Airport Curiosities

A Swarovski tree. Airport aquariums. Language Delay. Humorous, peculiar, frustrating, memorable – most everyone who has ever flown has a tale or two (or several) from the airport. For instance, despite how much I like the city of Chicago, I avoid ORD (Chicago O’Hare International Airport) like the plague because I’ve been stranded there overnight. But let’s not exchange traumatizing stories today; that’s no way to transition into a new year. Instead, here’s a hodgepodge of curious travel anecdotes.



Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) – Hong Kong

During an unexpected travel hiccup one December, I find myself killing time at HKG. Strolling around the airport, I find the gem –or in this case, gems– you see on the left. Yup, it’s a Swarovski Christmas tree. I’ve walked into many a Swarovski shop (Ooh look, sparkles!), and this is definitely not the little miniature you find in a glass display case.


Tampa International Airport (TPA) – Tampa, Florida
Journeying home after nearly a month in Spain, Portugal, and Morocco, a layover in Tampa is my point of entry back into the U.S. Given that my brain has been in non-English mode during this time away, my return immigration interview goes something like this:

Immigration Officer (IO): Morning.
Me: Buenos días.
IO: Were you traveling for business or pleasure?
Me: (What did she just say? I can’t process right now. Why can I not respond? Come on, brain!)
IO: Business or pleasure? [Flips through my passport]
Me: [Paralyzed and unresponsive]
IO: [Holds passport photo page up, level with my face, to make sure it’s me] Were you traveling for business or pleasure? [Looks at me patiently, perhaps wondering if English is not my native language]
Me: Busin– umm…. (Pause. Wait. What? I was most definitely not on a business trip–)
IO: Vacation?
Me: …Yes! (Thank you, that’s the answer I was looking for.)
IO: Welcome home. [Stamps passport.]

I smile sheepishly as I proceed through the terminal, too shocked to berate myself for being unable to answer such a simple question. In my native tongue. A few short weeks out of the country and I’m already struggling with English? I laugh silently all the way to baggage claim.

Antonio B. Won Pat International Airport (GUM) – Tamuning, Guam

I don’t know of many airports that have aquariums, but –surprise!– Guam has at least two. Considering the small size of the airport, I’m surprised the main aquarium is larger than the one at Orlando International Airport (MCO), especially if we’re comparing aquarium-to-airport ratios. Anyway, here’s some Mariana Islands aquatic life for you.



Having grown up on Guam, I assume I give off that island vibe. Another wrong assumption on my part because, after visiting the island some years after my departure, the duty free agents greet me with a cheery Konnichiwa (“Hello” in Japanese) rather than the local Hafa Adai (Chamorro for “Hello” – the equivalent of a Hawaiian “Aloha.”). Because many Japanese tourists flock to Guam, I don’t overthink it, figuring it’s just a standard greeting…. That is, until I arrive in Narita on layover. (See Narita below)


Narita International Airport (NRT) – Narita, Japan
In a souvenir/sweet shop at NRT, a sales clerk offers me a food sample – in Japanese. A little odd. I know she speaks English because she has just spoken in English with an American couple beside me. Now, I know I’m not Caucasian, but I know English is usually the default language when one is uncertain what language another person speaks. When I get to the checkout counter, the clerk speaks to me in Japanese as well, only switching to [fluent] English when I respond in English. Apparently, I can pass for Japanese? This could be fun….

Side story: Since we’re talking about NRT, can I take a moment to mention the bathrooms? I’m a germophobe, and the staff deserves props for the cleanliness of bathrooms here. But what I really want to say is that their toilets have some interesting settings. I don’t actually press any of these buttons, but I do wonder what percentage of people do. Can I also point out that there’s a thermostat on the sink? It’s nothing fancy, but you have to admit it’s not (at least, not these days) a common sight.



Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL) – Manila, Philippines

Upon leaving the country, Immigration asks me a few curious questions in a pseudo exit interview.


Photo credit: The Philippine Star 2014, in “NAIA 1 tagged world’s 8th worst airport”

Clerk: Do you have Filipino blood?
Me: Yes. (Umm, is that a standard question?)
Clerk: Can you speak any Filipino?
Me: Opo, syempre naman. Yes sir, of course I can.
[Clerk stamps my passport.]

I can’t pretend to understand entirely what just happened. Here I thought I had Filipino! branded across my forehead, and a surname to prove it. Sometimes, though, it feels like even my fellow Pinoys aren’t sure if I’m one of them.

In the News: NAIA is consistently one of the world’s worst-ranking airports. Countless lines criss-cross every which way and extend for what seem like miles.


San Francisco International Airport (SFO) – San Francisco, California
As if I weren’t already suffering from an identity crisis based on the experiences listed above, I’m now –according to the woman standing beside me at baggage claim– Chinese-American. It’s amusing, really. In the south bay, mainly San José, I’m often mistaken for Vietnamese. In fact, I’ve been mistaken by shopkeepers as an American-born Vietnamese kid who can’t speak the language of her parents.


Amidst the delays in language switchover and the frequently mistaken ethnic background (it’s quite entertaining; most recently, I’ve been pegged as Brazilian in Rio and Peruvian in Lima), I feel like I could blend in most anywhere! That’s a natural aspect of traveling, though, isn’t it? Your identity remains intact, yet it changes without you noticing. In some countries, you sometimes leave –or shed– pieces of yourself; in others, you realize new aspects of it. Often, the version of you before a voyage is different from the version of you that returns, whether the changes are temporary, permanent, subtle, or drastic. And it’s a beautiful thing.

Wishing you a new year filled with stories – fun, curious, zany, wacky, memorable stories.