December 6, 2012 —
Emily and I stand in the Beijing airport looking for the Delta desk to check in. It’s five in the morning and we are on our way back to New York. We push a cart full of bags through the large terminal.
After traveling for 10 days, we are both pretty ready to be home and I am jokingly grumbling about the lack of freedom, news and manners. With perfect timing a guy bumps into me and says nothing. “You see what I’m talking about?”
An airport stand, which would normally be selling newspapers, is strangely barren. A small sign from a French newspaper laments that they are not allowed to sell their newspapers due to Chinese customs and promises a fresh copy as soon as you get on the plane.
We finally make it through security and to our gate. Upon arriving, there is another line of security and one more search—one final pat-down as the sun rises in the distance. I take out my cell phone and snap a photo.
Now, let me pause and just say that I didn’t just take one photo. I took about 10, you know, I spent some time trying to get the settings right, the angle perfect. Satisfied, I put away my phone.
“Delete,” a guard says angrily. He startles me; he’s over my shoulder and standing right behind me. I play dumb. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
He goes to get someone else. My mind is racing. How can I move one of these photos to somewhere else on my phone so he won’t see it. Emily looks at me nervously. The guard comes back with a female flight attendant who speaks decent English and is sporting a large smile.
She explains very carefully that I am not supposed to be taking photos of security.
“I was just taking a photo of the sunset. You have a beautiful country,” I say, deciding that I am comfortable pushing this just a little bit further. Emily is silent.
They take me to the side of the line so that I can take a photo without the security in it, then without asking, the guard roughly takes my phone and deletes the other photos. He goes back until the French “no newspaper sign,” which he allows me to keep.
Emily and I go through security and get onto the plane. It’s a relatively empty flight and we chat with the flight attendant. He gives us a USA Today from a few days ago. I pour over it, anxious to find out what’s been going on in the world. The guard comes back onto the plane. I see him walking toward me and wonder to myself if I am imagining it.
“Come with us,” he says and points at me. “You need to check your bags.”
I am frozen. That doesn’t seem like a real reason.
I picture myself getting dragged off the plane and landing in a dirty Chinese cell.