Tyler is asleep next to me, and next to him, a man snoozes, his head against a plane window sparkling with lacy ice crystals. In the aisle to my right, perfectly coiffed flight attendants in their smart uniforms are beginning to rustle around, preparing breakfast for everyone. The cabin is illuminated with a soft glow, despite the many pull-down shades attempting to keep the brilliant morning sun at bay. High above the clouds, the sun always seems brighter, even at five AM.
As the flight attendants dole out a compartmentalized, efficiently-engineered breakfast to each and every passenger, a scratchy voice comes on the radio; we'll be landing soon. Meanwhile, in my head, Joni Mitchell's undulating flute-like voice warbles "Aw, but California, CAAaaah-li-FOR-nya-uhhh I'm coming home…"
With touchdown imminent, Tara and I get busy filling out our immigration forms, paying close attention to the small area where we are required to list the countries we visited during our time abroad. I've been looking forward to filling in this box ever since we left Thailand, remembering how our friends Sarah and Jamie squeezed all 17 countries from their world-tour onto the page. I managed to cram in all 26 of ours!
Next up, we snicker at our deceitful box-checking: why no, we haven't been to any farms. We haven't been around any snails(!?) or livestock or pastures at all. In fact, we have a strict, no-touching-of-stray-animals policy, and we avoid dirt, blood, and anything that could possibly be harmful to our health:
As we taxi towards our gate, I'm not feeling excited, nervous, or really any different than usual. I suppose that makes sense though, we are still traveling after all. When the plane comes to a halt and everyone unbuckles and stands up, we join a mob of passengers all partaking in the post-flight sea of "excuse-me-sorry-excuse-me"s. Baggage heaved out of the overhead compartments, we squeeze into the aisle and wait for the doors to open and the passengers to file out.
Once we've extracted ourselves from the crowded plane, we make our way into San Francisco's airport, where my even-keeled mood leaves me behind. Suddenly, I am dazed and shell-shocked. With round, wide eyes, I look over a throng of people milling about in a crappy-blue-carpeted waiting area. I'm feeling overwhelmed and foreign, more like a new immigrant than an American citizen.
Just ahead, a US customs officer is being a jerk to an old Korean woman; a guy behind us is talking about all the alcohol he drank at some party; a girl in front of us is on the phone with her mom; and I can hear some parents off to my right scolding their kid for running. All around me, people are talking, on the phone, chit-chatting and arguing. It takes several minutes to figure out why everything seems so jarring to me.
I can understand everything everyone is saying.
Apparently, I've grown to like living in places where the local language is gibberish to me. No matter where we traveled, the minutia of everyone else's private lives washed over and around me as peaceful background noise. Now, I feel like Whoopie Goldberg in Ghost, suddenly plagued with the burden of hearing dead peoples' voices. The incoming stream of noise and understanding is overwhelming!
As we wait in line, I'm trying to re-train my brain to filter incoming sounds, focusing only the noises coming from our immediate surroundings: the Immigration desk. When it is our turn to be stamped through, we're naively expecting a big welcome home, and maybe even a smile from the people who work there.
Instead, our customs officer eyes our country-filled declaration form warily, then glares at us, as if doubting our patriotism. Finally, she reluctantly lets us through, and then we're met with a cordoned-off area and a giant officer with a stomach as wide as I am tall. He points at our bike boxes dubiously:
Massive Officer What's in the boxes?
Massive Officer (reviewing our customs declaration) Oh.
Massive Officer Holy shit you've been to all these countries?!
Finally, we're done with lines and stamps, free from the bureaucracy of our arrival, wheeling our unwieldy boxes towards the exit. As we approach the end of the baggage claim area, the faintest hint of peppy jazz music begins to filter through the corridor. The music grows louder and soon there are grins on our faces and skip in our step. Turning to one other, we exclaim "California is awesome!"
As we push open the doors, light streams in through walls of glass windows; the music is loud and celebratory, causing everyone waiting to smile and clap! And then, I see my big brother, Lian, beaming at us from ear to ear. I rush over for a hug—coming home never felt so good.
Over Lian's shoulder, I see the musicians, and for a split second, I smile, thinking, Wow, how lucky must whoever those people be, those people that get to come home greeted with that! I wonder who they're playing for? It's so exhilarating, and it makes coming home feel like a carnival!
And then recognition sinks in, and I realize that I've actually seen photos of these musicians before. They look familiar because they are my brother's friends. Finally, the truth dawns brilliant and joyous: they're playing for US! Thus we meet Lian's friends, Sarah and Greg, as Tyler whips out the sound recorder to document their welcoming music.
Under the gaze of amused/bemused onlookers, we roll our luggage and our boxes out of the airport in a wonky parade (as per usual). The music continues, this time with a tune that makes me feel like we're Arabian sheikhs with our own entourage, marching to the parking garage as if it were a palace. I guess I got my fanfare after all!
Thank you Lian, Sarah, and Greg for welcoming us home in style!