I had a long layover at Hong Kong International Airport — about 8 hours. If I were not traveling on a shoestring, I would have checked in to one of the premium airport lounges that offered the convenient yet expensive pay-at-the-door access. I was definitely grateful for the myriad of facilities that could help make any long waits more bearable, even if just a little bit.
Perhaps checking out the dining options at the airport would make time pass quicker and more enjoyable, I thought. I decided that’s how I would kill the many hours before the final leg of my long journey. However, anyone who has been to this metropolitan city would most probably agree that eating out could be a pricey activity; perhaps this was even more so at the airport. Dragging my trolley bag behind me, I walked past a number of restaurants that appeared to be quite exorbitant, before finally coming into a large, crowded area. It did not take me long to realize that this area was a food court where, compared to the fancy-looking restaurants that I just walked past, menu prices were more affordable, patrons seemed more humble, and noises and chaos characterized the atmosphere.
I went from one end to the other end of the food court scanning the different menu boards of the multiple vendors. Burger King was the only fast-food option. The others were all offering Asian cuisine — Thai foods, noodle varieties, chicken rice, sizzling options, to name a few. I examined the seating section of the food court and noticed it was completely packed. I thought it was at times like this when it could be a huge advantage to have a travel companion. In the case of a packed food court, you could have your travel companion grab available seats while you order and pick up your food at the counter.
I decided to try my luck at the Thai vendor. I chose it only because I noticed some patrons were finishing their meals. While waiting for an available seat, I took my time to see what was on the menu board. I appreciated the English translation for the menu offerings, and the pictures of some of the dishes. One of the customers seated at the long, communal table I was standing next to finally left. I quickly placed my trolley bag right beside it to indicate the seat was taken. It was the perfect spot as it was very close to the counter. I then proceeded to order my Noodles Soup with Beef Fillet and Red Bean Ice that I picked based on how good they looked in pictures.
My food came within minutes. The noodles soup looked different than the way it was presented in the picture but it tasted quite good. Or perhaps I was starving as the time was about 2PM. Observing my surroundings, I suddenly had one beautiful realization — sharing the table with me were all strangers — fellow travellers, airport employees. One had the Immigration tag on the left sleeve of his uniform. We were eating at the same table like one big family. They spoke languages that sounded foreign to me. They ate meals that were different from what I was having. Despite the difference or unfamiliarity, I realized the atmosphere between me and my dining “friends” was one marked by comfort, acceptance, tolerance, and respect. There was nothing awkward about it. There was no pressure to socialize or make conversations. In fact, I was thinking sometimes it could even be awkward to be eating with some people that you actually knew.
Perhaps this could be a cultural thing where in some cultures, sharing a table with strangers would be awkward or weird; in others, it would be all too common. Or perhaps eating was one activity that could draw strangers together in peace. For me, it was a beautiful experience that allowed me to enjoy my food with a group of strangers without feeling strange about it. Plus, I got to be in a position where I was “invisible” enough to watch people without feeling I was being rude.
As I was finishing my meal, a group of 5 men in yellow-greyish overalls approached to take the available seats in front of and next to me. I took note of the “Level 4 Car Park” label on their overalls. When I stood up to leave, one of them said to me “thank you” to which I replied “goodbye”. I was not sure what he thanked me for, and why goodbye was my response, but it did not matter at all.
A trip to the food court not only helped me pass time, but it also gave me a lovely experience to take home with. As I was writing this, the clock showed I had 5 more hours to kill. Perhaps I could make another trip to the food court for a coffee break?