Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Best of America Welcomed Me

Pete (left), and Tom who I met at LAX
After arriving in Los Angeles at 2:30 p.m., following a ten hour flight from Samoa, I cleared my way through customs. I had already missed my connecting flight on Southwest, but proceeded to the ticket counter to look into another flight. Southwest was very understanding and put me on the next available flight which was scheduled to depart at 6 p.m. for its four hour flight to Chicago. After checking my bag, I headed through security for the second time in 12 hours and then entered a part of the American fabric: the concourse of gates in the domestic terminal of LAX. Walking about, I was smiling at everything I saw. Suddenly I was thrust back into what I had left for the past 14 months, and I had many observations: the toilets flush themselves, the water at the bathroom sinks is run on sensors as well, and I even jumped a little when I accidentally set off the paper towel dispenser. Everything was easier here, compared to Samoa. Walking to my gate, I noticed the building was very clean, the people were all dressed in fashionable clothes and walking with a sense of urgency that Samoans never match. I even had to laugh when I saw two Starbucks within 150 yards of one another! I knew I was back in the U.S.A.
So excited at what I was seeing, I made phone calls to my parents and sister. I then decided to call a friend of mine, Katy, who had served in the Peace Corps in South Africa and had told me before of her experiences about first arriving back in America and the reverse culture shock that came with it. We had a good talk and then I went to get something at McDonald’s. After being handed my bag of food, I realized that I didn’t have my laptop with me! I had left it in its bag back at where I was on the phone, right there in the hallway of the concourse. I rushed back and discovered it was gone! My heart sank.
At that very moment I started glancing at every person walking with a computer bag—suddenly, everyone looked suspicious--but in an airport the size of LAX, and with 90 percent of the people having a computer bag, I very quickly felt as if I was being put into a trance. A part of me wanted to yell at everyone to stop! I had only slept for 30 minutes after being awake for over 24 hours and the thought of someone stealing my computer after serving my country for 14 months, made me suddenly build an anger towards the America I had just been oohing and awing over on the phone with my friend.
I finally decided I needed to find someone who could help me. I spotted a Southwest employee near a gate and ran up to him to tell him what had happened. He seemed half confused at the situation I was in, probably because I presented myself in such hysteria. The man said he didn’t know what he could do, considering he had just gotten off an airplane after being on it for the past couple of hours—I realized he was a flight attendant. He did tell me where the police were.
Walking towards the police I continued scanning the crowd. Everyone was walking as if they had a stiff wind at their backs, pushing them forward with momentum. I called Katy back, as if she could help me living 3,000 miles away. Making it to the police counter, I explained my situation to a group of 3 officers—I think I hung up on Katy at that time. They started asking a number of questions: can I see your ID? Can you tell me where you were standing? How long ago did this happen? What color was the bag? Was anyone near you? How long were you gone? What time is your flight?
Then one of the police officers, during my time of panic, took time to make a point out of what I had done wrong. He said: “you were standing, talking on the phone, and had the phone in one had. What was your other hand doing?” I didn’t respond. He said, “why didn’t you have your computer bag in the other hand?” Well the simple answer was that I had set it down. I obviously knew I had made a mistake, but he was almost saying “shame on you.” I said, it was my fault, I made the mistake, but now I just want to try and find the computer. Time continued to feel as if it were moving slower and slower. Another officer asked me to go back down to where I had made the phone call. On the way he said, “don’t you know you aren’t suppose to leave bags unattended in the airport.” Yes, of course I know that. I’ve flown all over the country and the world and had never had something like this happen before. In a polite way, yet with firmness in my voice, I said, “I didn’t leave my bag there on purpose. I wasn’t trying to have my computer stolen. I walked away forgetting it was there. I made a mistake.” I explained to him how important that computer was for my work as a Peace Corps volunteer, and that I would never want to lose it.
While standing at the place of my huge mistake, I was trying to recreate exactly where I was and how I was standing for the sake of the officer who kept asking me. While I was doing this, a man walked up to us and asked if we were looking for a bag. He had just found one that had been left and was getting ready to turn it over to the police if no one came back in five minutes. I said that I had left my bag there. He walked over to the row of black leather seats where he and his friend were sitting. There it was, resting on the chairs. I walked over and reached out to touch it with my right hand, as if to ask its forgiveness for having left it alone and having been so foolish. The officer said that I owed the two men a huge thank you. Indeed I did.
With the four of us there, I thanked the two men for having taken the bag and watching over it. After thanking them, I felt this instant guilt inside me, for having doubted everyone I had been glancing at in that airport concourse. As if entering a confessional and bearing my soul, I started an apology: “I have just gotten back from serving in the Peace Corps for 14 months and was so furious and felt betrayed when I thought the computer was stolen. I’m sorry for having thought the worst of my fellow Americans." At that moment my emotions overcame me and I started to cry. I felt so proud to be an American. I felt proud of those two men for having represented what I had always hoped America was. I didn’t feel at all embarrassed to be crying in front of three men and a gate of passengers waiting for their flight. I was elated. The one man, whose name I later found out was Pete, said, “We Americans are still looking out for one another. Welcome home. Welcome back to America.” I continued to cry.
The police officers work was done and he thanked the men and I thanked him for his assistance. I said I had learned my lesson and would be more careful. After I took a few deep breaths I offered to buy the two men dinner or a coffee, but they kindly declined. But I couldn’t just leave them; I suddenly felt this connection to these two strangers. I wanted to slow the moment and take a moment to visit. I asked them if they minded if I sat down for a few minutes.
We introduced ourselves and made some small talk. I asked them about their jobs—Pete is an aerospace engineer and Tom a mechanical engineer. I praised them both for their abilities as scientists. They asked me some questions about my service in Peace Corps. I mentioned to them how students’ test scores in Samoa are low in science and how I wished that the children could do better in that area, as I know it is important for any country. They asked where I was headed, how long I was going to be visiting. I still had to eat the meal from McDonald’s that I had been carrying all over the airport for that 30 minute ordeal. But before I said goodbye, I asked them if I could write about them here on this blog. We exchanged contact information and I gave them this blog address. I thanked them again and we said our goodbyes. A few minutes later as I was eating, I realized I had forgotten to get a picture of them. I darted back over—with my computer bag—and asked for a picture.
My flight ended up leaving about 45 minutes late. It gave me plenty of time to sit there at the gate and listen to the public service announcement stating: “Due to security measures, and for your safety, do not leave bags unattended and do not ask others to watch your bags.” The same message played on repeat. Each time it felt like a knife in my back being twisted. But each time it reminded me how lucky I had been that night.
Looking back on that night, I was able to see how my Peace Corps experience has helped change me. If this had happened a year ago, I might have just thanked the men and been on my way. I would have been grateful, but I’m not sure if I would have had the initiative to sit and learn more about them. After living in Samoa, where building relationships is such a huge part of a volunteer’s success in the village, I now realize that I’ve come to value this kind of friendly conversation, that causes one to slow their pace in a busy world. The relationships matter, they make us better communicators and listeners.
Tuesday night I was faced with a situation that tested ordinary Americans who did extraordinary things. I would never want to relive that fiasco again, but in a way, I’m happy I was able to see it unfold, because it was the best welcome back to America. It was hard proof that this country, despite its enormous size, can act as one family, looking out for another’s brother, or sister. Samoans proud themselves on being hospitable, friendly and caring, and I have found that to be completely true throughout my service there. Yet I’m so proud that America still has those same types of people who care for one another just because it’s the human thing to do. It’s the American thing to do. Thank you Pete and Tom for showing me once again, why I’m so proud to represent our country as a volunteer overseas.

Waiting at the airport in Samoa after our plane was delayed to leave by more than 3 hours.

Leah, from Group 82 was layering to try and keep warm!

Getting ready to board the plane in Samoa at 3:15 a.m.

The exterior of the Boeing 767

A real dinner on board the plane. Breakfast was just as big!

The first sights of American soil after crossing the Pacific Ocean from Samoa.

Corina and Cassie outside the international terminal at LAX.

First picture with Mom and Dad at Chicago after a long journey.

Bundled up and wondering what happened to all the coconut trees.

Final destination. Home for the holidays!

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