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.
“Okay,” I say, keeping my voice from shaking. Were they monitoring me in the airport? What did I say?
“Bring your passport,” the guard says. Why would I need my passport to ID a bag? Not a good sign.
I feel around my jacket for my passport. “Hurry up,” he says.
“OK, OK,” I say as calmly as I can. Is this all because I took that photo of security?
I look at Emily and want to say, “If I don’t come back...” but I don’t say anything.
We leave the airplane and head back toward the gate. Halfway up the skyway is a small group with a bag. It isn’t mine or Emily’s. “This isn’t my bag.” I say.
“Are you sure?” another guy says. My mind is racing. What is in this bag? Are they trying to pin something on me? I start backing toward the plane, not wanting to get too far away from it.
“It isn’t my bag. I’m getting back on the plane.” I say and turn away, walking briskly toward the plane. I am completely terrified and half expect them to grab me from behind. When they don’t I breathe a massive sigh of relief.
“It wasn’t my bag,” I say to Emily and the flight attendant.
I wonder about the exchange all the way back to New York. I am so thankful when we make it through immigration and are standing waiting for our bags. We wait. And wait...
One of our bags never makes it. A quick check with the Delta fellow explains that we checked three bags in China and only two made it on the plane.
I laugh and wonder if those guards were trying to help find my bag that was supposed to be there. I wonder if what they were going to say was “I’m sorry, sir. What does your bag look like? We will try to find it.” Was the whole thing just lost in translation?
On the flip side, the bag that didn’t make it through had a camera in it and all of the photos from the trip. Did they want to review that stuff before letting it leave the country?
How quickly your mind spins paranoid stories of government manipulation. Our bag showed up a few days later. As far as I could tell all of the stuff is there. But who knows.