If you want to see the New China, go to the Airport.
If you want to see the real China, go to the bus station.
The bus stations are monuments to mayhem, chaos, and noise. The airports are bright, quiet, and orderly. And just as many tourists will never set foot on a real Chinese bus (the New York-Boston Chinatown Bus notwithstanding), I’d reckon the average Chinese person has never set foot in an airport.
My euphoria with China’s air travel mellowed somewhat when I reached my seat and found someone sitting in it. Without either of us speaking each other’s language, the passenger tried to assure me that ‘A’ (my seat) was the aisle and hers was the window. I assured her of the opposite. The flight attendant settled the matter and politely asked her to move seats. Between us sat the woman’s husband, who a few minutes later leaned over and without a word, rifled through my seat-pocket reading materials and took them. Not that I was going to read SkyNews in Chinese anyway, but still, a ‘duibuchi‘ would have been nice.
An announcement came over the speaker in Chinese. I didn’t know what it said but the other passengers erupted simultaneously in cries of fury. “What is it!?!” I frantically wondered, “Are they out of tea?”
I felt like the TV host in the SNL skit interviewing the man who experiences things 30 seconds before they happen. The interviewee starts screaming, grossed out beyond words. The host freaks out, “What’s going to happen!?! Is it okay for television?”
That was me, for about 30 seconds, until the English translation came around: “We will be departing in one hour.”
So we sat on the tarmac for an hour for a one-hour flight.
The flight crew figured, we’re just sitting here, might as well serve lunch. (On Chinese flights, they serve a meal even if the flight is 5 minutes long.)
“Chicken or seafood?”
I chose chicken, because I’ve seen Airplane.
This was the wrong choice.
The stewardess served the husband and wife their seafood, said the chicken would be “one moment”, and continued working her way to the back of the plane, never to return again…
A while later I asked a second flight attendant for the chicken. He too said it would be one moment and disappeared into the nether-regions of the Boeing.
Why can’t they just say, “Sorry, we are out of chicken.”
Or not offer it in the first place? Maybe they were hoping we’d land before I noticed. (Keep in mind we’re still on the tarmac.) Or maybe this is China Airlines’ first fledgling steps toward democracy, like a Soviet election, offering passengers two choices, one of which does not exist.
I asked a third attendant, who was collecting the trash of the other passengers who had by now finished their meal. This one, the smallest of the three, bravely tiptoed back from the void from which no steward returns, with a seafood meal in hand. “I am sorry,” she said, “We are out of chicken.”
Just as I stabbed my spork into the fishy substance, the announcement came over the speaker: “Please raise your tray tables, we’re ready for takeoff.”
As we rose above the clouds, my eyes started playing tricks on me. The sky was an unusual color. It was—-wait, no. That’s—that’s blue! That’s blue sky! I hadn’t seen blue sky since I left Taiwan. It was miraculous. And then I felt pangs of guilt. The woman in my seat—it could have been her first flight in years, and here I stole her one chance to see blue sky.
In the 19th century, the Chinese called the U.S. “Gold Mountain” for the wealth it was rumored to contain. I predict in the 21st they will visit for the scenery rather than for prosperity, and instead of Gold Mountain, they shall call it “Blue Sky”.