digital camera. “Wow!” Miss Wang said. “We need to all pose together. This is the woman who runs the school website. She will take a picture of us.”

Focused on my fourth piece of pizza, I slammed the crust into my mouth and chewed on it while the website lady took a bunch of pictures. Part of me felt bitter about this, the photographs making me feel other, an outsider. Look at the foreign people eating their pizza, how precious! I mean, you don’t see me following Miss Wang into a Chinese restaurant and photographing her eating Kung Pao Chicken, do you? I started to wonder if this was in fact a real Thanksgiving or if it was just a photo op, something the school would use to promote itself. Were the smiles real or fake? Was the intention to graciously provide for us, or simply to create promotional material that would, possibly, help the school recruit better teachers who would, in turn, take our jobs?

I shrugged. The intentions didn’t matter – this was about people and everyone was having fun. Maybe the story of Thanksgiving is really just the narrative version of a photo op anyways, and if there were cameras back in the day, that first Thanksgiving would’ve been full of posing and posturing as well. I felt thankful that this wasn’t the case. All the old photographs I’ve ever seen of Native Americans make them look tough and mysterious. My impression of them as a people just wouldn’t be the same if there was, in existence, a snapshot of Sitting Bull with a big chunk of green bean casserole stuck in his teeth.

That doesn’t exist on the Internet, and neither does an explanation for the whereabouts of the turkeys in Asia. All my Google search brought up was a bunch of pages telling me why a turkey, as in the bird, has the same name as Turkey, the country. It’s because the British bought the birds from Turkish merchants, and believed they had been imported from Turkey (although they were actually from Madagascar). So it was all a stupid mistake on the part of the white man, exactly like calling the Native Americans “Indians.”

I guess a name is only a word, and its significance is what you make of it. Just like how Nestle and Miss Wang could happily call a bunch of pizzas in the break room “Thanksgiving,” or how I could call all the people eating beside me “family” without the slightest hint of sarcasm.

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