It was midnight in Dubai and still at least 90 degrees farenheit. I was at the airport, checking in for my 3:30 a.m. flight to Bangladesh, dressed in the heaviest clothes in my possession — not because it would be cold at my destination but because I had to reduce the weight of my luggage. The ticket agent weighed my bags.
“You are only allowed 30 kilograms,” she said, looking at the scale that read 33 kg.
I quietly pleaded, “I know. I tried to pre-purchase extra weight, but it wasn’t available. I’m moving to Bangladesh for a year and it’s really hard to pack only 30 kilograms for an entire year.”
She instructed me to move some items into my carryon, which I knew exceeded the 7 kg carryon limit, but I decided now was not the time to mention that fact. As I was reorganizing she asked, “You said you’re going for a year?”
There was disbelief in her voice so I said, “Yes. My visa is there in my passport.”
She flipped through my passport and said something in Arabic to the male agent next to her. They exchanged glances then eyed me with a chuckle.
“Why? Do you think I’m crazy?” I asked playfully.
They avoided the answer with pleasantly professional smiles. “What will you do there?”
“I will teach English.”
The female clerk nodded, and with a friendly smirk firmly painted on her face, she repeated, “A year.”
She weighed my bags again, which were still slightly over weight, then let me go with no extra charge.
Relieved that the luggage hurdle had been cleared much more easily than expected, I made my way to the gate and waited for my flight.
Although I didn’t hear the announcement, I knew it was time to board the plane because a sea of men with dark hair, dark eyes and dark skin suddenly formed two lines. I observed the lines, now more like two streams than a sea. As I made my way through the crowded waiting area, I became quite aware of everything I didn’t see. No light hair, no light eyes, no light skin. No women.
I stood in line trying not to notice the curious eyes glancing at me, looking away, glancing again. My otherness was inescapable. I found myself feeling especially grateful for the past two years in Korea and the immunity I developed against the long stares, usually bestowed upon me by older Korean women. I was also thankful these looks weren’t as intense as the ones I learned to ignore. Trying to appear friendly yet uninviting, I hoped to convey that I was a nice person, but I didn’t want to be approached.
An airport attendant came by the line and got my attention and waved me toward the front of the line. “Ma’am. Please come with me.”
I followed without hesitation.
“It looks like you’re the only woman on the flight,” he explained.
“Yeah, I was noticing that.”
The male ticket agent from the check-in counter was there. He caught my eye and gave me a genuine, if not perplexed, smile. I smiled back, trying to imagine how I must appear to him.
Another man took my boarding pass and asked with a mix of surprise and confusion, “What are you doing here?”
“Going to Bangladesh,” I replied in my most upbeat, matter-of-fact tone.
But as I boarded the bus that went to the plane, I seriously began to wonder why I was the only woman taking this flight. Maybe Bangladeshi women don’t go to Dubai? Maybe they don’t fly at 3:30 a.m.? I’ve had a lot of experience being the only Westerner in a crowd of people, but I’ve never been the only woman on a flight!
While the bus was filling up, I found a corner where I could maintain my personal space as the curious glances increased in length and frequency. Finally, one man asked, “You are going to Dhaka?”
Relieved that someone was brave enough to ask the question, I smiled and said, “Yes.”
“To visit?” he continued.
“No, to teach English,” I explained.
Just then, the airport attendant came on the bus and instructed everyone to move forward. I maintained my spot in the corner … and that was the end of that conversation.
As new men entered the bus, the process started again. Fertive glances. Sincere curiosity. One brave soul asking where and why I was going. Other passengers listening in. Awkward silence … until finally the bus left the terminal and reached the plane.
I ascended the stairs to the tiny jet and was met by a female flight attendant. The relief I felt quickly vanished when I saw a man sitting in my seat. Before I could say anything, the flight attendant invited me to sit in the front row, “No one will be sitting here,” she said, and the relief returned.
As I stowed my bags in the overhead, expertly ignoring the plane full of eyes watching me, I wondered what in the world was in store for me on the other end.