Expat Life: The University Flight

International arrivals area at Incheon, via

Waiting at the International Arrivals area at Incheon International Airport is a little bit like waiting for the beginning of a theater production:  the air of anticipation, the low murmur of the crowd, the (slightly irritated) re-adjustments as more people take their places in the audience.

Even the arrangement of the space is a bit like being in a theater: a wall of frosted 'no entrance' double doors is the backdrop, with cordoned-off empty area as the 'stage' in front of it.  On each side of the 'stage' are uniformed airport employees - crew and tech - whose job it is to make sure the whole deplaning production goes smoothly.

When you are the one arriving, it can be a bit intimidating, pushing through those doors to see a throng of people staring intently at you as you emerge, wrinkled and exhausted after 20-odd hours in the air, the rush to deplane, and what seems like endless queuing at Immigration, the baggage claim, and customs.

For the onlookers, it's very exciting, watching as one blurred figure after another approaches the frosted glass, and pushes the door open as you wonder if this time it will be your loved one.  You crane your neck, and stand on tiptoe, trying to see the figures behind the passenger who just emerged:  there's a blonde head at the back - maybe that's him? -the door swings shut again.

When we arrived last Friday to collect Son#1 from the flight that would deliver him to us for his winter break from his university in the US, it was more crowded than usual.  A slushy snow was falling, and - for reasons known only to themselves - the Powers That Be had decided to resurface parts of the Parking Garage, which just added to the general sense of pandemonium.

By the time we emerged into the Arrivals hall, an enormous crowd had gathered outside of the doors, thrumming with excitement.  We found ourselves standing well to the back, waiting for the flashing landed next to Son#1's flight number to change to arrived.  

We recognized two other families from the International School who were also there collecting college students, and I thought, What a nice coincidence.  25 million people in Seoul, dozens of flights to and from the USA, and we find ourselves here with not one, but two other families we know!  We chatted about where and what our kids were studying, how long they were staying, what our plans for the long Christmas break were - all while keeping one eye on the board.

After what seemed like ages, the doors opened; the crowd tensed as they revealed a couple of flight attendants, their scarves and hats still amazingly perky after 13 or more hours in the air.  The crowd slumped back down again, but the volume increased.  The door opened again - and this time, it was a passenger:  a young man, wearing a hooded university sweatshirt under his jacket, a backpack slung over one shoulder, earbuds hanging from the iPod in his pocket.  He peered at the crowd, apparently taken aback at its size, making his way toward the exit, where a middle-aged couple and a younger sister were waiting, wreathed in smiles.

The door opened again:  two girls - late teens or early twenties:  hoodies, backpacks, Uggs, long straight hair, heading for two more middle-aged couples.  More siblings.

Now they were coming thick and fast:  the doors barely had time to close behind one passenger before the next one emerged.  And then I realized something:  most of them - not all - were in their late teens or early twenties; very few older people;  very few babies and children;  just a parade of young people - happy, relieved, a little proud, apparently none the worse for their long-haul flights.

I don't know how long it took me to actually get what was going on;  all the young people - just like my son. All the US university sweatshirts.  All the middle-aged couples with a younger teen or two in tow.

The last Friday before Christmas, one of the last flights coming in from the US before the weekend began.

All those kids. All those backpacks.  All those sweatshirts. All those loving, expectant faces.

It was the university flight.  Not officially, of course.  But that's what it was, nonetheless.

I know that loving reunions at airports aren't unique to Seoul and the expat community.  I have plenty of friends with children attending college out of state - a plane flight away.  They haven't seen their kids for months, either.  Their kids are a plane ride away, too.

But maybe not 20 hours in flight and a 6-hour layover away.

Not in another country.

Not 14 hours' time difference.

For expat parents, it's a little more poignant.  A little more emotional.  A little more exciting.

And so, we were all there together, hundreds of us, waiting for that university flight:  the grinning, backslapping Dads, the teary, no-I'm-not-going-to-cry-but-I-could-so-easily Mums, the secretly awed younger siblings pretending not to be too excited.

The same scene that is played out all over the world, but with a twist for expat students and their families.  Not just a return to home and family, but a return to a different country and a different culture.

We greeted each other quickly and then, with all the other families, made a rapid exit to the car, fighting our way through the dark, cold evening, the slush, the chaos, the parking attendants and their orange-glowing light wands.

Leaving the parking lot, we pulled up to the booth to pay our parking fee, handed in the ticket, waited to see the display, handed over the money.  The attendant gave us our change with a small bow and a gentle, singsong, Kam sa hamnida.(Thank you.)

As MrL rolled up the window and pulled out onto the highway, Son#1 remarked, "I've missed that."

I'm sure he has.  And I'm sure that, in car after car leaving Incheon that night, there were hundreds of college kids saying the same thing.

And hundreds of parents - like us - who were deeply grateful to be hearing it.


Barbara said…
Merry Christmas! Enjoy that time with your whole family there!
BavarianSojourn said…
And I am almost crying reading this post... You describe the feeling of waiting for loved ones so perfectly. Have a wonderful wonderful Christmas together! Emma xxx
Stacy said…
Perfect post! We were there with you in the terminal the other night, but instead of Landed, our board read Diverted! What the hey?! Turns out that the Dubai airport was overcrowded in the air and the plane would have had to circle for 45 minutes before it was their turn to land. So, at Midnight, they were sent to Abu Dhabi to refuel. We bought a newspaper and a big bag of M&Ms and sat for three more hours, popping candy and catching up on World News. You can imagine our relief when both of our blonds finally came through the glass doors after 3 a.m. By 4 a.m. we were all in our beds, under one roof, and all was right again with my world. :) Have a wonderful Christmas holiday, Carolyne! Such a blessing to have the whole family together again.
It reminds me of when I used to arrive in Hong Kong from boarding school, part of a plane load of boarding school children. Everyone would run to their parents, usually in tears. It was a very emotional occasion.
MsCaroline said…
Barbara - thanks, and same to you! Honestly wish I were somewhere a bit warmer, though - loved your Cabo Post!

Emma - Thank you! I think it's always exciting meeting a flight, but when you're an expat, visits take on so much more meaning! Enjoy your Christmas - these are the magical years!

Stacy - Yikes! Under those circumstances, M&Ms and World News sound like a fantastic diversion. I can only imagine how you felt when your girls finally arrived. Enjoy your Christmas with your girls (I can only imagine what kind of cooking will be going on!) and wonderful wishes for the New Year!

MsCaroline said…
NVG - I have a hard enough time dealing with my supposedly grown up college boy being away - can't imagine how difficult it would have been for everyone involved. Son#2 has a number of friends who attended boarding school in England before they came to Seoul and he seems to think it would be the most wonderful thing in the world - maybe for him, but I'm sure I wouldn't survive it!
Trish said…
Oh this is beautiful, Ms C. Thinking of you all and hoping you had a wonderful Christmas with all your boys, Mr L included xx
MsCaroline said…
Trish - thanks, and same to you! It has really been wonderful - and I'm trying not to think about the return flight that's coming up much too quickly...
Merry Christmas! We're obviously not to this stage yet, we're still able to tuck our boys into bed at night, but how well I can relate when friends and relatives we haven't seen in years walk through that arrival gate and into our arms! We'll be heading back to America for our first time in nearly two years this February, and my Mom can't stop talking about seeing our faces at the airport... two years is two too many years for her! Hope you have a wonderful holiday as a family!
MsCaroline said…
Thanks, Heather - yes, there's not much that compares to seeing those familiar, beloved faces coming through the gate. Not sure that anyone who hasn't lived overseas can understand the emotions associated with the whole experience - whether you're coming back or welcoming visitors.
Hope you had a wonderful Christmas and here's to a fantastic 2013!

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