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LAX is Our Emotional Gateway

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The newly-renovated facade of LAX's Tom Bradley International Terminal. | Photo: Los Angeles World Airports

Airports are places where journeys both begin and end.

For most travelers, airports are merely utilitarian structures, facilities for processing, dispatching and receiving groups of human air shipments, transported in large flying aluminum cylinders. For ticket-holders, airports are places of much stress and anxiety, from the dreaded TSA security search, to whether one can make one's flight on time, to the worry of knowing whether one's luggage has arrived at all.

But for those who send-off or greet travelers, airports are places of tearful farewells, cheerful reunions, and every other kind of emotion in between.

Our own local avionic port-of-call, Los Angeles International Airport, has been likened to a contemporary Ellis Island. Though it's been around since the late 1920s, LAX took on its modern form in the 1960s, perfectly timed with the arrival of The Jet Age and the first modern waves of Asian immigration. Paul R. Williams' sleek, iconic Theme Building became a rather appropriate stand-in for Lady Liberty, seemingly suggesting a forward-thinking ethos to inspire them in their new lives in this land. Instead of an Emma Lazarus poem emblazoned on a plaque, the Theme Building's aesthetics could be understood and appreciated by all. My own father, along with many young professionals from the other side of the Pacific, first set foot on this country via an LAX jetway bridge in 1969.

Crossing the Pacific, whether for vacation, business, adventure, or opportunity, is still an enduring feat, even with the modern conveniences of air travel. I've crossed that ocean around a dozen times so far in my life. It takes at least 12 hours -- an entire hour hand's trip around the clock -- and your "flyover country" is not just the deep blue sea, but the largest deep blue sea there is. The air is commonly turbulent in places, rocking your plane to fearful discomfort more than once on the flight. Otherwise, you bide your time with your laptop, in-flight movies, a good book, or sleep. For people accustomed to U.S. domestic travel, the dozen-plus-hour transpacific flight sounds like an impossibility, an ordeal. But for those of us who travel to or from Asia, it's just a fact of life.

Even when I'm not traveling, I still visit LAX's Tom Bradley International Terminal several times a year, whether dropping off a family member off and wishing them a bon voyage or greeting them in the arrivals concourse, fresh from customs, yet weary and jetlagged after a long flight.

Depending on the day, time of day and air traffic conditions, it can take a little more than an hour for a passenger to emerge from customs after their plane has landed. Sometimes I plan accordingly and leave the house to match up with my family member's arrival, sometimes flights get delayed and I end up waiting a while longer.

As I wait, many times I'd play a personal people-watching game, observing the procession of passengers coming up the ramp onto the Bradley Terminal's arrivals area, and guess which flight and point of origin the emerging passengers came on, using both the language they speak and what kind of luggage they're hauling as clues: Business travelers from China tend to travel light, Korean travelers seem to have the most stylish baggage, passengers arriving from the Philippines invariably lug their bulky balikbayan boxes. The flight codes on their luggage tags verify my guesses. The passengers come in waves, generally from the same plane, but many times there will be a mix of travelers from various flights.

But I also enjoy observing my fellow homebound greeters react to the sight of their arriving loved ones: Children running in excitement to greet their visiting grandmother, a woman embracing her returning husband after a business trip, two sisters tearfully reunited after countless years, a man and his family greeting his immigrant nephew, ready to help him adjust to his new life in this country. The long walk up the ramp seems kind of ceremonious. It's like a queue of graduates having just received their diploma during their culmination, or even the bevy of celebrities walking down the red carpet on Oscar night. They certainly are Hollywood stars in their loved ones' eyes.

Whatever emotion overcomes the passenger and their greeter at that moment, it lingers on as they disperse out the door and towards the parking structure, and it plays itself out again in this space, this emotional gateway of sorts, throughout the course of the day, as a new set of greeters and passengers take their place.

Airports are places where journeys both begin and end.

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