Rowan Bourdeau

The Airport

An empty boarding gate


For this small ethnographic exercise, I chose to do my fieldwork at an airport. I have always been intrigued by airports as social spaces in which a myriad of personal circumstances come together and entangle briefly, only to retreat again. I’ve spent many hours in different airports around the world, and often during these times my mind has wandered curiously around the question of what exactly it means to be in an airport. ‘White Paper Ticket’ is written in the style of an ethnographic narrative. Acting as an informal chronology, it accounts for the stream of events that take place over the course of one’s time in the airport, from being dropped off through to heading to the boarding gate. On the other hand, ‘The Portal’ is much less a detailed description of events, but alternatively a philosophical and analytical attempt at understanding the airport, rather than an account of experience.

I get dropped off at Terminal 3. It is a Sunday morning — partly sunny, cool, but not cold enough for a toque. As I say goodbye and walk into the departure hall of Toronto’s Pearson International, I am taken back by the amount of movement. I collect myself and proceed to the check in area. A lady being pushed in a wheelchair runs into me, or rather I run into her. I am too busy staring up at the departure board. There are several hundred destinations listed on the main departure board. I quickly skim over the times to locate my flight. Ottawa Flight WS3466 is listed with a check-in location of C. I head towards check in C, in search of the check-in machines. I type in my name on the touch screen, confirming that I will be present on today’s flight. Within a matter of seconds, a white paper ticket comes out the bottom of the machine. I look up, a man dressed up in work uniform appears to be helping an older couple to check-in. There is no one else at this station to direct me onwards, though I see a stream of people moving through what appears to be security.

I head on through the first check point. A young man stops me and asks for my ticket. He uses his machine to scan the barcode on my thin white piece of paper. “Have a good day,” he says as he looks on to the people behind me. I head through the maze of line dividers, walking all the way through. The airport is quite empty this morning. I reach the second check point: security. A man in a light blue shirt, neatly tucked into dark blue dress pants points to the second door on the left, with his glove covered hands. I nod and follow through. I see rows of steel tables, conveyer belts, small tunnels attached to computers with uniformed workers and other people with white paper tickets in their hands. I place my bags on the conveyer belt, grab a plastic grey bin and put my coat, phone, and ticket inside. Another dressed up officer comes and pushes my bin, among the bins that contains other people’s personal effects through the conveyer belt. I walk ahead and through the makeshift doorway. Another man in uniform nods his head. I go back to the conveyer belt to collect my things. I am now in Terminal 3.

I have an hour and a half before my plane departs from the gate. I figure it would make sense to walk to my gate, so that way I know which direction to aim for when it is time to board. I pull out my white paper ticket from my coat pocket: gate B40. I begin heading down the wide and empty corridors. The perimeter of this hallway is boarded up. There are large logos stamped on the boards. I continue walking to where the hallway opens up to large circular space. There is a cafeteria with big bright windows facing the runway. There is a Tim Hortans, a Smoke’s Burrito, and a Shanghai takeout. On the other side of the space, there is a large duty free shop. There is life here. Families sit at tables eating lunch, flipping through guidebooks. There is a women dressed in business casual talking on the phone in a firm tone. She has her laptop open. Two flight attendants roll by me with their carry-ons trailing them. They are dressed the same, their suitcases read China Eastern Airlines. There is a sound of a baby crying, which is interrupted by a call for a passenger to head to gate C34 over the intercom. I hear the subtle roar of an airplane engine and quickly glimpse out the big window as a massive plane lifts off the ground and into the clouds. I suddenly remember that feeling of being pressed back into the seat, watching the world slowly disappear out the window as the plane ascends into the sky. I put my hand in my pocket and shuffle around my phone and paper receipts to pull out my thin paper ticket. Toronto to Ottawa, B40. I head in the direction of my gate.


The Portal

My mother drops me off at the airport a few hours early. I am sad to say goodbye, but eager to have the opportunity to fly back home. This is not the first time I have been dropped off here by my mother. In fact, so many times before this I was dropped off with a passport in hand, a backpack and a ticket to some new destination. As I enter the departure hall, I am overwhelmed by all the movement. This room contains all the emotions of individual circumstances. It is heavy with unseen sentiment. Here, people from all around the world come within the same space for the sole purpose of leaving one place in order to arrive at another. Every body in this room contains an entire causal sequence of events that brought them here at this moment, a fact that is not unique to today. I think about the amount of people, in all of their circumstances that have moved through this space. I am only a single set of circumstances.

As I channel through check-in and security, I arrive on the other side of the gate. I am now among hundreds of other people who are confined to a closed space. Terminal 3 is not large in contrast to many of the other airports I have passed through. However, it contains all the the essentials for an afternoon of societal isolation: a few restaurants, bars, coffee shops and a duty free, among countless rest areas.

Once I sit down, I begin to watch the movement around me. Airports, regardless of their specific location are international spaces. At any given moment, an airport contains people from all around the world. This becomes obvious when I see two Asian women walk by me in uniform, with China Eastern Airlines written on their suitcases. As with the protocol of most airlines, these women were likely hired from China as both flight attendants’ and representatives for the company. I recall previous airlines I have travelled with. Airlines from various countries make connections all around the world, bringing with them a small fragment of their culture. I remember flying with Korean Airlines. As soon as I left the gate ramp in Toronto and stepped aboard the aircraft, I was cast into what was in a way, a simplified version of Korean culture: the background music, the stewardesses in their uniform, the fact that the safety briefing was recited in both English and Korean. Airports, as the bearer of walking cultures, are in a way portals to different modes of life. As travellers, we arrive at the airport after experiencing the flow of life in that particular location only to leave and move on to that of another.

Our reason for leaving often defines who we are in one place, and who we will become when we arrive at our desired destination. For example, one may be a mother to 3 children at home in Toronto. In the departure hall she may have said goodbye to her family, who she will not see for 2 weeks while she attends a conference in Germany. As she passes through the airport, she becomes the women who will be spear-heading a business panel at the conference, leading hundreds of aspiring young business professionals. In airports we become someone who we may not have been before, we transition from one self to the next. When I was home, I was a daughter and a sister. When I land in Ottawa, I am a student and a young adult who has created a life of her own.

People waiting to board a flight to Shanghai.


In ‘White Paper Ticket,’ I was aiming to provide a piece of writing that corresponded to my own experience. Since airports are something that many people have encountered, it was interesting trying to write in a way that theoretically, could be familiar to anyone. Following a narrative that draws the reader through a series of specific checkpoints, this piece was an attempt at the anthropological arrival into the field, similar to Abu-Ludhod’s “Guest and Daughter.” My intention was to situate myself as an anthropologist among many others who have encountered the experience of moving through the airport. It draws on the method of the thick description, providing a detailed account of what each checkpoint entails. I tried my best to avoid using the sensorial description too much, as the main intent was to project an elaborate account of movement into and through the field. My second essay ‘The Portal,’ was less interested in objective narratives and movement, but more focused on a depth of thought and deliberation. Similar to Lisa Stevenson’s Life Beside Itself, this piece intended to contemplate some of what was seen in the field. This type of ethnographic writing actually calls on a complete subjectivity of the anthropologist, allowing for a reflexive account of experience. In this piece, I hoped to focus less on the actual narrative chronology, but rather spend more time delving into an abstract discussion behind certain events of interest.

I found this exercise to be quite enjoyable, though challenging at times. After spending the last 3 months reading and discussing various styles of ethnography, I initially figured that the exercise wouldn’t be too difficult. I realized however, that when reading ethnography, it is far easier to pick out and discuss the style of writing than it is to actually implement it into one’s own writing. This being said, I found both of the styles I selected to be very different in terms of how I chose to write them. In ‘White Paper Ticket’ I constantly found myself adding in my own personal take on the experience, only to delete it right away. I thought it was difficult to extract only the account of events in a way that is impartial and detached. I enjoyed writing ‘The Portal’ much more, as it was amusing to try and develop my ideas in a way that seemed theoretical. In both Paxton and Stevenson, I quite enjoyed their ability to coin terms of their own based off of their philosophical musings. Overall, I found this exercise to be a great way to tie together our survey of ethnographic texts. It calls on a specific attention to how ethnography is written, and encourages the development of one’s own ethnographic voice. While I don’t think I’ve completely found my ethnographic voice, I definitely have an idea of what I hope it will become in the future.