For a long time, I loathed going to the airport, as much as I loathed going to the dentist. Within the span of a week I was faced with both of my nemeses—my cameraman J and I found ourselves being caught up in three different airports en route to China last weekend, and this Sunday I visited my dentist for treatment of my last wisdom tooth. Somewhere between our involuntary detention at the airports and treatment of my last wisdom tooth, a creative partnership burgeoned. The week in-between the two events were the first week we spent in the electronics markets in Huaqiangbei, Shenzhen for our documentary project. It was a week sprinkled with creative negotiations, small misunderstandings, inappropriate jokes, freezing subway rides, and chats about J’s new cat friend Mattie whom he helps catsitt during his stay in China.
For the past ten years since I started a routine of long-haul international flights between China and somewhere else in the world, I’ve mostly traveled by myself. Somehow I recalled clearly all the occasions where I traveled with company, all with warm feelings regardless of the chaotic itineraries and whether the company was good or not; but with all the trips I’ve undertaken by myself, I’ve lost track of both the number and the details thereof. The memories of all those trips have gotten massed together like a montage, and turned into a personal album of perplexing scents, sentiments, and images, which, whenever opened by accident, evoked in me a sense of disquiet.
But this time, for my work trip to Shenzhen I was lucky to have a companion, someone to commiserate with about airport angst. I must say, I’ve managed to make very good use of my travel companion. My period came, along with stomach cramps and headache, as we got stuck at the Tegel airport for four hours due to our delayed flight. My wisdom tooth flared up the day before the trip. The day before our flights to Shenzhen, I texted J, “Hey, I woke up with wisdom tooth pain. Just to give you a heads-up, you will be on the plane with a grumpy lady tomorrow.” An extremely agreeable companion to travel with for a long-haul flight. And it turned out that it was more than a long-haul flight, but a series of delayed flights, lengthy waits, and rushing through the gates.
By the time our plane arrived in Frankfurt from Berlin Tegel, we had already missed our flight from Frankfurt to Shenzhen. They rebooked us on a new itinerary, which would take us to Beijing, and then from Beijing to Shenzhen. The other option would be to stay in Frankfurt for one day, and fly out to Shenzhen the next day. So we decided to order us a plate of pan-fried noodles and a bowl of ramen, waiting for our aircraft to arrive and take us to the capital of China, while contemplating on the unpredictability and hardships of life. The all-in-all thirty-hour ordeal appeared to me like a miniature of life—we rarely show up at the right gate on time, and at the gates we are unexpected to show up we arrive earnestly. And yet, some of the best guests in our lives are the gatecrashers who come to the party unannounced.
Nothing ever fortified my sentiment of the beginning or the end of a journey so profoundly as being at the airport where life got obtruded by bright florescent lights, colorful suitcases, anonymous travellers, and the continuum of day-and-night. Thinking of it, some of the most intimate moments of my life were actually shared with strangers from all around the world, people who understood nothing about me or my worries. They’ve seen me cry after waving goodbye to parents, they’ve seen me shed big bright tears after saying farewell to a lover; they've shared my sorrows, anonymously.
Summer 2008, I left Tokyo after a two months’ summer course at International Christian University. Looking back, this marked the beginning of my troubled relationship with airports. All the stress aside, my body registered an understanding of the airport as a place where goodbyes were said, parties were ended, and friends let go. It was the summer when I frequented summer festivals in local shrines and ate a lot of takoyaki; I visited the Ghibli Museum where some of my favorite Ghibli movies were once drawn with hands; I walked down the midnight streets of Mitaka and lifted my face to catch the summer drizzle; It was the summer I climbed Mount Fuji and saw a plethora of gods and stars. When I arrived at Haneda Airport, I found myself enwrapped in the melancholy of departure, like that which is captured in Giorgio de Chirico’s painting.
When J and I finally arrived in Beijing, we had about an hour and a half to make it to the gate of the last flight of our journey from Germany to China. I was waving to J on the other side of the Passport Control, signaling him to cut the line and entered the Chinese border as soon as possible. The fear was both for missing the flight and for losing my travel companion to the border officials. After successfully entering the Chinese border, we almost lost my check-in suitcase at the baggage carousal, but it miraculously showed up as one of the last three bags that were loaded onto the belt.
At the end of our airport saga, I couldn’t wait to leave the airport, a place of transition where no one belongs, but trouble makes itself at home. But even then, I couldn’t help but having warm feelings towards the journey. This is the magic of undergoing hardships with someone, which I also think to be the magic of filmmaking. Filmmaking is about storytelling, of course, but to me it is more profound than that: it is about a group of people trying to find a story and tell it together. For it they are willing to wrestle with ideas, get stuck at airports, take long freezing subway rides, and catsitt. And hopefully, they would find themselves at the end of their filmmaking journey, smile at each other, quietly acknowledging all that they’ve gone through together to tell a story.