This is the story of how I ended up eating the best tasting chicken I have ever had during a 10-hour layover in Chengdu, China. While this auspicious event took place at the end of my research journey, the moments that led to it began on my first day of travel as I tried to explain that my checked-luggage was missing in the Chengdu airport.
While waiting for my connecting flight, I met two Americans.
“Did you recheck your bag?” They asked me. “We were told that our bags would go all the way to our final destination but just found out that they won’t!”
At that moment in time, I knew that my bag wouldn’t make it all the way to Nepal.
I arrived in Chengdu at 2 AM and looked for someone to help me fix my baggage situation. However, at that time in the night there were very few staff members in the airport. When I finally located a woman, I tried to tell her that my bag was missing and see if she could help me. But to my dismay, she didn’t speak English. I tried to login to the airport wi-fi on my cell phone so that I could use an Internet translator. Little did I know that in China, certain sites on the Internet are blocked to users unless they have a virtual private network (VPN), so I couldn’t connect to the Internet.
Suddenly, I noticed that a person was standing behind me. “Can I help you?” he asked. “I speak both Chinese and English, so I might be able to help you translate.”
“Help would be terrific!” I replied.
The young man explained my situation. The staff member reassured us that my bag should arrive in Nepal and that if it didn’t, I should speak with the staff at the airport in Nepal for help.
When I thanked the young man for his assistance, he asked me where I was traveling. “I’m going to Nepal for research,” I explained.
Thereafter, we began speaking in Nepali, as the young man himself was from Nepal and on his way to meet his family. The young man, named Sagar, introduced me to a group of his friends who had also been working with him in the hospitality sector in China. The remainder of the 10-hour layover was filled with joyful conversations, stories, and Nepali folk songs.
When we arrived in Tibet, I was absolutely starving. After passing through immigration, we came to a small shop with chips, sodas, and cigarettes. Since I didn’t have any Chinese currency, I wasn’t able to purchase any food. Sagar came to my rescue once again, and kindly purchased me a bag of Tibetan potato chips.
“Here, take this Chinese money,” he said, handing me a few Yuan. “You will need this on your return trip.”
I was absolutely grateful for his help and gave him a few U.S. dollars in exchange.
To my greatest dismay, when I finally arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal, my suitcase was lost as anticipated. My checked luggage included wedding gifts for my friend and American vitamins for another friend’s family. When I spoke to the airport staff about when to expect my bag, I lost hope that I would get it back. The following day, I tried calling the airline, but they hung up on me! I postponed my trip to the village, hoping to at least find out when to expect my bag
In my time of need, my Nepali friends helped me once again.
My college friend, who worked in the tourism industry, had many connections with airlines and called on my behalf. I also had another college friend from China call the airline to ask for help. Miraculously, thanks to the assistance of my friends from around the world, my bag arrived the next day! The staff at the Nepali airport were absolutely shocked. They shook their heads in amazement with wide eyes and friendly smiles.
The rest of my time in Nepal was filled with research interviews and focus groups. I enjoyed reconnecting with students and friends in the village where I lived as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant from 2014-2015. Before I knew it, my time to return to the United States arrived.
On my last day in Nepal, there was no electricity at night. Around 4 AM, I used the flashlight function on my cell phone to go to the bathroom. Enroute, my phone fell and shattered into pieces on the concrete floor. Oops! There went all of my pictures which hadn’t been backed up due to limited internet. Yet, what I was most concerned about was how I would communicate in Beijing and Chengdu in case my bag got lost again.
Another caring friend who had just received the latest iPhone, generously gave me his old phone and downloaded a Chinese dictionary that I could access without Internet. It meant a lot to me that he allowed me to take the phone with me all the way back to America. This act of kindness played a vital role in leading me to the tasty chicken in Chengdu.
When I arrived in Chengdu, I hadn’t eaten for about seven hours. Since I had such a long layover, I was taken to a transit hotel. When I found out that there was no food at the hotel, my stomach growled with immense disappointment. Luckily, armed with the Chinese translation app, I approached the hotel reception desk and asked, “is there a nearby place to get food?” Once again, the kindness of strangers came through. “Come with me, I’ll show you,” the receptionist wrote on my phone in Chinese. When we walked onto the street, the sweet aroma of grilled chicken and noodles filled the air. Using the Chinese currency given to me by Sagar, I bought some grilled chicken, noodles, and bubble tea. My new friend from the hotel bought me a skewer with three sweet bread balls covered in sesame seeds.
When I took a bite into the chicken in my hotel room, I suddenly felt overcome with gratitude for all the people I had met along my journey to Nepal and back. One of the most challenging and rewarding things about international travel is the extent to which foreigners must rely on the helpfulness of locals. As I ate my chicken, I felt my worries dissipate. In that moment, I felt unconditionally nourished by kindness and supported by the goodness of newfound friends around the world.
P.S. My bag arrived in the United States without complication.
By Emily Hall, Sigur Center Field Research Grant Recipient. Emily is a master’s student in the International Education Program at the George Washington University. Emily’s areas of interest include understanding and supporting teacher quality and teaching quality in developing country contexts through the lens of cultural anthropology. Her master’s thesis examines local perceptions of quality education in Nepal and analyzes government funded educational reform initiatives seeking to improve equitable access to quality education. To learn more about her experiences in Nepal, please visit her personal blog: Highlights of the Himalaya