As a person cursed too short and unathletic to play in the NBA but too tall to fit into airplanes without having his knees ache for days after if the flight is over two hours long, a 13-hour trip from Los Angeles to the capital of China in Beijing was not on the list of things I wanted to do before I die.
Thankfully, as anyone well-adjusted 20-something writer, I had the great equalizer: the internet. While the flight wouldn't be comfortable and would test my sanity, I had the online world to keep me busy for that time. Going to China to cover the League of Legends World Championship required a bit more preparation, and I had a number of things I wanted to complete while in the air.
I wanted to watch the past performances of the final eight teams still in the tournament. I was going to connect with some people to hopefully set up some in-person interviews when I got to Guangzhou, the host city for the quarterfinal portion of the event. It was going to be fine. When everything in your life goes wrong, you always have the Internet to get your mind off things.
"Sorry, no Wi-Fi," the polite flight attendant informed me minutes into our flight. She then also informed me that usage of my cellular device, Wi-Fi or not, was also prohibited for the duration of our time in the air.
It was not going to be fine.
I live my life online. I communicate with my co-workers and bosses online. I do my research for games online. The vast majority of esports content is broadcasted online. Over the past decade, I couldn't remember many times I was without the internet for longer than 13 hours.
Making matters worse, I've never been able to sleep on planes, meaning for the next 13 hours (plus my three-hour flight to Guangzhou from Beijing), I would have to find a way to entertain myself.
I immersed myself in the world of Chinese pop music. I watched a Chinese romantic comedy about a rich second-generation playboy and a poor woman writer trying to make a break in the business. I played games on the video touchscreen. I listened to some Thai rap music. I watched reruns of popular American comedies with Chinese subtitles beneath them. When I was done with all that, I had ... 11 hours left.
By the time we got six hours in, I stopped cycling through the music, movies, and TV shows I already had read the synopses of 10 times over. I watched two men in front of me -- one American and the other Chinese -- conversing, each discussing how terrible their respective national soccer teams are, laughing at how both America and China will be missing next year's World Cup. They used the touchscreen of the empty middle seat in-between them to talk about the various cities in both America and China, dissecting the pros and cons of places like Denver and Shanghai. I watched all of this for about an hour, not interjecting once, treating this like my own personal Twitter, except instead of "liking" their conversation, I silently eavesdropped from behind them, smiling and laughing to myself.
The closest thing I had to the conversation on the trek to China was the touchscreen app they titled "Seat Chat," where people on the plane can communicate with each other in public chat rooms. Deciding that talking to a random stranger was better than nothing at all, I found the chat room titled "Games," typed, "Hi" to the patrons enjoying this hellacious flight, and waiting for someone to answer. I wanted to discuss League of Legends, the World Championship, anything. Anything at all.
Seconds turned to minutes. Minutes turned to hours. Out of the 300-plus people on my 13-hour flight to Beijing, no one replied to me. It was the most alone I had ever felt since no one came to my 12th birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese.
When I finally landed in Guangzhou around 10 p.m. on Tuesday in China (10 a.m. ET in the States), I'd never experienced this feeling of tiredness in my life. At that point I was on auto-pilot; I walked where arrows told me to walk, I went down stairs that told me where the exit was and I followed the man with my name on a board near the exit of the airport. He was a welcoming 20-something born and raised in China, an employee of the hotel I'm staying at for the next week who was given the task of delivering me safely there. His name was Hao.
We talked over the next hour through simple English words and phrases translated on his phone. While both of us didn't really know each other's culture very well -- neither of us having been to each other's respective countries until this point -- one word turned a quiet, awkward car ride into an enjoyable one with us both on the exact same page.
"Kobe," I said.
From there, the discussion bled into the likes of Tracy McGrady, the Houston Rockets and China's own Yao Ming, who helped take basketball in the country to a new stratosphere in the early 2000s when he frequently clashed with Kobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers and their superstar center Shaquille O'Neal. While Hao didn't know too much about the League of Legends World Championship, the idea of playing games in front of thousands intrigued him.
As Yao Ming did almost two decades ago by putting basketball on the map and connecting two people from different worlds with limited shared vocabulary, maybe this year's World Championship, spearheaded by China's own video game superstar, Jian "Uzi" Zi-hao, could do the same a decade from now between a foreigner and a Chinese resident.
That connection reminded me of why the worst trip of my life was worth it. I hope, in-air Wi-Fi or not, it'll produce some of the best memories of my life.
That's why I'm here.