Authors: J.R. Thornton
For Tom Mallory
This is a work of fiction. All characters, including the narrator, are entirely imagined and bear no relation to any living persons.
, the Chinese character for
repeated three times, implying conspiracy or treachery. I was reminded of it as I watched the three female immigration officials huddle over my passport. They spoke to each other in rapid whispers that came out in machine-gun bursts. They glanced at me, looked back at my passport, and then flipped through the pagesâagain and again. It was unnerving. I was alone in this new country and barely spoke the language.
I didn't understand enough Chinese to know exactly what the problem was, but I suspected it had something to do with my visa. I reached over the counter and tried to point out the visa page in my passport, but the first immigration official jerked my passport away and snapped at me. The three women huddled together. I heard one of them repeat
shi si sui
, the words for fourteen years old, several times, but I didn't understand much else. I guessed they couldn't figure out how or why a fourteen-year-old boy had a diplomat-level visa. Someone at the Embassy had arranged it as a favor to my father. Since retiring from investment banking, my father had served as a senior business advisor to the Chinese government on privatizing state-owned enterprises.
Trying to explain the situation to these women would only complicate matters.
I had been at the desk for close to an hour, and for the last thirty minutes, I had been the only passenger left in the immigration hall. Finally, the two women who had been called over to help shook their heads with an indifferent sense of disapproval and walked away. What made these women finally give up, I don't know. Whatever the reason, the first immigration official reluctantly stamped my passport and waved me on. Along the back wall, four armed guards stood motionless with arms pressed behind their backs and feet shoulder width apart. I walked past the guards and down a long, still corridor to the baggage claim. I expected to see other travelers. But there was no one else. Only me.
By the time I arrived at the baggage claim, my bags were circling alone. Too tired from the sixteen-hour flight to chase them down, I sat down and waited for my bags to circulate around the oval track. The baggage claim area was stark and unlike those in other airports I had passed through at the beginnings of holidays in Italy and France. The billboards featuring tanned models who beckoned with their blue eyes and white smiles that decorated the Florence and Nice airports were nowhere to be found. In their place were official notice boards and signs with unintelligible Chinese characters. The carousel's metal plates scraped together as they rounded the corner and beat a steady rhythm like an oversized metronome marking the room's silence.
I hauled my bags off the belt and headed toward the exit. As I walked past the customs counter, I realized that this was the first time I was leaving an airport on my own. It felt strange not to be following an adult with a trolley loaded with bags. I looked back
and saw the long columns of trolleys perfectly aligned, and I remembered how my older brother Tom and I used to take them and race them around like pushcarts as we waited for our father or our nanny to collect the bags. We stopped a few years ago. It was what kids did, Tom said. I dropped my bags to pull out the photograph my father had given me of the young Chinese woman he had hired to act as my guardian for the year. Victoriaâwith her straight black hair and glassesâwould be waiting for me on the other side of customs.
The walk was long and the emptiness of the airport made me wonder if my flight was the last to land. The strap of my heavy duffel bag cut into my shoulder. As alone as I felt walking down that long hallway, I suppose I felt a sense of relief to be going to a place where nothing was familiarâno shared language, no remembered faces, no recognizable landscape, nothing to remind me of what had happened. I had no idea what I would be heading intoâit would be harder than I, at the time, had the ability to imagine. But looking backâknowing what I know nowâI would never send my son off like that.