I can’t remember what country I was flying over, or even what month it was, just that the “Mamma Mia!” sequel, “Here We Go Again,” was playing on the back of the airplane seat in front of me and I was sobbing like I had never sobbed before.
One survey shows that even 41 percent of men will tear up at 10,000 feet. It has to do with the air pressure, dehydration, the stress of being herded like cattle, and the bloody marys we down to get through it all. I’d certainly done my fair share of crying on planes, as The New York Times’s first 52 Places Traveler, charged with the incredible and often body-punishing task of reporting on all those destinations while traveling solo around the world for a year.
This was a different kind of cry, though. It was a movie cry, induced by that magical alchemy of Abba songs and a plotline that reminded me of my own quite alive, free-spirited mother whom I hadn’t seen in months and missed very much. Pop culture tends to reflect us back onto ourselves, and crammed into my tiny economy-class corner of that plane, watching two generations of actresses sing about finding inner strength while abroad, it may have been the first time I felt truly homesick. I missed my friends and my family, sure, but I also missed this, the cleansing power of getting swept up in the emotion of something I was watching or hearing — much to the discomfort of my seatmates.
Before 52 Places, I had spent more than a decade as a culture writer for New York magazine. Of all the things I was leaving to embark on this experience of a lifetime — my loved ones, my job, my apartment — pop culture felt like the one link to home I could carry around in my pocket and rely on to keep me company when everyone I knew was asleep in a different time zone. Then as the trip went on, I got busy, the relationship grew distant. This essential pillar of my life began to crumble.
MOVIES ARE MY COMFORT FOOD, and have been since I was 8 and my parents gave me my first memorable Christmas gift: a VHS tape of “Singin’ in the Rain,” which I watched on repeat for the next five years. As an isolated teenager in New Mexico, all I had to do was drive half an hour to the abundance of movie theaters around Santa Fe to visit other countries and lives. And as an adult, pop culture wasn’t something I consumed casually. I breathed it, partly because my job required it and partly because I loved being in the know. TV shows I’d missed the night before, I’d stream on Hulu over breakfast. Podcasts got me through my morning subway commute. Daytimes, I’d be reporting on something I’d seen. Evening brought more movie-viewing and conversations with friends about the entertainment-industry tissue that connected us all.
Had weight and size not been an issue, I would’ve packed a small screening room in my luggage.
In lieu of that, I had an iPad, iPod and iPhone prepped with enough downloads to get me through 2020. What if I found myself on consecutive five-hour flights with nothing to entertain me? How else would I make my way through a hundred dinners alone in unfamiliar cities?
I was armoring myself with the familiar, in my native language — movies, music, TV shows, books — to ward off my fears of everything new and scary. After an exhausting day of speaking Spanish in Costa Rica, I could unwind with an episode of “Orange Is the New Black.” Stuck in the limbo of a logistical snag? That was just the right amount of time to indulge in a rom-com on Netflix, or text with my friends back home about that rom-com on Netflix.
Then, on the first plane ride of my trip, from New York to New Orleans, I was too nervous and excited to look at my iPad. More plane and train and bus and car rides went by, and the iPad stayed in the bag, as I slept, or worked, or watched incredible scenery. Soon it became dead weight, an annoyance that only left my bag at airport security checks. I barely noticed when I forgot it in a Denver hotel room; then, five months in, I left it at a friend’s house in Los Angeles and never missed it.
That worry of being bored never came up again. Culture was all around me. I went to more museums that I had in five years. (Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo and the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver were highlights). I never heard Ariana Grande’s song thanking her exes, but I can say definitively that “Despacito” was the most popular song on the planet in 2018. There are talented street musicians everywhere from Belgrade, Serbia, to La Paz, Bolivia, who can play it ably on everything from accordions to trumpets.
It wasn’t until old friends started tweeting out their Top 10 lists for the year that I realized I’d seen only six movies, all on planes or Netflix: “Mamma Mia 2,” “Mission: Impossible — Fallout,” “Set It Up,” that one where the Rock goes “Die Hard” on a skyscraper, and two Netflix Christmas movies.
They’d been delightful, but the real treat came this January on the plane back from Taiwan to the United States at the end of my 52 Places trip, when “Crazy Rich Asians” popped up on my seatback screen. It was just over six months since it came out and I squealed with excitement to the nice Chinese girl sitting next to me. She didn’t speak much English, but she nodded, smiling, and turned on a Chinese-language soap opera for herself.
For months, I’d been devouring Twitter threads and think pieces about the impact of “Crazy Rich Asians.” I’d followed along as three Korean friends from New York magazine tweeted about seeing it together, and weeping, for the third time. Over the years I’d written about the lack of realistic Asian representation in American pop culture because I’d felt it, too. A history teacher saying “ching-chong-chong” and slanting his eyes while teaching my class about China in middle school. Asian men like my dad being used as the butt of sexual jokes.
So much of coming home after a profound experience like a long trip, especially one taken alone, is reckoning with how much you’ve changed and how much everything you left behind has stayed the same. But while I was gone, Hollywood had changed.
I watched the penultimate scene three times: Hollywood’s new star, Henry Golding, rushes onto an airplane to get back the girl (a radiant Constance Wu), in a clichéd moment straight out of a dozen rom-coms. It didn’t feel clichéd or over the top. I’d just come from two months of tasting the richness of Asian cultures in India, Bhutan, Japan, China, South Korea, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, and that scene felt right, like it had a place in the world I’d been fortunate enough to see over the last year. And then I watched the whole movie over again.
A WEEK AFTER I GOT BACK, I went to Utah for the tail end of the Sundance Film Festival, which I’d attended for years as a January ritual for work. Some people were surprised that I’d headed back on the road so soon, but wandering around Park City, puzzling out how to make it to screenings in the middle of a snowstorm, felt more like home to me than the apartment I hadn’t lived in for a year.
Home is full of uncertainty and questions about the future. Crying alone in a dark theater, now that is something I know how to do.
At first, my selections were shaky. I started off with a dull Keira Knightley whistle-blower drama I’d picked on reflex, because I was used to seeing movies with stars I could interview. Soon, though, I found myself drawn to foreign dramas and documentaries that could take me back to the places I’d been and missed so much. A rom-com, “Top End Wedding,” transported me to Darwin, Australia, and into the lives of Aboriginal families like the ones I had briefly met in October. “Monos,” a spectacularly shot Colombian psychodrama about child soldiers, brought me deep into the jungles of a country I long to revisit. “Midnight Traveler,” shot entirely on smartphones by a family of Afghan refugees, showed me a side of border crossings I’d never encountered.
One night, the young filmmakers and journalists in our rental condo were having a party. I took a bus back there after watching a harrowing documentary, “One Child Nation,” about Chinese population control policy, and found myself standing in the street, unable to go in. Heavy snow was falling, turning the light from the streetlamps into lace. Music wafted down the stairs, and in the window I could see silhouettes of happy revelers with red Solo cups. A coming-of-age drama about a young Muslim girl was showing at a theater not too far away. Another dark room, another world to visit. I turned around and got on a bus.
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