1. Dual citizen of countries on opposite ends of the north Pacific Ocean, I have long felt like a ping-pong ball, passed back and forth ceaselessly between power players. I was constantly moving and arriving in a place I knew not the duration of my stay. This uncertainty, the anxious anticipation of bidding goodbye once more, did not permit my younger self the natural inclination of calling one’s place of dwelling, “home.” Instead, whichever country I was not living in at the moment held the ironic honor of being my home — mainly for my personal comfort and convenience. The former had to do with a childish coping mechanism: if the country I was currently living in was not home, then when the time came to move away, I would tell myself that I would be merely “moving back home.” The latter was a matter of simplifying conversations that started with: “where are you from?” When asked in the USA, I answered “Korea.” When asked in Korea, I answered “America.” It seemed that this carefully choreographed social routine offered fluidity in the awkward transitions of my life. Less asked follow up questions (like the dreaded “where are you really from?”). I recognized, even as a young child, that people were ready to believe my foreignness than to accept my naturalness.
My understanding of other people’s perceptions of my identity, however, was far more keen than my own understanding of how I viewed myself culturally. I treated internal questions regarding my cultural identity like white noise, subduing its existence, even though they were always there buzzing around in the background. The temporary solution I had come up with was situationally selecting an identity. Never in that process had I considered being both as an option. This complete compartmentalization of my two identities even made the label “Korean-American” an alien word on my tongue. I felt an impostor in the Korean-American community, the culture of which is heavily shaped by the immigrant narrative, the American Dream. I especially felt estranged from the second-generation Korean-Americans because they were raised by immigrant parents who had sweat blood and tears to assimilate, to adopt American values, to win the sacred Eagle. My parents were blurred lined immigrants, who came to America for higher education with plans to return to Korea. And they left America when I was 6 years old.
Then — what kind of American did that make me? Likewise, who was I in Korea? Did I even pass as Korean in Korea? The “never fully both, not enough for either” and “too foreign there, too foreign here” theme took over for a long time until I entered high school when I came to reconcile both under the umbrella of “third-culture.” The only sanctuary up until then was the airport, the physical embodiment of the “in-between.” The non-binary place which demonstrated the possible coexistence of Korea and America in me as I firmly held my two passports back to back. The airport became my home base, my headquarter, and my theoretical “permanent” address.
2. Third Culture Individual (TCI) is a label that groups individuals who fall through the cracks of other labels or fit in too many labels. We are the seemingly culturally ambiguous or multi-categorical people. The simplest definition of us that I’ve seen are “people raised in a culture other than their parents’ for a significant part of their early development years.” But due to the nature of the group, TCIs identify as such for different reasons. Very different reasons. Some of us are children of military personnels. Some of us are children of diplomats. Some of us followed our parents, who followed their career across the globe. Some of us are dual or triple or even quadruple citizens of countries by life’s default. Some of us went to boarding school in a different country for an extended period. Others attended international schools in their own native country. Our backgrounds alone only reveal differences but the shared experience of third culture [parents’ culture(s) combine with your culture(s) to create a third culture, which is an amalgamation of cultures you were raised in] is what unites us.
Our odd, collective affinity towards airports is just one piece of evidence in our shared experience. Many of us, too used to moving, are attracted to non-places, the limbos, the area in which we await a move, or vehicles.
The geographically ambiguous areas (perhaps an embassy, the U.S. military base, the compounds, etc.). It kind of reminds us of ourselves.
We like the time it takes to arrive somewhere. It gives us time to mentally prepare. It gives us time to really say goodbye.
We actively search for that calm before the storm and especially the calm after it, too.
The airport houses all of the elements mentioned above. And this is where our hearts are most comfortable.
3. My TCI friends and I have frequently imagined out loud what it would feel like to live at an airport. Of course, we don’t mean in the way Viktor had to, stranded without a visa, in Spielberg’s “The Terminal.” We mean, living there voluntarily. What would it be like? My favorite essayist, Alain de Botton, must have wondered the same, for he authored A Week at the Airport. First sentence in, I suspected that de Botton might also be of third culture. I was not wrong. A bit of Googling revealed that he, too, was raised in a culture outside of his parents’ for a significant portion of his childhood. It was no wonder, then, that I wholeheartedly felt every line written by de Botton regarding his “peculiar” obsession with the airport: “While punctuality lies at the heart of what we typically understand by a good trip, I have often longed for my plane to be delayed — so that I might be forced to spend a bit more time at the airport. I have rarely shared this aspiration with other people, but in private I hoped for a hydraulic leak from the undercarriage or a tempest off the Bay of Biscay, a bank of fog in Malpensa or a wildcat strike in the control tower in Malaga (famed in the industry as much for its hot-headed labour relations as for its even-handed command of much of western Mediterranean airspace).” [page 10] Though de Botton is much more creative, I have similarly concocted scenarios in which I’d earn a few extra hours or perhaps an overnight stay at the airport: a benign rainstorm that would nonetheless disqualify a takeoff, a VIP passenger’s unforeseen delay in arrival (I’ve witnessed this happen once as I walked past a distraught stewardess walking in and out of duty-free shops yelling the guest’s name that was written on the white board labeled “VIP” in her hands), and a snowstorm at my destination airport which would conveniently prevent our landing (and thus, departure). Most recently, after numerous United Airlines’ scandals, an overbooked plane has made my list (of course, though, I would never want my plane to be delayed by any airline violently dragging an innocent old man off the plane). Unfortunately, my planes were hardly ever delayed for more than an hour or two and my wish went unanswered. My only window into the reality of an extended stay at an airport was de Botton’s account.
In any event, the author’s detailing of his week at the airport did the opposite of subjugating my curiosity. As soon as I finished reading, I suddenly felt the need to go and see for myself — to experience living at home. Exploration of the most underrated destination in the world seemed an adventure I did not want to miss out on. The only thing stopping me was funding. Alain de Botton was paid to live at and write about the London Heathrow Airport by the airport company itself. Young and dauntless, I called the Incheon Airport to see if they would do something like that for me. Answer was an unsurprising, “no.” Months passed and the project naturally moved into a file cabinet in the corner of my mind. Then, miraculously, in the spring of my freshman year at Claremont McKenna College, I was awarded a grant from the writing department to pursue this project. “I ran out of reasons not to accept the airport’s unusual offer to spend a little more time on its premises,” writes Alain de Botton. Unlike him, I now had all the reasons to go.