Traveling by air in America is one of the best ways to see the country, although it is not always the nicest view. I recently took a fresh look, with the goal of advising my foreign friends what to expect when they drop by the United States.
Our Air Palaces
You’ll enjoy our older airports’ retro-touches, which evoke the Golden Age of air travel of the 1950s and 1960s. The typical lack of free WiFi, just like when your parents first visited America, the two electrical outlets serving an entire wing of the airport, the toilets which have not been cleaned since when your parents first visited America, and the “Welcome Home Troops” signs reminiscent of those displayed for soldiers coming home from that war where America invaded your country, all quaintly harken back to simpler times.
Your chances of finding public transportation to and from the airport are slim. Maybe if you look around there’ll be an old city bus for the workers (live like a local!) And stop standing out as a “tourist,” looking for trains that connect to the city center as you’ll find nearly everywhere else in the developed world. As you pay a month’s salary out to the cab driver who is cheating you just like in Cairo, or the Uber guy 23 hours into a shift trying to feed his family, think of it all as a great only-in-the-developing world story to tell if you survive to get back home.
Keep in mind our newer airports are clean and shiny, and look like shopping malls, our most popular places of worship. You can buy the same stuff made in some other country in the airport as out of the airport, eat at the same fast food places, and sample the daily ration of fat required by all the pre-diabetic locals. The newer airports are also a lesson in economics. America has only three viable industries left: government, our largest employer (generally off limits to foreigners, though those we accuse of being terrorists are often taken in as a kind of adjunct), retail sales, and serving/delivering things to each other. See it all while you’re here!
But the real treat inside our airports is that most American of things, security.
Prior to 9/11, no one but Nazis in old movies and zoologists mapping out elephant migration routes used the term “Homeland.” But now everyone in America does. You should try it, too. Say it with the right mix of fear and awe, and the locals might not even guess American English is not your first language.
Speaking of which, one fun thing that distinguishes our international airports from those in many other third world countries is the near-exclusive use of English. Few Americans appreciate the efforts we go to as a nation to provide these gratis tutorial sessions to you.
A curious fact is that American airport workers seem to believe that anyone can speak English if it is blasted at them loud enough and s-l-o-w enough. Idiomatic phrases, such as “ I SAID, liquids in a baggie, 3:1, c’mon, people are waiting behind you” will be taught to you by our security staff. If you don’t catch it all the first time, don’t worry, the worker will repeat it as many times as necessary. American passengers will often help out by advising you how to manhandle your laptop, tear open wrapped gifts, disassemble iPads, and pour out bottled water purchased earlier in the airport, all so you can speed through the security checkpoint enroute to Disneyworld and not Guantanamo.
If you are new to our shores, understand removing shoes at the airport wasn’t always some sort of American custom, but we now embrace it with fervor. Even the Japanese, who are shoe-removing fetishists, often seem unsure about wearing only socks to tread upon a filthy public floor, but you jump right in. We also love to take off our belts, jackets, and jewelry at the airport. Play along; I once saw some yokels from Communist China, where the government controls their every action, worried pants might be next. Hah!
They quickly found out we Americans would never bow to a bully government like they do at home. We instead wait in long, slow lines for our chance to appear before a petty government official with blind power over us, all for safety. Pay attention to our unique style of officials. Unlike in some parts of the world where holding near-life-or-death power over someone is just an excuse to collect bribes, or the bored-as-hell Euro style, our airport workers approach their task with gusto.
If you get touched by a security agent on your private parts, that’s considered good luck by many.
You may think this anger is all directed at you, as a foreign visitor. Actually, if you are from a Muslim country, it is all directed at you. But sometimes Americans are also often singled out for some fun.
For example, on my last trip I was selected for random extra screening, which included removing a Chapstick from my pants pocket, and opening it in front of the security person as proof it was not terrorist balm meant to moisten my lips before shouting “Allah hu Akbar!”
Just like with the foreigners, the agent spoke English loudly to me, as if to reaffirm we are all equal here in America. He also made me open my wallet in case it included a very, very thin gun. In some countries that might be seen as a request for a bribe, but here I understood it was just bullying by a public servant.
What happened after I passed through the checkpoint I think as a “fun” freebie for those who comes from cultures that revere elders. After discovering a typo in the name on a boarding pass, security sent an elderly woman back to the airline counter for a new one even though she said that would cause her to miss her flight, after which she would need a new boarding pass once again. You’re not going to see something like that sitting at home!
Boarding Your Flight
At your gate, be sure to see who boards first, as the list includes military in uniform. I know of no other country in the world that does that, so foreign friends, watch for it as a real “thing.”
Americans will try and rush onto the plane as if they’re not sure that there’ll be a seat for them. But looks can be deceiving, because what those citizens are actually doing is playing one of America’s favorite blood sports, fighting for overhead storage space.
See, the airlines had this idea that since everyone carries luggage on trips, if they charged a fee for luggage, they’d get rich. Americans responded as revolutionaries do, protesting such unjust laws by dragging enough crap on to the plane as “carry on” luggage that the aisles often look like the barricade scene from Les Miserables. The plane cannot accommodate all that stuff, and so a struggle ensues.
Watch closely for regional variations, from passive aggression to outright close combat. Have your camera ready, and let the kids take a swing! If you miss that photo while boarding, you’ll see a slimmed down version of the scrum when it is time to exit the plane. Sometimes the exit fights are even more fun; people have been drinking inflight, and there are scores to settle from the boarding process.
You’ll soon enough arrive at your American destination feeling very much like a local — exhausted and frustrated. And isn’t feeling like you belong somewhere new one of the real goals of travel anyway?
Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.