In April 2010, the most unlikely of God's people taught me yet another lesson. At that time, the Eyjafjallajokull volvano in Iceland erupted, making travel to and through Europe difficult: long lines, canceled flights, re-routed planes. It was a good time to curtail one's travel, but I could not do that. Neither could many other people, and so at airports one found impatience and irritation rampant.
I quickly ran into these emotions myself. Well, honestly speaking, I fell captive to them when the first leg of a series of flights I was scheduled on was re-routed after we had already boarded. Everyone had to be rescheduled. Most of us were making connections that we would miss, so the line was long and slow, a couple of hours slow.
A Vietnamese couple in line several people behind me kept pushing, trying to get ahead of those in front of them. How not American, I thought, determined to make them take their turn in accordance with my American sense of proper behavior.
There were three of them, actually: the elderly couple and a young woman, whom I assumed to be their granddaughter. They chatted away in an Asian language that I did not recognize but later learned was Vietnamese.
As they pushed forward, the elderly man actually elbowed me aside, trying to slide around me as the line began to inch around the twists and turns leading to the ticket counter. I had watched him use this maneuver to leapfrog successfully in front of about a dozen people, one at a time. Now I separated him from his wife and the young woman, and, having stood in line for close to 90 minutes already, knowing that each passing minute lowered the chances of finding a flight that would allow me to reconnect to my other legs, I was decidedly impatient with the process and irritated with someone who felt he deserved to go first. (Of course, I did realize that this was simply his culture; he probably had no idea how Americans, who are raised to take turns, are annoyed by what would be a normal jockeying for position in his own land.) Still, having spent time in countries where one must jockey for position or never make it to the counter, I was determined to hold my own place and did, continuing to separate him from the two who were with him.
Feeling uncomfortable about the whole situation, I did what extroverts always do. I struck up a conversation. The elderly couple did not speak English. However, Twi, the young woman, who, it turns out was not their granddaughter but just another line-stander, did speak English, albeit almost unintelligibly. She spoke to the couple in Vietnamese and to me in bad English, and slowly a picture of each other emerged.
The elderly couple stopped pushing. The four of us were now a group and could proceed through the line together until we were separated into two groups at the ticket counter. The elderly couple took the first open ticket agent. Twi, who had asked me to interpret for her, and I took the second. It is not the first time that someone whose language I do not speak has asked me to interpret. You see, if you work with foreigners frequently, you learn how to speak broken English in a way that they can understand when they cannot understand grammatically correct and well enunciated English. You also learn how to understand what they are trying to say when they know only 1-2 words out of the dozen that they need. So, I interpreted for Twi and successfully arranged her new flight for late afternoon. Since she would have a 6-hour wait, she called her husband to meet for lunch. He would meet her at the baggage claim, where all our bags had been sent.
As for me, I had to go pick up my bag, as well, because my new flight was leaving from another terminal. San Jose Airport is easy to navigate, but Twi was new both to the airport and to the English language, so I offered to walk her over to the baggage claim area and get her on the right curb to meet her husband. After that, I could catch the bus to the other terminal.
As we left the ticket counter, I saw the elderly couple standing by, looking confused. They had just received their new tickets but clearly had not understood anything about what their next step should be. I looked at their tickets; they were on my flight. Twi explained to them that they would have to get their luggage and take a bus to the other terminal. They panicked until they understood that I was on their flight and would accompany them the whole way.
Having crossed the overpass, obtained our luggage, and dropped Twi at the right curb, the couple and I were ready to clamber on the shuttle bus. I stepped up first and threw my bag onto the shelving. Then, I noticed the elderly, stereotypically small, Asian man struggling to lift two large bags. Equally small but a farm-raised girl with eight years of military duty under her belt, today I can lift and swing heavy suitcases much the same way as I used to lift and swing bales of hay. I hopped back out, grabbed the two suitcases and swung them onto the rack.
We stayed together, minimally communicating, given the lack of a common language, until flight time. They got off first in Phoenix, my first layover and an airport I know well. They were muddling through an interpretation of the airport signs when I disembarked, being rewarded with a second chance to help them.
I understand the lesson God wanted me to learn that day: be kind, be helpful, avoid irritation and impatience as unrewarding traits. In the process, I was given a chance to become acquainted with two people who otherwise would have been only faces in a crowd. How interesting that once we know someone, our attitude dramatically changes for the better. As for them, they were very grateful. “Thank you” was the one American expression they did know, and they used it over and over. In spite of the aggravation of disrupted travel, I arrived cheerful, thanks to two people I did not know and whose language I did not speak.
Now, when faced with long lines at the airport, as happens more frequently than not, I try to remember this lesson. I have often been the recipient of the kindness of strangers when I travel. I like it when the shoe is on the other foot, when I can be the stranger who shows kindness. At the end of the day, we are all God's children; we should work together and play together in ways that demonstrate that we know this.
(Excerpted from my forthcoming book, Believer in Waiting.)