When it comes to air travel, I’m a trouble free traveller. Well, I like to think so at any rate. Certainly I keep my seatbelt securely fastened at all times, and I return the seat back and tray table to their upright positions at the correct times, and I turn off my mobile phone when instructed to do so by the little man who hides in the tannoy system. I always say “please” when asking for a drink and I always say “thank you” when it arrives. I usually manage to say something nice to the Air Doris while I’m at it.
Mind you, at a certain moment, things tend to bog down in the alcoholic beverages supply chain. Either the mix thins out, or it dries up, or I get a visit from the head lad, who proceeds to warn me about something called ‘dehydration’.
Tosh and balderdash. On a good day I can generally knock over a bottle of gin at a single sitting, before moving on to defeat half a bottle of rum. If you’re an American, you probably think I’m either a lush or a liar. If you’re British, you probably think I’m a bit of a lightweight. This is why, incidentally, Great Britain built a world-spanning empire based on blood, toil, tears and sweat, and the U.S. built a world-spanning empire based on dropping bombs on some poor bastard from thirty thousand feet where it’s safe. But, I digress.
I’m not the guy in front of you who puts his seat right back when you’re trying to eat. I’m not the guy who can’t make up his bloody mind where he wants to sit. I’d never, ever, be the guy who brings his crying baby on board the long-haul flight merely because his wife’s family want to clap eyes on the illegitimate little sod. No, I’m the guy who has a few drinks, maybe reads a book, and is nice to the girl in the purple or green uniform.
Until last week, that is, when I took an Air China flight.
It was a long-haul international flight, and things started going wrong the moment I arrived at the gate, for while I was checked in (via a previous flight), I needed the Air China gate staff to print me a boarding pass. No big deal, you’d think, and normally it wouldn’t be, but that reckons without the obstinacy and sheer bloody-mindedness of a Chinese person who has the power to deny a Laowai something.
And it wasn’t even a big deal: I just wanted an aisle seat. That’s it. It didn’t matter which aisle, or which row, as long as it was an aisle seat.
And this person printed me a centre seat, right in between what I knew would be two stinking peasants. I politely asked this person again for an aisle seat, and was informed that the plane was full. Well now folks, I’m a dab hand at doing rough head counts, and I’ve a pretty fair idea how many bodies fit into a 747, and with five minutes until boarding it was clear the plane was only about two thirds full, so I smiled my nicest smile and asked if perhaps it could be checked again. At which point I was informed that: “If you wanna aisle seat you better wait for next plane!” Point taken.
Now, I’ve thought about this long and hard (two adjectives that few Chinese can lay claim to), and here’s the deal: I’d dearly love to give you this person’s name and position and all the rest of it, but I won’t. I’ve no problem with naming people who put themselves in the public domain, but this person hasn’t done that. All I am prepared to say, therefore, is that the flight originated in California, the person was female at some point before her fallopian tubes dried up like noodles that have been left in the sun, and the name was Ms T. She is employed full-time by Air China, and part-time by the folks who are in the spying game. Oh yes, and she has an expression that can curdle milk at fifty paces – you know the sort I’m talking about: some middle-aged former Red Guard bitch. They’re a dime a dozen in China. The heart is a small, black thing like a lump of coal and it pumps viscous vitriol around the body instead of blood. Too mean to die, they exist in a dark netherworld of hatred and bitterness. It is said that, as with Cliff Richard, they cannot be harmed by conventional weapons. Let the traveller beware when passing through lands inhabited by Ms T and her ilk.
Back on the plane, I was not happy. But then it occurred to me that, as a Laowai, I really should take charge of the situation. I could either sit in my assigned seat and steam for thirteen hours, or I could take steps to address the issue. The choice was clear, as was the method: Chinese were at the heart of the problem, and so they would be at the heart of the solution. I moved to the aisle seat. When Mr Wang turned up wanting his seat, I merely informed him that he could have the middle one instead. When he protested, I smiled radiantly and told him how lucky he was to be given that option. Confused (as Chinese easily are), he sat where he was told. As did the next person to arrive. Mission accomplished. But, I thought, why stop there? It had all gone so swimmingly, why not up the stakes? Looking about, I saw two empty seats a few rows away. Turning to my fellow passengers, I pointed out the empty seats, and suggested they might be happier sitting in them, before proceeding to demonstrate with my elbows why that was the case. And so, they got up and moved, and I had three seats to myself. Nice.
Now, you might think that I was unfair to my fellow passengers, that despite the fact that they were stinking peasant scum, they hadn’t earned that treatment from me. Well, you’d be right. But this is the Chinese Way. It’s the basis upon which their entire society is structured. I merely played their own game, though of course, as a Laowai, I played it better than they did. And THAT is the real point of this ramble.
Oh yes, and Ms T? You lose.