Jing Yu and I were standing around the rotating luggage belt at Burlington International Airport on a Wednesday night. He had been on a 22-hour journey from his Chinese homeland and was understandably bushed. But this was his first visit to America, and his personality seemed naturally bubbly. No mere fatigue was going to dampen his excitement and curiosity, and he had been chatty since I met him at the arrival gate, bursting with questions. It's great to be 20 years old and high on life.
I held up my two hands, fingers crossed on each. "Hey, Jing," I yelled, getting his attention over the rattling noise of the belt, "do you know what this hand sign means?"
Jing's eyes lit up. He was tall and gangly, with a shock of unkempt jet-black hair. "I do know that! They taught us that one in school. It means you have made a lie but you want excuse. Is that right?"
"Yeah, I didn't think of that. It actually has two separate meanings. What you said, and also when you're wishing something to happen. Like now I'm hoping that your luggage isn't lost. So I'm crossing my fingers."
As it turned out, it didn't work. I led Jing to the Delta ticket counter to put in a claim for his lost bag. (I know this routine all too well.) Unfortunately, two planes had landed more or less simultaneously, and the counter was devoid of agents. Two other unlucky travelers arrived soon after us, forming a short queue.
"So you'll be cleaning rooms this summer?" I asked. The Stowe hotel that had booked me to transport Jing up the mountain had given me some basic info.
"Yes, I got the job by an employment agency at my school. I'm doing this for the experience, not really the money."
"Good for you. I'm sure it will be an adventure. So what other American hand signs did they teach you?"
He pointed to his temple and made a circular motion. "This mean 'You crazy, man!'"
We both cracked up. "Yup, you got it," I said. "That's exactly right."
"How long do you think this will be?" asked the man behind us, who had olive skin of a Middle Eastern variety. His English was French inflected, but not the distinctive Québécois accent we hear so much in Burlington.
"It's hard to say," I replied. "Shouldn't be too long. You down from Montréal? Are you picking something up?"
"Yes, I'm retired, and I volunteer to transport live human tissue for a couple of Montréal hospitals."
"Well, good for you, man," I said. "Though I think that would freak me out, to be honest. What was your career before you retired?"
"I was an architect. I came to Canada from Lebanon about 30 years ago. My family left during the terrible civil war."
"I do remember that tragic situation. Hey, I bet you can get some authentic Mideast cuisine with all the immigrants up there now."
"Yes, that's true, but mostly Palestinian and Syrian, not so much Lebanese. And their food has too much onion for my palate. That's OK for a hot climate, but not Montréal."
The woman behind him joined the discussion. She appeared to be a Latina, about 30 and quite studious. I'm a sucker for that cute dorky-girl look. "You sound like you know the area," she said to me, her Spanish accent everything and more. "How long will it take me to get to Middlebury College tomorrow?"
"From Burlington, less than an hour, anyway. Are you taking the summer language program?"
"Yes, I am."
"The Spanish school?" I asked, venturing the obvious guess.
"No, I'm studying Hebrew, of all things. I'm in graduate school for antiquities in Mexico City, and it's a helpful language to know."
"Jeez," I said chuckling, "between the four of us, it's like a United Nations committee."
Finally, an apologetic ticket agent showed up, and Jing put in his claim. The agent found his bag in the system — stuck in Atlanta — and assured him the airline would have it delivered to his hotel by the following afternoon. And, having said goodbye to our new Lebanese Canadian and Mexican friends, we departed for Stowe.
"Do you enjoy American music?" I asked Jing as we hooked a left onto the highway.
"Oh, yes — I do. I like it very much. Is that what's playing on the radio?"
"Well, this is called reggae music. It originated in Jamaica, an island in the Caribbean. This song is by the greatest Jamaican singer, Bob Marley."
"I like very much Linkin Park."
That's random, I thought, chuckling to myself. Of all bands...
"So, what are you studying at school in China?"
"My parents told me to study math. I try very hard, but it gives me a headache."
"Is there some job you want to do?"
"I want to be translator. I love that. So I switch to study English. Translator is a hard job to achieve. Many, many students want that job."
"Well, I think you would be great at it. You communicate real well, and it's obvious you really like people."
"This is why I come to America to work this summer. To get better at English."
We reached the hotel, and both of us got out. Jing shook my hand with both his hands, which induced me to employ my second hand, as well.
"Enjoy your time in Vermont," I said, as we grinned at each other, keeping up the handshake for what felt like an utterly enjoyable 30 seconds. I fantasized we were the ambassadors of our respective countries appearing before the cameras at a historic news conference.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.