As a Third Culture Kid, flight is a natural part of my life. I am inherently conditioned to love it, mainly because it’s the birthplace of how I became a TCK. Flight has opened up the ability for people to shuttle all over the world, and it has made TCKs so culturally diverse because we can actually travel to hundreds of places a year. The time that was once the burden of international travel is now almost nonexistent. I can be anywhere in the world in less than a day. So when I say that I love to fly, I need you to understand my full meaning. Flying isn’t just a love. It is part of who I am. It is the start of everything, and the end of everything. And this natural love means that to a TCK, it isn’t the same as it would be to an FCK.
I actually like economy, the only time my fear of tight spaces is nonexistent. I sit in the aisle, letting me stick out my legs or get up and down without bothering the person next to me. I will read an entire book without stopping, because for those X amount of hours there is no internet, no one calling or texting, and not enough space for me to pull out my computer and really get into things. I am disconnected from the world, and I love it, because as I soar on by at incredible speeds, I know that the entire landscape of everything is changing beneath me away from my eyes. But the most interesting part of flight for me is that, for as long as I can remember, I have never sat in a window. I have not looked out of the plane once for as long as my memory allows. I step on in one place, looking through the crack in taxi-bay before I step into the plane, and then I see nothing until I step out of the terminal in an entirely new city, state, country, continent.
But yesterday, when I boarded the Embraer bound for RDU from IAH, I realized that my seat, 4A, was both a window and an aisle. I have been making international trips for so long that I had forgotten planes as small as this existed. And here I was in this tiny three-seats-to-a-row plane, my legs in the aisle and my head staring out the window. And for the first time in my conscious memory, I got to watch the world as I flew through the night back to Raleigh, and even as a TCK that has seen it all a hundred times, so many times that he gave up looking, what I saw was more than I could have ever imagined.
As I sat there, I remember thinking to myself “I wish I were a poet, because then I would have the mastery of words to explain what I see.” But I am not a poet. I am a narrative writer, and I describe things through the elongated use of diction where words build sentences, sentences build paragraphs, paragraphs build chapters, and chapters build books.
As the engines roared and I stared out the window of a plane that was closer to the ground than the window of a bus is to the road, I watched as the lines in the pavement began to speed up. I watched, waiting to see how long it would take before the crevices in the runway moved by so quickly that they looked flat beneath me, the optical illusion of speed ripping my ability to distinguish depth on the surface of the Earth. And when I could see them no more, the nose tilted into the air, and I felt the familiar pull of the plane as it grabbed hold of the lift required to launch it into the sky.
But this time, I watched the world beneath me. I saw us fly up, faster than I had ever realized, the world shrinking beneath me as walking people vanished from view and cars looked so small that all I could see in the darkness were the headlights that moved along the road at what appeared to be a snail’s pace. And then we were above the subdivisions of Houston. In the darkness, I could see the Christmas lights outlining the roofs of everything still decorated beneath me. And as we banked, I saw the doors of houses illuminated by porch lights, one bright red and so small in the distance of the ground.
I watched as hundreds and hundreds of houses, streets, buildings, and cities in the distance passed me by. I watched the curvature of the earth grow as we climbed, my ability to see into the distance stretching further and further as we went higher and higher, the light of the clear sky painting everything with a luminous glow. I saw the expanse of our species, spread across the land with so much darkness between us until there appeared an eruption of light from a cluster of houses where people had flocked together in the middle of nowhere, just so they didn’t have to live alone.
Then the clouds came. Like an ocean beneath me, we crossed into the overcast and all the lights were hidden. Every cloud was painted with the same glow of the moon, but as I looked out the window and the light caught the clusters of water hovering in the sky, it bent and curved and refracted to make the clouds beneath me wave like the flowing motion of an ocean. I watched as shadows turned to light, as wind blew the clouds up and over, as the light bent with each individual droplet shifting its rays. And for an hour I stared, watching the clouds dance to an audience of just me.
When my curiosity took hold, I cast my eyes up to the sky. In the darkness of my cabin, not a single aisle light or reading lamp switched on, I could see the stars above me. And with the clouds masking the light of a glowing city, the stars had multiplied to a number so spectacular that I was immediately reminded of a week I spent in the Australian Outback staring up at the night sky and marveling at how many stars I could actually see without aid of a telescope. It was as if the entire sky was white, with dots of black where light was missing, all shining together to help make the clouds dance.
After an hour of childish hypnotism, I saw that the clouds were coming to an end. Like the ocean hitting a beach, they ended in a perfectly cut straight line, from overcast to clear skies without any remnants or stragglers in-between; it was simply taking nothing to everything in the blink of an eye, from me to the horizon. As we approached the edge of the ocean of clouds, the familiar rattle of turbulence kicked in, letting me know that I was finally passing from one temperature and into another. And as though it were timed with the apparition of the world beneath me, as soon as we crossed the edge of cloud ocean, the rattling of the plane ceased and we were sailing smoothly and unhindered once again.
In the distance, I could see mountains; a collection of lights that rose into the sky as houses, buildings, and roads climbed the inclines towards to the sky. Beneath me was the approaching city of Raleigh, and above me the stars, now faded by the light of the ground, but still twinkling behind the mask of hazed artificial light.
And we began to descend. Slowly, the world grew larger, the earth closer, the sky further away. The landing gear clicked, and the runway appeared. The wheels made contact, and once again, I was back on the ground. Except this time, I had watched it all. I had seen every moment from start to finish, captivated like a child who has never been in a plane before in his life, despite the countless number of times I had been there.
Like I said before: I wish I were a poet so that I could show you how beautiful the world was through the eyes of that TCK that felt for the first time in conscious memory that he had never flown before. But alas, I am not. I am just a Third Culture Kid who is proud to say that even today, it’s not just the cultures of those around me that surprise and inspire me. It’s the beauty of the world beneath us, and the knowledge that while the world was not built for us, we were most certainly built for the world.
Post by: James R. Mitchener
If you never looked out the window in all your international travel as a kid you’ve missed out a lot! You have some catching up to do! Looking at the landscapes go by at 30,000 feet can be phenomenal. You’ll see wonders of the world go by from a vantage point that is pretty unique . . . the Amazon basin, the Grand Canyon, the Himalayas, the Sahara . . . I’ve seen quite a few sights while en-route to somewhere else in a plane. I’ve even seen a meteor shower in which I could actually see the shapes of the rocks tumbling as they burned up. But as a child what was my favorite part? Naturally, coming in to land because the cities looked like the intro to Mr Roger’s Neighborhood” as we approached.
I wish I could share with you a picture I took of sunrise over the outback. It was a dramatic entry into my life as an American Hong Konger moving Down Under.
Perhaps you are not a poet, but what poetry in your narrative. Such a delight to read. Thank you for sharing.