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On airport people watching

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FEBRUARY 27, 2023

I love the airport. I love the duty-free stores with purse displays lighting up the windows, the bookshops lined with the newest New York Times bestsellers, the stores that sell miscellaneous overpriced snacks. Los Angeles International Airport, or LAX, is one of my favorite places in the world, right behind my childhood bedroom, the Valley Life Sciences Building lawn and any movie theater within a five-mile radius of my current location. 

When most people think of the airport, they think of aggressive security agents, long lines and screaming babies. But when I think of the airport, I think of a miniature diorama of humanity from birth — aforementioned screaming babies — to near death, the extremely elderly. 

As a chronic people-watcher, the endless maze of terminals and gates is my personal heaven. Airports definitely do reflect the worst parts of society. I witness people who scream at service workers, strange amalgamations of bodily odors in confined spaces and a room of 500 humans fighting over four electrical outlets. But somewhere in between these chaotic scenes, they mirror all the good too. 

Take “The Terminal,” the movie where Tom Hanks plays a European national trapped at an airport terminal because of legal red tape. Without giving too much away, Tom Hanks’ character is essentially taken in by the airport’s employees, resulting in a happy ending. “The Terminal” is a perfect encapsulation of how at best, airports are the greatest showcases of humanity, and at worst, they can be xenophobic. 

Maybe I’m just idealistic, but seeing stories of passengers offering to help a new mother with her crying baby or airport employees chauffeuring a family to their gate while driving their golf cart at full speed gives me a bit more faith in the world.

Besides the oh-so-sappy reading of airports, they’re also the perfect place to stare — in the least creepy way possible. Maybe my tradition of sitting in wide-eyed silence at my gate, my gaze following passersby at the airport, stems from the fact that I was an only child told not to run off or I’d get kidnapped. My lack of a sibling to bother and my fear of falling victim to a human trafficking scheme meant that every time I’ve been in an airport, I have been confined to the five rows of black seats in my terminal. 

This has always been fine with me. Even now, I am amazed at the fact that at any given time, there are thousands of people in the airport, from a thousand different places, living a thousand different lives. When I came across a photo of a blurry London with the words “sonder (n.): the realization that each passerby has a life as vivid and complex as your own” on Tumblr at the ripe age of 11, I felt like I had finally become a fully conscious, self-aware human being. 

Instead of simply noticing the green jacket and sticker-covered luggage an airport passerby was wearing, I started to notice the little things. The Godiva chocolate gift bag looped over their suitcase made me question if they were bringing a present home for someone — their kid? Their mom? 

I took note of the very obvious non-American passport in hand, my favorite sighting. I would create entire backstories for these random airport passersby, from where they were from to where they were going. In my mind, this particular emerald jacket-clad person was a marketing executive from Singapore. They were heading home from a business trip in Los Angeles. The three boxes of Godiva chocolates were for their mom, their niece and their favorite coworker. Their beat-up suitcase was received as a going-away present from their grandparents when they left for college.

I get it — it’s definitely a mildly-to-moderately weird phenomenon to create mental character sheets for random strangers. One could even say that it’s the most severe symptom of my unfortunate only-child syndrome. But, I think there’s a little bit of that childlike wonder we all start off with in it. 

Maybe it’s a good thing that not all my imagination was wringed out by the soul-crushing, individuality-stripping machine that is more commonly known as the seventh grade. It’s nice having a little bit of wonder — to see the people walking by as more than just random strangers you’ll never see again, but as men flying across the Atlantic Ocean to reconnect with their long-lost first loves or as middle schoolers taking their first flight for their Washington D.C. trips. 

Perhaps it’s my recent trip home that’s inspiring all this sentimentality about airports, but I still stand by the fact that they are not-so-little pockets of the very best and the very worst facets of human nature. They genuinely harbor everything from life to death. Think of the articles about babies born on planes as a healthy intermediate! 

From the actual throngs of people to the reminders that this world is so full and brimming with life, the airport remains a top contender for one of my favorite places ever. Just don’t ever ask me to pick you up from LAX between the hours of 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. Or on the weekend. We’ll be there for days.

Naomi Lam writes the Monday column on human connection. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

FEBRUARY 27, 2023