BY JENNIFER NG
You wore tight jeans and a baby doll t-shirt. No carry-on bags. No mobile phone. You hugged a manila envelope to your chest like it was a family heirloom not to leave your sight. I had dismissed you as a female American teenager. But you abruptly stood and spoke to a middle-aged man in a cowboy hat. ¿El tiempo?, you asked, pointing at your boarding pass. “¿El tiempo?”
He responded in loud enunciated English, “I don’t understand.”
You spoke as if the man would understand Spanish, and he spoke as if you would understand English. My breath caught in my throat as the communication channels gasped and sighed. Even with my limited grasp of Spanish, I understood your anxiety. Your eyes echoed confusion, and I felt anguished, remembering language barriers in my life. I grew up in a two-language household, switching effortlessly between the two languages that my parents spoke fluently. But in the first grade, a boy said something, maybe about my dress or the toy I held. My retort came out garbled—a mess made up of English and Cantonese. My cheeks flushed, and I felt far from ordinary. As I grew older, I dropped all the Cantonese, in an effort to be what I thought was American. English, I believed, was what you needed to survive. I wanted to be like everyone else. But I couldn’t.
In the airport, I was returning home from a last minute business trip and had just finished a breakfast of spicy ice cream, a momentary desire for something unordinary, but not too obvious to everyone else. I spotted an empty seat next to you at the gate. The spice from the ice cream tickled the back of my throat, and the sudden sugar spike before our early morning flight beckoned drowsiness. I settled in the fake leather seat to browse through my phone, hoping the digital words would lull me into a nap. Airline staff, dressed in perfectly pressed red and navy blue, crackled over the loudspeaker, declaring a delay for our flight from Austin to San Francisco.
An airline staff member arrived and attempted to understand your words. How could Texans not speak Spanish, not even basic words, I thought. But I also thought, why didn’t you learn a little English? I leapt forward, interrupting the conversation. My Spanish tongue, barely trained by high school Spanish, spurted out a few words: cuando, boleto, avión, porqué, tarde.
You looked alarmed. You said SFO and LAX, pointing at your two boarding passes.
I asked for information at the gate counter. “Está bien,” I said to you.
When I asked where you were going, I didn’t understand your words, filled with advanced Spanish words not taught in my high school Spanish classes. Then you balled your fists, tapping your wrists. You touched your heart with your open palm. You said “America” in English.
“Mira,” you said and pulled papers from the manila envelope. Then you pointed at yourself then pointed at a black and white photo of yourself.
In the photo, your face was stoic, and your eyes stared into the camera. Here in front of me, hope crossed your face, from your eyebrows to your lips. Immigration detention of Austin, TX splayed across the top of the page. You held your wrists together and said a Spanish word I didn’t know. “Asylum?” I offered in English, and you nodded.
You placed your hand near your heart and moved your arms like a jogger. “America,” you said.
You handed me your asylum paperwork. The interview page translated from Spanish laid out your history like the back of an item at the grocery store. Your name. Your age: 29. Your country of origin: Dominican Republic. Your reason for arriving in the states. Your family status. Your parents. I was peering into a secret cave of secrets. Feeling self-conscious, I pushed the papers back to you.
Then you said Spanish words—mi mama, quince años, no he visto. I understood it to mean that you hadn’t seen your mother for fifteen years and that she would meet you in Los Angeles.
I wanted to tell you that my father was a refugee from China, and that he never returned to his homeland for thirty years. I wanted to tell you tips on living in California like wearing layers at night and asking “how are you?” even when you don’t mean it. But my lack of certainty in your language stopped me. Instead, I smiled politely and gazed at my phone, flicking through email and Facebook.
Forty-five minutes passed, and the flight boarded. I found my seat, coincidentally next to you. We greeted each other like good friends. “Hola,” I said, which I meant as good to see you again.
Then you smiled. “Esta es mi primera vez,” you said, gesturing the space around us.
Together, we watched the planes arrive and depart on the tarmac. My drowsiness had disappeared, as the excitement growing on your face enlivened me.
I thought that you would be fearful like most first time fliers, gripping the armrests as the cabin tilted. I would assure you that the loud roar was a sign of a working aircraft. Instead, you gazed through the small window, laughing. I smiled with you, disarmed by your optimism laid bare.
When we parted ways, I bid you farewell. I knew that you didn’t need anything from me. You had everything that you needed. You had your mother. You had your whole sense of self. An unbreakable hope shielding you as you found a new home. I left the gate in the sea of travelers, now armed with the unbridled optimism for being unordinary.