The Solomon Islands' main airport is known colloquially as Henderson Field. The long airstrip was first laid into the jungle by American GI's so they could better fight the Japs on Guadalcanal. International flights still use it today. It was the portal through which we transitioned from Island to American. Like some sort of SciFi warping mechanism that sheds a person's skin, on the Solomons side of that departure gate I was Danica, the white Solomon Islander. Once I stepped through, I became Danica, the awkward American.
Whenever anyone in our missionary group would leave the country to go back on furlough, we'd all gather at that gate to say goodbye. The leaving family would be dressed in their very best clothes and everyone was smiling. Because that's what you do when family leaves, you smile and say, "See ya later!", not, "Don't go, you're making a hole in my heart." If you happened to be the ones leaving it was double hard, because stepping into that void meant you were losing the family everyone else got to keep for a while longer. My memories of actually stepping through the gate and onto the Western bound plane are pretty nonexistent, but I do remember my stomach feeling like a school of bonito had taken up residence in it, and the air being muffled, and not being able to hear much or really even breathe.
Another family from our missionary group leaving at Henderson Field. I'm the awkward one with a strained smile at the very right.
Our first stop as we leapfrogged across the Pacific was usually Vanuatu. Vanuatu at that time was more Westernized than the Solomons were, so many of the locals we came across on our layovers there spoke pretty good English. I usually didn't speak at all to them, though, and let my mom and dad do the talking. It felt immensely strange to be talking to an Islander in English, the white man's language, instead of Pijin, the shared trade language of the Solomons. Speaking in Pijin in the Solomons was always my way of cuing in the locals that I wasn't some random ex-pat. I belonged. I was one of them.
Except that they didn't speak Solomons Pijin on Vanuatu, and I didn't belong there. My otherness started getting more apparent.
The next stop was Guam, which we always looked forward to with great anticipation. This was because Guam was the first 'Americanized' stop on our trip. We always held a traditional heated argument on the plane flight from Vanuatu to Guam, which revolved around which American fast food joint we'd eat once we landed. After years of deprivation, we'd discuss in detail the merits of each one, salivating over the little (free! They give them out FREE!) sauce packets from Taco Bell, and how McDonald's burgers dripped delicious grease.
One time we took our McDonald's out into the parking lot to eat, and I spied a tree growing in a median. I rushed over to it and set my food on the hood of the car beneath the tree. "This is perfect!" I said. My siblings followed suit and when Dad saw all of our food bags and drinks on the hood of this stranger's car, he blew a gasket. "Take your things off that car!" he said. "You can't touch other people's cars in America!"
We were flabbergasted. "Why?"
"Because in America people view their cars like their houses. You can't just touch someone else's car like you wouldn't go up and touch someone else's house. It's taboo."
So many things were taboo. We were stepping on land mines unknowingly throughout the entire trip from the Solomons to America. Don't speak to someone who has brown skin in Pijin. Speak to them in English and don't be surprised when they answer in an American accent. Don't spit. Don't blow your nose by holding one nostril and snotting through the other into the grass. Don't look down when a man speaks to you but look up into his eyes. Don't take your shoes off in the airport and especially don't take them off in a restaurant.
There were huge escalators in the airport in Guam. My little brother Matt's eyes got huge when he saw them for the first time. The rest of us hazily remembered escalators from the malls in Texas years ago, and while Mom and Dad rested with the baggage, we went up and down and up and down and up and down again. Matthew finally tried but he was scared to put his foot on it. We had to teach him how to time the stairs, then step quickly with both feet onto the magically moving, interlocking metal slats. It was exactly like a scene from the movie, Elf.
We had people we knew in Hawaii, supporters who kindly let us use their beach house to decompress before getting to the American mainland. A smiling white man who was big, so big, and who talked so loudly and who expected you to look him in the eye when he talked to you, who talked to you even if you were a kid. Mom and Dad slipped easily into conversation with this man, conversation that looked different from how we talked in the Solomons, and it sounded different, too, even the conversations we'd have among other missionaries. This man seemed to project himself into our personal space. Mom and Dad immediately assumed this puffed-up-loud-smiley way of talking while us kids sat quietly on our bags and stared.
The man took us and our bags into his big car that was not dusty at all and smelled like something luxurious. I sat on the cavernous inside and Mom had to remind us to buckle up, then had to help us buckle up because we couldn't remember how it worked. And then he drove us out into the night.
He drove faster than I ever remember driving, and the road was huge, with more shiny vehicles speeding around us in amazingly straight and orderly lines. So many people going so fast. So many people and each in their own bubble. The road suddenly took us way up in the sky and the man did not slow down at all. I clutched the seat belt and could barely breathe from fear. Dad turned around from his front seat, and said brightly, "Kids, this is called a 'freeway'! Wait until we get to Houston, you'll see the spaghetti bowls!"
All I knew was that we were going way too fast into the dark of this strange place and home was far, far away.