We all know the drill. Wait, move forward a step, then continue to stand still. When the line shifts, step forward again, stop and wait. This is the routine of anyone who has ever checked-in to a flight at the airport. It was mine as I stood in line to check in for flight EY 867 to Abu Dhabi from Shanghai. It was about 10:30pm, but the flight's departure time wasn't until 1am.
Five Arab men in their 40s stood in front of me sporting suits fresh enough to appear in GQ magazine. The one closest to me had, in addition to an oversize suitcase, a separate bag of toys, probably to give to his children when he got home. Periodically, he zipped open his massive suitcase and moved things into the toy bag. Then he would run over to the abandoned check-in gate next to ours and weigh his bag on the scale, checking whether it was within the weight limit for checked baggage. The other four men would then shout at him until he nervously hustled back. Over and over again he did this, as the line repeatedly moved a few feet and paused. More after the break....
In front of the five GQ models stood two Muslim imams over six feet tall, wearing draped dark robes that fell over their sandals. They all had magnificent beards which shook hard when they laughed. They were carrying what looked like gigantic packages of pillows. After a particularly long stall in the line's methodical movement, they threw down the pillow-packs and sat on them comfortably.
Meanwhile, a heated argument broke out between a middle-aged Chinese couple. They technically weren't even in the line, standing outside the tethered zigzagging rope. But the idle crowd eagerly turned and watched, happy for a mental break from the wait. Only the woman of the couple had a suitcase, and they seemed to be lost, pointing in different directions as they yelled. They eventually grew aware of their audience and fled.
The waiting assembly produced trilingual chatter. Arabic, Chinese and English could all be heard as the line dragged on. The Arabic and Chinese had an interesting contrast. The Chinese was more sprightly, its speakers giddy and energetic, ready to travel to an exciting foreign land. The Arabic was business-like, its speakers wearing resolute expressions, ready for the seriousness of traveling home. Even the imams' laughter had a frankness to it.
Finally, after about 45 minutes, I made it to the counter and got my ticket. The security walk-through was a much more fluid affair, and I exited to my gate with an hour and a half to kill. I decided to make good use of my time and go to the Burger King on the second level. I wasn't hungry, but horribly thirsty. When I got to the Burger King, a line of about ten people had accumulated. I spotted a Coke Float on the menu for RMB 10 and took a spot in line. I quickly noticed the ten people in line were restless. Many paced about impatiently and mumbled about how long it was taking. Ten minutes passed before the first customer in line was served, and I discovered the complainers had a point. Another ten minutes slipped away before the second person was served, and the congregation grew more upset. I decided to fight back personal anger over something as miniscule as Burger King, but the crowd was certainly justified in its temperament. I would have understood if it was a late night fast food situation where one or two workers slaved away in the kitchen struggling to cover a mass of orders. But there were a good amount of employees in this Burger King, at least ten—equal to the number of original customers.
After 45 minutes, the same amount of time it took to check-in to the terminal, only an Arab man and a French family stood in the way of me and my Coke Float. Food arrived onto the counter and a commotion ensued.
"What is this?" asked the Arab in a soft voice.
The young girl working at the counter looked equally confused.
"Huh?" she said.
"I didn't order any of this. I just want to know what is going on," said the Arab. The French family now got involved.
"That's our stuff actually," said the French mother. "We're not together."
The counter girl looked frightened now. Her eyes darted back and forth. The Arab and the family began speaking French with each other.
"Do you have a French speaker?" asked the Arab in English. The worker nodded, and a different girl came forth from the kitchen. For some odd reason, the conversation rapidly switched back to English. A Chinese couple standing behind me began cursing in English. I don't know if they even spoke English. It seemed as though they had simply memorized the crucial dirty words and found a perfect opportunity to try them out.
About ten minutes later, the food was properly dispersed, and I finally ordered my Coke Float. I was no longer early. I could hear my flight's boarding call. As I walked back towards my gate, I passed one of those cliché classy restaurants found in airports the world over. Sitting alone was a man with a contemplative look on his face. On his table were three empty beer bottles and a large novel. He was the only one in the whole restaurant, and one of the few diners in the building smart enough not to go to Burger King.