There’s a Narita in Illinois, too

First published

My trip to Singapore had two connections, one through Minneapolis–St. Paul and the other through Narita Airport near Tokyo. Flying to Minnesota was about as uneventful as you can imagine. Really, aside from being twelve hours long, the second leg from the States to Japan wasn’t anything to write home about, either. Almost everyone in the Western Hemisphere who’s been to Asia has flown through Narita at some point; it’s pretty much a rite of passage.

What entertained me most about going through Japan was that every other person seemed confused about whether or not I was Japanese. Now, I’m actually Chinese, but a couple of years of language study have left me with enough skills to be a passably awkward, stuttering Japanese person. The attendant at the MSP check-in desk started talking to me in Japanese before I rapidly backed out when he threw in aviation terms I had no hope of understanding, I was handed a Japanese home delivery catalog as I boarded my flight (advertising great things like three tins of clam chowder for ¥2,500), and the two middle-aged men I sat next to on the 747 struck up a brief conversation in Japanese about my study abroad. I got so far into the masquerade that I hurriedly turned off the English subtitles when I started watching my stash of Miyazaki films on the plane. Sadly, I gave up rather quickly, because I couldn’t make out the dialogue too well over the cabin noise.

I got to Japan at about 5:30 in the afternoon, and prepared myself to hurry over to the gate for the seven-hour leg to Singapore. I already wasn’t looking forward to this part of the journey; by the time I’d be landing, it would be one in the morning and I would be exquisitely tired. Unfortunately, things still had the capacity to get worse, and worse they did get, because my third flight ended up getting delayed by four and a half hours. Fine, I thought to myself. I wanted some time to take pictures of the terminal, anyway. So I wandered around a building that got progressively emptier and emptier as the night wore on. One underground tunnel full of moving walkways was completely deserted. There was something simultaneously fascinating and unsettling about stepping onto the conveyor and watching it power up, complete with verbal announcements at the other end of the line warning about the sudden decrease in speed, and then hearing everything come to a stop with a clunk after a few minutes.

It still took another hour for the plane to start boarding after I finished my walk. I wanted to call home and tell my family about what was going on, but I didn’t have any Japanese currency on me, all the exchange points were closed, and I was too tired to ask someone for a 100-yen coin to work the phones. So I sat around and read a book, like nearly everyone else at the gate. One father across from me had gotten so bored that he’d started flipping through his son’s manga magazine, which had a Naruto announcement on the cover.

When I finally got on the plane at about 10:00, my immediate thoughts were of sleep. Having been awake for all but four or five hours out of the past day, I kept myself awake for long enough to eat the in-flight meal, and then slumped over in my seat. Much to my chagrin, though, the 777 has the most uncomfortable cushions I’ve ever had to deal with. I could only rest for about twenty minutes before my back started to scream in agony. So I reoriented myself in what I thought would be a better sleeping posture and tried again. No such luck. To make matters worse, the cabin got progressively drier and drier as the night wore on, such that my throat was horribly parched by the time I got off the plane. (Thankfully, that was fixed as soon as I got off….) All this combined to make the last four hours of flying feel longer than the previous eighteen.

When I finally set foot on Singaporean soil, my first thought was immediate relief. My second thought was something along the lines of wait, no, I still have to deal with customs. Having already had to shell out a couple of thousand dollars because of immigration nonsense (or, to speak more accurately, having had to get someone else to shell out a couple of thousand dollars on my behalf), I stood in consternation at what nightmares I’d be subject to on this end. Was accidentally spelling one’s name wrong a caning-worthy offense?

After waiting in line for a few minutes, a customs agent called me up to the desk. I gave him my passport and disembarkation form, and prepared the army of supporting documents I had in a manila envelope for battle.

The agent tried to scan my passport several times, none of which took. Eventually, he surrendered and just entered my details into the computer manually. Then he took a look at my entry form. I had filled everything in as truthfully as possible, so as not to get myself immediately thrown in jail for silly lies, but that meant that I had to put down 135 days for the duration of my stay in Singapore. The form didn’t even have enough space for me to write that much, because it only had two boxes for the number of days I was going to be around.

Customs-man made an inscrutable face for a moment, at which I shriveled inwardly. I heard the sounds of stamps being slammed into paper from behind the counter, then my documents were gracelessly shoved back at me.

Thank you. Enjoy your time in Singapore. The smile accompanying these words was obviously forced, but I didn’t care about politeness in the least right now.

I bowed out with a mumbled thank you and hurried to the hotel shuttle.