China and Elvis -- at home in the Memphis airport

The FedEx/Northwest Airlines hub makes it easy to be a tourist from Asia.

By Andrew Leonard

Published December 19, 2005 7:34PM (EST)

Concourse B of the Memphis International Airport in Tennessee is a fine place to be in transit. Before Saturday, I'd never passed through the Northwest Airlines hub, and I was impressed by the variety and quality of restaurants and concession stands. I don't know about you, but the smell of barbecue wafting through a terminal makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. And the Elvis store -- who can't love an airport that has its own souvenir outlet solely devoted to the King!

But I was also perplexed, because the signs in Concourse B (as in Exit, Baggage Claim, etc.) are in English, Chinese and Japanese. And I'm dying to know why.

Since 1991, the Memphis International Airport has been ranked the No. 1 busiest air cargo airport in the world. This is primarily due to its role as the hub for Memphis-based FedEx. Which, in turn, is a reason for Memphis' proud claim to be "America's Distribution Center." Logistics geeks, take note: Memphis is where the action is.

Now, FedEx ships a lot of goods from China to the United States, but is that enough of a reason to include Chinese and Japanese translations of airport signs? Northwest is a major carrier to Asia, as well, but I have to say, I did not see crowds of Chinese and Japanese tourists roaming from gate to gate.

The airport just finished a $25 million renovation, so maybe the (presumably) new signs are a bet on the future, a bet that Memphis is destined to hold on to its role as a distribution center of the world, and as such, needs to make sure Asia feels at home, because, well Asia makes everything. But until airport representatives return my calls, we'll just have to speculate. (I'll update as soon as I hear an answer, but I'm kind of on vacation right now, so my response times are a little slow.)

I never expected, when I set off for Florida on Saturday with my kids for Christmas break, that I would run smack into a mystery of globalization while changing planes in Memphis. But I like it. I like it when the deep South translates itself into Chinese, and I like distribution centers that tie everything together. One world -- like it or not!

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Air Travel China Globalization How The World Works