The Big Boy Airplane

Hop on board.


The first time I can remember being on a plane, I made number of observations. The predominant one in my young noggin, upon glancing out the oval porthole to the great, cloudy panorama beyond, was, “Where all the angels at?” (I was a very literal child, and when I discovered a distinct lack of winged cherubs lazing about in the sky, I was remarkably unhappy). The next thoughts: I don’t like the food, the seat is uncomfortable, and oh my god how are we not there yet. I also remember looking around, seeing families, and then seeing lone adults, especially young ones, and being bewildered. What were they doing? Where were their mommies? How would they not die?



Being alone on a plane meant, at the very least, being alone at immigration, and the airport, and being alone all through the interstitial parts, the weird borderlands of airports where you’re not really in any country. The older I got, and the more cognizant I became of the arduousness of customs, the more impressed I grew. How could these people, especially the younger ones, manage? How could they safely pass through airports without an entourage to maintain the legal documents necessary for international travel?


As I grew into a teen, I became enamoured with travel shows, particularly The Amazing Race, where it seemed romantically possible to compress the world into episodic nuggets, to jetset in remarkably short time, to be riding in Tuk-tuks in South Asia at one moment, and the next day be chasing a giant cheese wheel down a French hill (I’m not sure that these two acts ever occurred in the same season, but years of television have congealed into my brain into one glob). It was mesmerizing.  Would it be possible for me to do this, one day? Would I ever be grown-up enough to go it alone?

I was childishly thrilled as soon as I hopped in one of these bad boys.


The actual move to Korea did not, in my mind, signify some grand entrance into adulthood, or into growing up. For one, my mom totally dropped me off at the airport, and an agency put people on either end, so I was barely alone but for the grueling 13.5 hour slog from one nation to another, with dainty Korean stewardesses feeding and tending to my prone, gelatinous body. Soon after arrival, I was sequestered in a hotel, then fed, watered, and essentially locked away like a princess’s chastity for over a week, as the Ramada hotel became one big dorm for Westerners with vigilant government supervision. I was not able to operate under the illusion of growing up.


I’ve documented before my feelings about being a Big Boy and how I do or do not manage to uphold that shaky self-image. But years of pop-culture festering away in my neocortex compels me to yearn for coming-of-age experiences, to have definite markers of adulthood. Before this, I was but a boy, and now, I am a burly, all-knowing man. There had to be a threshold I could cross, a a border of no return. I thought, certainly, that a Eurotrip, or graduating from university (twice!) would bring on this feeling, but I was left feeling vaguely as adolescent as before.


Shanghai stalling.


Finishing teacher’s college, I was out of school, with another degree, and an actual license from a governing body declaring me fit to tend to the growing brains of my nation’s young people. I watched as swaths of children I had taught grew up just a little bit, or graduated, or became different, expanding people. And that summer, I went on a grand, cross-country roadtrip where, despite the fact that I was essentially walking, talking luggage, I felt sure there was some nascent coming-of-age film, one with polite, folksy indie music on the soundtrack, playing out with myself as the protagonist. And then I moved to another country on the other side of the world, and I still didn’t feel it. There were always older people around in these scenarios, mentors or relatives or people that could handle things if anything went terribly south, even though things didn’t.


Leaving Koh Samui in Thailand, I headed for Hong Kong on my own. I got to the airport and checked myself in, briskly looking through my camera, doing some reading. Families and couples lingered around me, and I shuffled briskly around with my bag alone. When I got to Bangkok, I was in a city entirely on my own, managing flights I acquired for myself, getting onto airplanes all by my lonesome.


Island Airports: they're weird.

Island Airports: they're weird.


It was the precariousness, I think, that made me feel more grown-up. The customs line was enormous and obnoxious, and I lingered behind dozens of sweaty Europeans in parkas for over an hour, watching the clocks slowly turn. I had never been late for a flight before, and I mentally began figuring out what the hell I would do. I had a friend waiting to grab me in Hong Kong, but if I caught a later flight, I would have to find my own way.


It was standing in that line, wafting in the magnificently pungent body odour of those around me, staring at the scrawling Thai, Japanese, English, Korean, and Chinese messages to tourists, that I felt independent, and capable. I didn’t know what, exactly, I would do, scrambling through the airport after my theoretically missed flight. My baggage would surely be on its way to Hong Kong, and I would still be charging around Suvarnabhumi, in a calculated yet frantic manner. But I had the feeling I could handle it.


I don’t know what it is. Standing in queues quietly without companions to talk to, or managing not to lose my passport, are not terribly astounding feats in a vacuum. Other people manage this stuff all the time without earning the Order of Canada for it. And yet, sluicing through the arcane, labyrinthine halls of the Shanghai airport by myself, or waving off the petulant and vigorous cabbies in the Incheon airport (In Korean: It’s okay, taxi guy. Taxi is unnecessary! I declared with, you’d better believe, unyielding self-pride), I felt assured. I had managed international travel entirely on my own, leaving from my own apartment and making it back there.


I was not dead. I had collected souvenirs for others. All of my baggage was with me, as was my passport. That I hadn’t been detained in a Chinese prison, or held back by customs to raid my baggage, seemed an unearthly accomplishment. Simply managing at life without great calamity befalling me felt like I was onto something, like I had surmounted a feat. It felt adult.

At home in the Incheon airport.

6 thoughts on “The Big Boy Airplane

  1. I love your post!

    I took my first solo flight, from Toronto to Antigua, when I was six, to meet my Mom who (?) had flown there ahead of me. I’ve since flown alone all over the world, to Fiji, Peru, Tokyo, Bangkok. I am in Vancouver as I write this (having also been through Calgary airport on this 3 week trip back to my native Canada) and will be back at YVR in two days.

    Flying is tiring and disorienting. You get dehydrated and cranky. But, sometimes, you also have some fun people to talk to — I sat beside (!) a friend’s GP on my way from NY to YVR and from Victoria to Vancouver beside a young man who counts salmon for a living.

    Travel is amazing. Being an adult is tough. Trying to do both well takes guts and stamina. Good for you!

    • The kids flying alone always bewildered me the most as a kid. “They’re a grown-up… so why are they so tiny?”

      I end up not talking to people on flights, the longer the more quiet I get, because I descend into delirium pretty quick.

  2. Charming and fun reading as always. I always looked on children travelling alone, whether by plane or coach, with a mix of pity, fear, confusion and envy, and that’s carried over somewhat even now — I catch the bus to and from uni each day, so my previous attitude means that I feel very mature and serious, especially when the walk to the bus stop is early in the morning. It’s not much, but I’ll take it.

    At first when I went off to another state on holiday with my boyfriend (first trip without family apart from a school trip) it felt very mysterious and grown up, but after some big travel-agent mess-ups we needed a lot of help from our respective parents, spoiling the feeling of independence and maturity a bit!

    • Yeah, having to call ma or pa to help alllllways drains the illusion. My parents speak no Korean and are in a completely different time zone, so I can build up this illusion a lot better travelling in and out of Korea!

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